I am not the same person today as I was when I woke up yesterday.
Today I have a full heart and belly and some dried caribou blood on my shoes and fingernails. What could have happened yesterday to explain this and what does it have to do with pre-employment training for people with disabilities? It’s a long story, but I will do my best to explain…
Yesterday a crew of 20 Inuit men and women of Baker Lake, Nunavut followed the trails of their ancestors to harvest fall caribou in preparation for an upcoming feast. This feast will be held soon in honour of people with disabilities to build support for their greater inclusion in the local economy. As their instructor I am here to help our 16 participants build confidence, motivation and skills to make important contributions to their community. We are at the 3-week mark of a 12-week pre-employment training program, funded by the Department of Family Services (DFS) of the Government of Nunavut.
I knew I was coming to Baker Lake for the experience of a lifetime. I knew I was coming here with my husband and baby daughter to work my butt off. Yet I never expected to be working 12 hour days, side-by-side with strong, committed and skilled Inuit men and women. I never thought I’d be:
- lifting enormous satchels of caribou meat;
- riding on the back of an ATV on the Arctic Tundra;
- parcelling portions of meat to freeze for the feast; and,
- waking to that heavy feeling that comes with hard physical labour—just to do it all over again.
At my side is a small but dedicated team of strong and calm Inuit women, supported by another dedicated team back in our Ottawa office at PMC. I am honoured to do this work.
Yesterday we struck out in groups of 4 or 5 led by experienced hunters. My group was led by Barney Aaruaq and Hugh Tulurialik. Barney is in his 50s and Hugh in his 70s. Both were born on the land and have lived off the land for most of their lives. Both are kind and patient teachers, taking time to let us try things even though we will take much longer with our lack of skill and experience.
On the hunt both men told stories of their upbringing and relationship to the land. Their families lived in tents in summer and igloos in winter, following the animals that sustained them—the majestic caribou herds that I witnessed for the first time yesterday. To them caribou are the lifeblood that provides food, clothing and tools. Barney and Hugh first moved to fixed settlements in the 1960s, when Inuit were facing mass starvation and hard times. Barney lost several siblings to starvation. When you consider the massive cultural transition the Inuit have made in such a short period of time, it is easier to understand some of the social challenges that they are currently experiencing. Barney and Hugh explained that in the old days, Inuit caught caribou, butchered their catch and roped hundreds of pounds of meat to their backs using the caribou’s tendons as rope to carry their meat back to their camps. Many Inuit struggle to make the transition to life in fixed communities and entering into the wage economy, where the knowledge of their ancestors may not readily apply.
Our 16 program participants range in age from 18-57, with diverse skills, interests and abilities. They are seeking employment to provide for their families in a community where jobs are scarce, and only one out of 16 has a high school diploma. Yet, they have come together in this program to build the skills they need to find meaningful employment here in Baker Lake. On the hunt they experienced the kind of teamwork that basic survival depends on. Without it, it is doubtful that they could have caught, skinned, and butchered 17 caribou, loaded 200 pound satchels of meat onto their vehicles, and driven safely back into town.
Connecting to the land, the animals and to one another on the hunt reminded our group what it takes to provide for your family—both throughout Inuit history and today. One young woman caught her first caribou on yesterday’s hunt. Following local custom, she did not eat any of her catch but instead proudly gave it away to people in the community: Elders, friends and people who do not have hunters in their families. If our participants can work together to provide fresh caribou meat to their community, what can they contribute to our economy if we give them a chance?
In the coming weeks we will reflect on this experience. We will relate the things we learned to our efforts to set employment goals and take steps to achieving them. Working as a team our participants are much stronger and more confident than any one individual. Together they can make a big difference here in Baker Lake and beyond.
Until next time. Ma’na (Thank you).
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