Monday, April 18, 2011

The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation - Part Seven

Part VII

Throughout Nunavut, Inuit leaders appeal to tradition as a response to violence and despair. Outsiders are bewildered by the claim that to progress, society must regress. But in smaller, more remote places such as Repulse Bay, you can at least partly see their point.

Repulse Bay is an 800-person hamlet two flights northeast of Iqaluit. Located directly on the Arctic Circle, about 2,000 kilometres due north of Thunder Bay, it ranks near the basement of territorial socio-economic indicators. The median income is below $20,000; unemployment sits around 40 per cent. As of 2006, only five of the 175 young people here between 15 and 24 had a high-school diploma.

But, despite the lack of an economy, schooling and any real government presence, the Repulse Bay crime rate is far closer to the national average. RCMP records show just 156 Criminal Code violations last year and 150 in each of the previous two years, probably giving it the lowest crime rate in Nunavut.

“If you talk to people who visit a lot of remote communities across Nunavut, they'll tell you people in Repulse just seem happier than people elsewhere,” said a visiting physician, dining on dry meat loaf and cherry pie one evening at the local hotel. “It's hard to describe.”

Steve Mapsalak, a former MLA and renowned hunting guide who is now the town's Senior Administrative Officer, said his town may not be perfect, but its relative peace stems from a way of life grounded in fishing and hunting.

“We don't hunt as a hobby here,” Mr. Mapsalak said. “It's our way of life, our currency, our welfare system, our culture. We spread our meat to the old and the poor. A good hunter raises the entire community.”

Still, old ways cannot erase the recent history. The ghosts of residential schools and the harsh transition to settlement life linger here as everywhere else. But Repulse Bay is working its way past them, with a little help from Jesus Christ and Sigmund Freud.

Also in the hotel dining hall was a grey-haired clinical psychologist named Bruce Handley. As the Newfoundland construction workers around the table gobbled down their last crumbs of pie, Dr. Handley tried to recruit bodies for a community-healing service at the town hall later that night.

“I promise it will be a very interesting service,” he said. “They get up front and confess their sins and sing and cry. When they really feel the spirit, I've actually seen them vomit that evil all over the floor.”

Around 7 p.m., he took a seat among 150 chairs filled with stern hunters, acned teens, even babies. This was the culmination of a three-day visit by a men's healing group from nearby Coral Harbour. Dr. Handley, who spent decades working largely in prairie prisons, would mediate. The approach was not exactly clinically orthodox: The Coral Harbour group, complete with four-piece rock band, was running a Pentecostal prayer service.

“Others in my profession might dismiss it,” he said. “But after 40 years doing this, I've found that putting therapy in spiritual terms makes it much easier to understand. They are a very spiritual people, and always have been. We shouldn't be fighting that.”

A man named Willie Eetuk had started the Coral Harbour group nearly four years ago, when he realized he had to speak about his addictions to conquer them but could find nobody, government-

sponsored or otherwise, to help. He put a call out on the bush radio. The first meeting attracted 15 and soon grew to 50.

Noel Kaludjuak was one of the first. “I was an alcoholic,” he said. “I drank because of my past. My parents were born on the land. In the 1960s, the government moved us to communities. But my father stayed out hunting. I grew up fatherless. Many of us did.

“We didn't learn how to lead a household, to be a man, so we abused drugs. When my father returned, he beat my mom. I did the same thing. I disassociated from the world.”

The band launched into a tune. As the kick-drum rattled the blue and yellow walls, a woman in the front row rose, dancing with her hands reaching to the heavens. A dozen more mimicked her. The Coral Harbour men did a laying-on of hands with a family of five who had walked to the front of the room, telling them that Jesus knew their sins and loved them still. A woman gyrated, her legs failed and the Coral Harbour men caught her. A man with a broken back said he felt cured.

When the band finished, a succession of men took the microphone. “I have hurt my family,” John Tinashlu said tearily. “I have raised my voice and my fists. I said this in prayer now I say it to you. I have not been a good father. I drank. I cannot hide it any more. I love you, son. I hurt you. I love you. I used to blame others. No more.”

It was bedlam, rapture, therapy – a homegrown truth-and-reconciliation hearing. After the four-hour service, all 200 people streamed out wiping their red eyes and revved home on snowmobiles. The next day, some sought out Dr. Handley for one-on-one sessions.

While self-help and evangelism are surely no cure-all for Nunavut's shortcomings, they do offer one way to give voice to personal demons – a non-violent means of release.

“We don't pretend that we can fix the pain of all Nunavut,” said Mr. Kaludjuak, the Coral Harbour church leader. “We have many problems here. But you can't make a healthy place without healthy minds.”

White, Patrick. 2011. "The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation". The Globe and Mail. Posted: April 1, 2011. Available online:

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