Wednesday, April 20, 2011

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

Part IX

The morning after the church service, the man with the broken back borrowed a snowmobile and sledged home to a ramshackle assemblage of landfill scraps about six kilometres from town. He has been on a waiting list for a real home 18 months and counting. He creaked upstairs to his bedroom filled with Montreal Canadiens memorabilia, cookie tins, Cuban cigar boxes, pulp paperbacks and video cassettes. An old brass thermometer read minus 15. It felt colder. He lit two Coleman stoves for heat and lay on his bed beneath a huge ceiling mirror.

“I can't stand to look at myself,” he muttered, and sat back up.

Leo Nangmalik's life story is a kind of microcosm of the modern history of Canada's Eastern Arctic. As a boy, he attended Sir Joseph Bernier School in Chesterfield Inlet. He remembers the Catholic nuns stripping him down and washing him, focusing a special vigour on his genitals. There was a priest who did worse, he says. When he tried to tell his mother, she would hit him and call him a liar.

He would go on to spend years in prison. He has held a rifle to his head. “I could never pull the trigger,” he said, adding that he didn't want his 13 kids growing up without a father, even though he hasn't been much of a father.

The hiss of the Coleman stoves masked Mr. Nangmalik's sobs. “Until now, until the Coral Harbour group arrived, whenever I told these things, I was called a liar,” he wheezed. “I am here. This was done to me. I am not lying.”

And then, as if the thought had just occurred to him: “I want to live,” he said. “I want all of us to get past the hardships.”

He said he had gone to the healing service because it was run by men like him, not qallunaat or even government workers. If Nunavut is to overcome its culture of low expectations, part of the answer must come that way, up from the bottom, as the church leader, Mr. Kaludjuak, had said that night.

“I can see now that the federal government was trying to help,” Mr. Kaludjuak said. “They tried to get us in houses, to feed us, to have us live like them. … There were consequences they could not see. And now the men here sit around like children. It is up to us to change that, not government.”

This is one of Nunavut's biggest problems: The region's history has left its people so distrustful of change from above that they may not accept interventions even from their own territorial government.

“In the past,” Mr. Bell said, “change has been painful. So they've become reactionary in the literal sense of the word. It's rooted in the trauma of the past and a sentimentalized view of the past.”

But things must change in Nunavut, and its leaders must tell the truth of how the system is failing – just as Mr. Nangmalik must tell his truth.

Outside his shack, darkness had won the battle of contrasts. A blue halo encircled the moon, just as it did on that hopeful night a dozen years ago. A clear night sky promised a bright day tomorrow.

“What I have told you,” Mr. Nangmalik said, looking across the bay, “I have never been able to tell. I feel a peace right now. Maybe this is what we need, this talking.”

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

No comments: