Back to School – The Ultimate Field-trip

Back in May, I wrote an article about a YMCA Youth Exchange trip that took place between Netsilik P.S. in Nunavut and Riverside P.S. in Mississauga. The article was published in the Mississauga Life Blog. That article was written from the  teachers’ perspective, but I also wrote another article describing the kids experiences. As this new school year commences, I hope that this may inspire other kids who are offered such a trip to consider it as an opportunity of a lifetime.

The Ultimate School Field-trip

Words by Ann Ivy Male

Photographs by Paul Officer and John Cicci

Riverside/Netsilik YMCA Exchange Students and Teachers

Just for a moment, imagine yourself back in middle school and the Principal announces the “ultimate field-trip” – a journey above the Arctic Circle to build igloos, to hunt for seal and caribou, to carve an Inuksuk or an igloo out of dense blocks of snow and to immerse yourself into the culture of a community of warm-hearted people whose respect and connection to the land is an inspiration to us all. Would you jump at this chance?

Last spring, fifteen students from Riverside P.S. in Mississauga  took part in a YMCA Youth Exchange that paired them with a “buddy” or exchange student from  Netsilik P.S. in Taloyoak, (pronounced “ta-low-ruaq”), Nunavut. Now, I’ve never travelled as far north as Nunavut, however after interviewing the participants and hearing about their individual experiences, it made it easier for me to get a better insight into the unique culture and traditions of this remote Inuit community.

Old Hudson’s Bay Outpost

Taloyoak (formerly, Spence Bay) translates as “large caribou blind” in Inuktitut and is the northern-most community in Canada – it is a land surrounded by vast tundra, brilliant but icy-cold, starry nights in winter and a fiery midnight sun in the summer. There are no roads; supplies such as fuel, building materials and non-perishable food arrive by barge to this community once the ice has thawed. Other fresh fruit and produce, dairy and snack items are flown in more frequently but are exorbitantly priced due to fuel costs. Just envision the shock on the kids’ faces when a case of pop at the store sported a hefty price tag of $48.00 and a watermelon would set you back $30.00. Something to put into perspective the next time you are strolling down the aisles of your local supermarket.

Cola – $23.29

Before the kids headed out on their adventure, I asked them to keep a few things in mind for us to discuss upon their return. For example; which Inuit cultural activity left an impression on them, what was their “best story ever” from the trip and what was their most memorable meal?

For Spencer and Adi, they literally got a kick out of the traditional sport of – leg wrestling. Spencer described it as “an activity where you lay down beside your opponent and you link your legs together and try to push their leg over.” Everyone participated in this amusing sport including the elders of the community and the teachers. Riverside Principal, Mr. Paul Officer, tells me – “students get to know you more personally as an educator and see that you are indeed “human” and have a sense of humour.” Christienne’s favorite activity was musk-ox wrestling, a sport involving getting on hands and knees, bending your head down and pushing on your opponent’s back to get them out of a designated area. Traditionally, these games originated when the Inuit were nomadic and activities such as these helped to develop strength, endurance and resistance to pain. Today it’s about building community spirit and having fun and this activity certainly created a bonding experience for both groups of students.

Principal, Mr. Officer, leg wrestling with a student

When asked about memorable cultural events – Scott and Madelin said that they were fascinated by a demonstration of drum dancing, quillic lighting (traditional seal oil lamp) and throat singing. Scott explains, “It’s usually two people facing each other singing with their throat and it sounds like animals noises.”  For the Inuit, throat-singing is referred to as “games in which one makes noises” and they use the voice and the throat to make deep rhythmic sounds. It’s said that this type of singing was first used by Inuit mothers to amuse their children during the long, cold winter months, when the men were away on hunting expeditions.

I asked Sean to describe a traditional meal he ate – “Without a doubt, it was the Arctic Char soup; a broth made with chunks of Arctic Char, carrots, mushrooms, celery and other vegetables. It was delicious!” Jordan also mentioned the Arctic Char jerky an elder prepared by using traditional methods. Liam goes on to describe the taste as “its texture was like beef jerky but tastes very fishy and a little greasy – still very good.” Most of the kids agreed that one of their best memories with food was out on a seal hunt expedition and an elder lovingly prepared a hearty Caribou stew made with rice, pasta, peas and carrots in an igloo. This was certainly a heart-warming gesture for these troopers who were out in -35 C weather.

Images of Taloyoak

On the topic of weather, many of the kids expressed their concern before they headed north about not looking forward to the frigid temperatures. However, they were pleasantly surprised and thanks to proper warm clothing and gear – the cold was not an issue. Adventure Canada outfitted the group with parkas and heavy boots. Some kids wore “kamiks”(boots made from Caribou skin), lent to them by the elders. Odessa and Courtney both had a minor bout of frost-bite but Odessa goes onto to say, “My best story ever was when I was in the igloo and “Kublu, a female elder, warmed up my frost-bit feet by placing them on her tummy!”

This northern adventure certainly enriched the lives of the Riverside kids by exposing them to a way of life that most of us will never get to experience firsthand. After the students returned home from Nunavut, the excitement continued because they  anticipated the reunion with their “twins” who were going to experience life in the big city. The Netsilik students arrived in April to balmy weather. Many had never flown on a plane or even taken a city train before but for P.J. because Taloyoak is situated above the treeline – he was in awe when he saw a tree for the first time!

Welcome sign for the Netsilik students at Pearson Int’l Airport

The kids had a packed schedule with visits to landmarks such as Niagara Falls, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the CN Tower – a thrilling site for all. They even participated in a scavenger hunt around Mississauga and went to a recording studio to sing their hearts out to “Party Rock Anthem.” When I spoke with Charlene, who was very shy and soft-spoken, she told me that her favorite excursion was the CN tower visit. I asked her about her big city experience and she says “at first I was really scared with the busy traffic, people and the tall building but soon I got used to it – I liked it.” Michael, who was Charlene’s Mississauga buddy, says “it’s interesting, when I was in Nunavut, I was in awe with the land that was flat and went on forever horizontally, and now the Nunavut kids are in awe with our tall skyscrapers that seem to go on for miles vertically.”

Netsilik students visit Mississauga and Toronto

The Riverside kids told me that it was a sad day at the airport when they said goodbye to their Nunavut buddies; the likelihood of these kids ever meeting again face-to-face is very slim however many will be using social networking and e-mail to keep in touch. For me, it was obvious to see that this ultimate field trip created some lifetime  bonds between these two very different communities and the kids’  exchange of experiences  through: the games they played, the food and the music they shared and the “best stories ever ” told will be locked away in their thoughts to last a lifetime. The next time someone suggests taking an excursion outside your comfort zone – keep in mind what these kids experienced and how it has enriched their lives forever.

Riverside/Netslik YMCA Youth Exchange

© Ann Ivy Male 2012

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