While many Canadians dream of escaping the cold and heading for tropical locales in March, Upper Canada College chemistry teacher Glen Vance and four students went against the grain last month by journeying to the country’s far north.
The group was part of an exchange program with Kugluktuk High School in Kugluktuk, a remote hamlet of about 1,500 people formerly known as Coppermine that’s the westernmost community in Nunavut. Just getting there from Toronto required flights to Edmonton and then Yellowknife before a small plane took Vance and students Robert Walker, Max Allen, Chris Lord and Emerson Shoichet-Bartus to their final destination on the banks of Coronation Gulf.
CAS director Craig Parkinson played a big role in organizing the exchange, the goal of which was to expand the UCC students’ awareness of northern Canada and bring attention to the various geographical issues related to the social, economic and environmental changes taking place there. People in Kugluktuk were happy to talk about and share traditional Inuit culture, and there were some pretty major changes to try and get used to, according to Vance.
Kugluktuk residents hunt, fish and act as guides for the rare outside adventurers who go there to do the same. Some work for the Nunavut government or related agencies, at the school, at two small grocery stores or at making crafts, but most receive government assistance and can’t afford many of the amenities that those in southern Canada often take for granted.
“We got a real sense of community from the people that we met,” says Vance. “Part of the Inuit tradition is to share everything.”
Vance cited a hunting party that travelled about 300 kilometres to find some prey. It returned with about 30 caribou and a lot trout and then gave away much of the butchered meat to other residents.
The UCC boys were billeted at homes and prepared and ate their meals at Kugluktuk High School, which acts as a community hub for kids of all ages in the community.
“We ate a lot of caribou, musk ox, Arctic char and lake trout,” says Vance.
The UCC students attended classes and learned about skinning animals and tanning pelts at the school, where they also met Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna and helped out with a games night.
They built an igloo on ice about eight kilometres into the Arctic Ocean and stayed in it overnight. They explored a 75-kilometre radius around Kugluktuk, both inland and on the Coronation Gulf ice, on snowmobiles. Time was also spent hiking the barren landscape around Bloody Falls, ice-fishing on an inland lake that required boring through almost two metres of ice, and witnessing traditional dancing and singing.
“The highlight for me was the cultural experiences: living with an Inuit family, going to school with Inuit students and doing many of their typical activities with them that gave me a sense of how they live,” says Walker.
“The people we met were all really generous and welcoming. One woman sewed us mittens made of fur that are warmer than any mitten I’ve ever worn.”
Things move pretty slowly in sparsely populated Kugluktuk, and witnessing the hustle and bustle of downtown Toronto was a real eye-opener for the four boys who made the trip to Ontario and stayed with their UCC counterparts for the second half of the exchange.
The Kugluktuk students attended classes at UCC and took part in an assembly with their exchange partners.
“One of the Kugluktuk boys joked that it was like speaking in front of half of Kugluktuk in one room,” says Walker.
They spent a night at UCC’s Norval Outdoor Education Centre and toured the University of Toronto (which included a chemistry lab demonstration) and Ryerson University. Experiencing different schools was just part of their education, however.
The boys also: visited the CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Eaton’s Centre and Yonge Dundas Square; ate at downtown restaurants; and sat in Platinum-level seats for a Toronto Maple Leafs-Florida Panthers hockey game at the Air Canada Centre with tickets donated by Leafs co-owner Larry Tanenbaum.
“Kids there are same as kids here,” says Vance. “They have a completely different way of life and worldview, but they all like the same kinds of things.”
UCC students paid about $3,500 to take part in the exchange, while donors covered the costs of the Kugluktuk High School boys. The major contributor was Agnico Eagle (thanks to Old Boy Don Allan ’74), a company with a gold mine in Nunavut that invited the boys to a presentation about its operations at its Toronto headquarters.
You can watch a slide show of the trip to Kugluktuk here.