Patricia Deveaux was always told she could be anything she wanted to be. When she graduated in June of this year, she won a Governor General’s Academic Medal for having the highest grades in her high-school class. Meanwhile, she had long since learned the ropes in the world of work, having talked her way into a job at a local hotel when she was 13.
“She was always the one I looked up to,” says her 16-year-old sister, Lissa.
Lissa was a good student too, but she lived for summers, when she could go camping and fishing. She wanted to stay forever in Nunavik, the far-north Inuit region of Quebec.
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It was a given, however, that Patricia would leave. Only about a half-dozen students from her hometown of Kuujjuaq move on from high school to Quebec’s pre-university colleges (called CEGEPs) each year, and she “always couldn’t wait” to be one of them, she says. So she moved to Montreal in August. She flew through orientation testing with the highest grade of any Nunavik student this year.
It took just six weeks for her to change her mind. She quit her business program at John Abbott College and moved back to Kuujjuaq, reoccupying her old bedroom and her job at the local hotel. She entered a local trade school, studying accounting.
She had hated living in Montreal, but she had also become sure of something else: She didn’t want to adjust to the south. “It would bother me if I went home and I felt like an outsider,” she says. In fact, she had quietly started to envy her little sister, the “outside-hunting type Inuk girl.”
“I haven’t had as much time as a kid as I wanted to,” Patricia said during a telephone interview two weeks after she returned home. “I wasn't much of a person to go outside much. Now that I'm older and I realize that I really like it, I'm going to for sure with my aunts and uncles whenever they go out hunting and fishing.”
Inuit teenagers like Patricia are the source of much hand-wringing in policy circles as decision-makers cope with a range of issues such as food security, economic development and climate change.
New census numbers released last week showed that her generation is huge, dwarfing their parents’ and grandparents’ numbers. Many signs of their early experiences are very worrying, particularly when it comes to education. Dropout rates in the northern territories are high, even among the most promising students. Police files in Montreal and Ottawa are full of the stories of young Inuit, poorly prepared for the working world, who move south and spiral into poverty and violence. The social dislocation Inuit children face is worsened, policymakers assume, by the way climate change is transforming their land.
But some recent statistics might also overturn southern assumptions. Notably, the fluency of young Indigenous people in traditional languages is relatively high, especially in Nunavik. In fact, according to Patricia, southerners understand little about life for the region’s young people, especially when it comes to how they choose their schooling.
For Inuit students, moving south often feels like as much of a sacrifice as it is a benefit, young Inuit say. They know better than anyone that there’s a crisis up north, but that’s often a reason to stay, not to leave. Climate change isn’t necessarily eroding their bond with their land and culture — in fact, for many young people, it provides extra motivation to learn to “be Inuk,” even if that's harder now than ever. Torn between two places, two cultures, and two ways of getting educated, each student picks the pieces she needs from each world, in a process that’s always unique and often lonely.
Struggling in Inuktitut
The Deveaux girls first learned about the tradeoffs of going south from their mother, who lived for years in Montreal — the girls’ father is from southern Quebec. The family returned to Kuujjuaq when Patricia was three and Lissa was a baby.
Across Nunavik, towns tend to empty out in the summer as families head to far-flung cabins and camps — a modern version of how Inuit lived for millennia. Though the sisters’ extended family have cabins and boats, their mother never fully readopted traditional habits after returning from Montreal. And while her siblings spoke Inuktitut fluently, she struggled in the language.
Patricia had a more Montreal-style childhood than many children in Kuujjuaq. She enrolled in ballet classes, then karate. But each time, she had to stop when her teachers from the south moved back home. It was after the karate teacher left, when Patricia was 13, that she decided it was time to find her own activity, one that didn’t depend on anyone flown in: She would enter the world of paid work.
“I told my parents I wanted my own job and to have my own money,” she says. She asked them to help her find a place that would hire a 13-year-old girl.
Patricia’s parents dutifully went to one of the town’s two hotels and made the case for their daughter. She began working as a busgirl that night. Through high school, she worked nearly full-time, heading toward her dream of opening her own café in Kuujjuaq.
Then Lissa found her own calling, also at 13. Her friend Alice, whose family often went to a camp, borrowed her parents’ guns one winter day and the two girls set off from town.
Kuujjuaq, a town of about 2,500, sits on one bank of the wide mouth of Koksoak River, with open land scattered with small pines and shrubs spreading in either direction.
“We just started to go walk in the bushes, following the edge of the water,” says Lissa. They wore snowshoes, slogging through deep snow. Alice was sure she could lead them to ptarmigan, but the hours dragged on without any luck. The middle-schoolers had just given up when some birds came into view and Lissa’s hands started shaking.
“[Alice] told me to aim and prepare to shoot,” Lissa says. “I kept on missing. And then I finally shot it.”
She had an intense burst of emotion. She was filled with happiness, she says. At the same time, “it felt pretty weird because it was the first time I killed an animal.”
Alice told her what she should do with the ptarmigan. “When I picked it up,” Lissa says, “she told me to take off the black feathers and put them in the ground, because that’s the traditional way — it’s to respect the animal and to respect the spirits.”
Lissa didn’t understand exactly, but she complied. And in the following years, she hunted a lot, spending summertime weeks far from Kuujjuaq. She often brought home ptarmigan. “Some other animals are pretty hard to hunt,” she says. “Like caribou: They run away, and you need a bigger gun.”
Years away from her high-school graduation, Lissa had decided she would train as a cook at a vocational school in another Nunavik town, but that she would never leave the region permanently because she could never stop hunting.
“I’d miss it, I’d miss it a lot,” she says. “I like being in nature. I like how the air is clear, and seeing flat land. It's just nice, and relaxing too.”
Five people to a room
The Deveaux sisters grew up in relative privilege as they explored their options; most people their age across Nunavik fight daily for basic necessities.
More than half of the region’s families don’t have adequate food, according to Nunavik’s board of health. A 2014 Laval University study found that Nunavik children without enough food were, by about age 10, two centimetres shorter on average than the well-fed children in the study.
Inuit are the youngest population in Canada, and Nunavik’s birth rate has vastly outpaced the rest of the north. Proportionately, four times as many babies are born to teenagers in Nunavik as in the rest of Quebec, according to Laval University. (The infant mortality rate is also more than four times Quebec’s average.) While the population of most of Canada increases by about one per cent per year, the number of Inuit in Nunavik grew by 23 per cent from 2006 to 2011, according to Statistics Canada. About 60 per cent of the population is under age 25.
That population boom helps explain one of Nunavik’s most pressing problems, the thing that people tend to mention first when asked why they leave: the housing shortage.
A Senate committee found last year that more than half of Nunavik families face overcrowding, often with five people sharing a room. On a northern tour, senators saw bedrooms made up in doorways and boiler rooms, even in backyard sheds.
The overcrowding is thought to contribute to the high tuberculosis rates among Inuit, as well as high rates of family violence and sexual abuse, with victims often unable to seek safer shelter. The Senate report concluded that the region needed 1,030 new units urgently. But only about 65 units are built annually.
Considering these problems, the 74 per cent high-school dropout rate should surprise no one, says Maggie MacDonnell. A native of Nova Scotia, MacDonnell won last year’s $1 million Global Teacher Prize, an international competition, for her work teaching high school over the last seven years in the town of Salluit, near Nunavik’s northern tip.
Even the better-off teenagers, the ones who have their own bedroom, live with constant tragedy. The suicide rate in Nunavik is 11 times higher than the Canadian average, according to Laval. When she was asked how many students she’s lost to suicide over seven years, MacDonnell's voice trailed off.
“I started counting funerals originally and I don't count any more, because it's too many to count,” she says.
The handful who do graduate each year get a parade, a prom and a town feast, at which each makes a speech.
“You bring a box of Kleenex,” says MacDonnell. “They acknowledge, sometimes, the classmates that they've lost along the journey, and wish that they could be there… It's a tremendous source of pride when you’re one of the 5 or 10 percent who graduate.”
The problem is that those resilient students are often crucial to their siblings too, acting as “surrogate parents,” MacDonnell says. The decision to pursue their education at a CEGEP, a $4,000 flight away, can be wrenching.
“They’re so worried about their little brothers and sisters…and that eats away at them a lot,” she says. Those students often drop out.
That kind of sacrifice has cost Nunavik an unknown amount of potential schooling for its youth, at the CEGEP level and beyond. One of MacDonnell’s colleagues, school counselor Cynthia Gaudreault, was studying psychology two years ago at Laval. If she could carry through, it appeared she would have become the only Inuktitut-speaking psychologist in Nunavik. But then Kuujjuaq, her hometown, was riven by a spate of suicides.
“I was finishing my certificate… I was proud of that, but at the same time I didn't think it was going fast enough,” says Gaudreault, 26. “It was just making me so impatient, feeling so useless.”
On the day she heard that a close friend had died, she broke down during a school presentation. A few months later, she cut her plans short and returned home, wanting to put her single year of university training to use.
She immediately felt it was the right move. One day she saw someone post on Facebook that he was ready to kill himself. “I ran from my office,” she says. She was the first to respond. Arriving at the young man’s home, she removed weapons and talked him down.
“To be honest, I feel like I gained a lot more than I lost” by coming back, she says. “I’m working for a cause that I really believe in.”
MacDonnell says such students don’t often get credit for making those tough calls. “You don't always have the privilege of taking four, six, eight years to study and work on academic self-improvement in the middle of a crisis.”
Those who do stay in school for that long often find it tough to return. A few of MacDonnell’s former students have spent years studying to become some of Nunavik’s first-ever Inuk nurses.
But “as much as they love the north, they're also going to have to return to an overcrowded home and sleep on a couch or share a bedroom with three people and then go to work every day at a clinic, at the age of like 27 or 28,” she says. “So do they want to immerse themselves back in that environment?”
When Patricia started CEGEP, everything was going according to plan — on paper. But inside, she was in her own crisis. “The more I was doing my classes, the more unmotivated I was,” she says. “I just felt like I couldn’t do it any more without seeing my family.” She called Lissa a few times, crying. She hadn’t gotten to know her southern classmates and never spoke to them. The food in her dorm was bad. She hated taking the bus for hours to visit friends.
In Montreal, “it was always busy,” Patricia says. “It was never a quiet moment. In Kuujjuaq, here, you can just go take your vehicle out of town, park yourself, and you'll be relaxed. There'll be no noise, only nature.”
As Patricia's misgivings grew, she thought about how it was berry-picking season back home. During high school, it had been the only thing that totally cleared work and school from her mind. Nothing in the south could give her that feeling.
Half drop out in first year
On a summer Saturday night in Kuujjuaq, kids and teenagers saunter in their socks through the town's small youth centre. A bright calendar proclaiming it board-game night is ignored, while two boys play foosball and a group crowds in front of video games. In the parking lot, younger boys pop wheelies, while hip-hop blares from a speaker on one boy’s handlebars. When the kids chatter among themselves, it's usually in Inuktitut.
Children in Nunavik are more fluent in their traditional language than in any other Canadian Inuit territory. Sometimes they speak better than their parents. Unlike in the other territories, they’re taught only in Inuktitut until the end of grade 3.
In some ways, that makes their lives harder when they grow up, says Olivia Ikey, a youth activist who, until recently, worked as a co-ordinator at Youth Employment Services in Kuujjuaq.
Ikey, 28, remembers flying to Montreal for a medical appointment when she was around 15, and staying with an Inuit family whose son was in grade 5 in Montreal. They were doing the exact same homework.
“He's in grade 5! And I'm in secondary 2! I felt like a pure idiot,” she says. “And that's when I realized, okay, we're not even close to being the same.”
In fact, unbeknownst to most students, when education officials fly to Nunavik each year to administer pre-college testing, the test they use is the TOEFL — the basic English proficiency exam meant for foreign students — or its French equivalent.
And it came to light this year that Nunavik graduates, after all their effort, haven’t been getting “real” high-school diplomas for the past four years. After Quebec asked for upgrades to the Nunavik curriculum and got no response, it quietly withdrew accreditation. (After the Nunavik school board responded this summer, the province agreed to reinstate real diplomas next year.)
The education gap hasn’t been an obvious problem, in one sense, because Nunavik CEGEP students are generally sequestered in two Montreal colleges with special programs; they live together and attend some classes as a group. But it also means the students have little chance to chart their own course.
Those who try to make their own way in Montreal often have a jarring experience. Ikey, who enrolled in the fashion program at LaSalle College, was placed in an ESL class along with another young woman from Nunavik.
Like many young women at home, Ikey was a proficient seamstress, making a parka from scratch every year. “The teacher asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ ” she remembered. “And I said, 'I like to sew.' And the whole class laughed at me.”
The classmates all wore Gucci and Prada. “I'm not elite. I grew up in — ghetto,” she says. “I grew up surviving. I couldn’t be there.” She dropped out.
Some students, new to Montreal, try to visit friends or family who habituate Cabot Square, often struggling with addictions. But local community workers warn them off, knowing that young Inuit are targets for dealers and pimps.
Over all, about half of Nunavik’s CEGEP students drop out in their first year, according to the Nunavik school board. A board statement attributes this to “the challenges resulting from a gap in terms of their academic level as well as study habits, time management and personal organizational skills.”
The statement says that there are “serious and complex social issues” affecting its students and their educations.
But when it comes to the cultural decisions — especially the banning of English and French in early school years — the board makes no apologies. To solve the accreditation problem in the long term, the province should consider accrediting cultural lessons, the statement says. “The transmission of our Inuit values, culture and Inuktitut language must remain at the core of all the educational services we provide.”
The board launched a new post-secondary program in Montreal this year that focuses on the history and culture of Nunavik. Meant to train students to become northern leaders, it’s modeled after a long-running and successful program in Ottawa for Nunavut youth.
In a statement for this story, Quebec’s ministry of education said it’s concerned about the dropout rate for Nunavik students and has ramped up its efforts to help, while “always respecting the autonomy” of the Nunavik board. Last week, the ministry hosted a first-of-its-kind meeting in Quebec City dedicated to the success of Indigenous students in the province.
The same week, Nunavut Tunngavik, the organization representing Inuit in Nunavut, called on all levels of government to build a university in the north “rooted in Inuit culture and language.”
Northern groups have floated this idea for years. Patricia Deveaux says it would make a difference for Nunavik. “It would be easier for students to go to Nunavut for university because they would be with Inuit and… they would experience less culture shock. I also believe the dropout rates would go down.”
Thriving for millennia
Nunavik kids’ mastery of Inuktitut, while hard-won, helps give them control over their own futures — a pattern that even their own elders don’t always see. The older generation sometimes seems to frown upon Nunavik’s linguistic renaissance, says Ikey.
Yet Inuktitut class is where Lissa learned why her friend Alice had taught her to bury the black ptarmigan feathers. “If you don't treat the animal right, the animal spirit is going to tell the other animals and you won't be able to hunt again or find any other animal,” she says. “That’s what my teacher told me.”
And class helped give Lissa her link to traditional Inuk life outside of school. Her aunts and uncles had the old lifestyle she coveted, even in elementary school. The problem was that they spoke Inuktitut fluently, and Lissa didn’t. Finally, when she was about 10, she asked if her mother would take her to see one uncle at home.
“I was a bit nervous because he spoke Inuktitut very fluently,” she says. “He also understands English pretty good. But I always try to speak Inuktitut to him, just to, like, respect him — or something like that.
“I was like, speaking Inuktitut, saying, ‘Can you please bring me hunting or fishing sometimes? I’d really like it.' ”
Her uncle answered in English, but he also smiled and gave her a nod, “like, ‘Nice effort,’ ” she says, laughing. “He liked that I spoke Inuktitut. He liked that I continued learning.” He started taking her out fishing right away.
Climate change threatens hunting, fishing
Climate change has made it harder to hunt and fish, by all accounts. While the Arctic is warming four times more quickly than the rest of the planet, Nunavik is experiencing the effects earlier than anywhere. Hunters die every year when sea ice breaks up unexpectedly. One woman died of botulism this past summer after eating beluga meat, not realizing that warmer weather means bacteria can grow where it once didn't.
The changes have gotten in the way of Lissa’s expeditions too. She hasn’t gotten much practice hunting caribou — the animals’ migration path has moved away from Kuujjuaq. Winter fishing is harder, too, since the Koksoak River doesn’t reliably freeze over the way it used to just a generation ago.
Still, both sisters don’t worry about the details of the changing land; it probably bothers their elders more than them, they say.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Canada’s best-known Arctic leader, was born in Kuujjuaq and moved back there last winter. In a telephone interview, she says she wrote her memoir, “The Right to be Cold,” largely for her grandchildren’s generation.
Watt-Cloutier’s generation lived through a series of sudden, colossal changes from the 1950s to 1970s. Some children, including Watt-Cloutier, were sent away to school. A number of Inuit families were forced to move to the high Arctic to serve as markers of Canadian sovereignty. RCMP officers killed tens of thousands of sled dogs in the eastern Arctic. The move was ostensibly for the sake of public safety, but it effectively curtailed the traditional nomadic way of life and left a legacy of trauma. Finally, with the advent of the animal-rights movement, the market for byproducts of the seal hunt quickly collapsed.
“There are so many issues that have hit us so hard in such a short period of time that have contributed to the breakdown of Inuit society,” Watt-Cloutier says.
Now climate change is making it even harder for young Inuit to find stability, she believes. In the past, Inuit parents used hunting, craftsmanship and other traditions to teach children life skills: self-discipline, patience, attention to detail. This kind of teaching relies on the northern climate itself.
“If the ice goes, so does the wisdom that we need so much to rely upon and ground us again,” says Watt-Cloutier.
What southerners may not appreciate is that Inuit children who pursue traditional skills still generally thrive elsewhere. “They may not necessarily go into academics all the time,” she says. However, “those kids eventually will find their niche in whatever professional life they want to do.”
Even skills necessary to navigating life in the south are, paradoxically, best learned up north, Watt-Cloutier says.
“How do we become a strong people that aren't going to be further oppressed and suppressed and hurt and beaten and murdered by predators?” says Watt-Cloutier. “It links back to… relearning the same skills that our culture teaches you about how to be safe and secure in one of the harshest environments in the entire world.”
Inuit, she says, must “learn back those principles of coping and resiliency and sound judgment all around us. Because if we didn't have those character skills, we would not survive an hour, much less thrive for millennia.”
Editor's Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Echo Foundation.