At the age of 10, a business associate of my father brought me back a bow whip from his trip to the Arctic so that I could learn how to “master the art of mushing”.
Now, almost 60 years later serving as an advisor for an organization called Project North, I’d been invited to accompany a group of volunteers to deliver new hockey and soccer equipment to remote villages in Canada’s Arctic. While I’ll admit I was very enthusiastic about supporting sports in Baffin Island, I was even more excited to see firsthand how these amazing fellow Canadians thrive in some of the harshest conditions our country has to offer. For me, this trip really was going to be a dream come true.
The Inuit are a people of very few words. They don’t seem to need them and prefer to allow the nuances of face to face communication serve the purpose. For instance, the Inuit don’t really have a word for hello in Inuktitut. But an Inuit smile, and their incredible understanding of body language, is as powerful a greeting you will ever be privileged to receive. There is one word the Inuit do have which speaks volumes. An entire string of words and run on sentences can be brilliantly replaced by this one simple word: alianait (ah-lee-aj-nite) which means wonderful. I have often found this word to be so perfectly appropriate when attempting to explain the warmth of the North.
For instance, when we step off the plane after landing in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, we are immediately greeted with handshakes and many smiles from the attendants charged with getting our luggage from our plane, Darlene welcoming us into the airport, Clare who would be on call to assure all would go as planned and all the people who simply came over to welcome us. Smiles, dozens and dozens of alianait smiles. Throughout the week perfect “strangers” would suddenly appear in our house and without a word sit down making themselves right at home. Back home one might be tempted to scold, chase or even call the police at such bold “intrusion,” but here one quickly realizes the only purpose to their visit is to simply make sure we don’t feel like strangers and to make us all feel right at home.
One evening, dog teams and snow machines gather to take us to a special outdoor location where the entire population of Arctic Bay has gathered to entertain us in the traditional ways of the North. It’s 11 p.m. and of course the sun is still bright as it lights our soon to be midnight sky. Although it is late, at no time is sleep even on our minds. The air is crisp and we all feel very alive with excitement. We just want to bask in the culture we all feel so privileged to have been invited to experience. This truly was the show of the incredible warmth that I had been told to expect.
Everyone ventured out as a special thank you for our having made the trip to help their community. I feel blessed not only to have been invited to take part in something so few Canadians will ever get a chance to see, but also to have been reminded what community and a true sense of belonging is really all about. For the Inuit, community is not simply a place where they live, but a necessary part of their entire existence. They know that to survive, the act of sharing with each other will continue to keep them strong. This gathering was also a cultural reminder to everyone of just how incredibly strong this community of 800 continues to be.
The biggest day of our visit and the real reason we are there is the giveaway of the sports equipment we had come so far to deliver. The anticipation is evident in everyone we meet. A draw had been created where children’s names would be randomly picked out of a box and announced live over the local radio station. In a village where a carton of milk can cost as much as $18, imagine how it must feel to be given a chance to receive hockey equipment worth thousands. That evening, everyone shows up at the local outdoor rink to receive their “winnings”. It is soon evident that, recipient or not, everyone sees this as an opportunity to celebrate as an entire community. I am reminded of the Inuit games and how they best reflect the Inuit traditions. Not just in culture, but also where bragging about one’s success is still considered inappropriate and bad manners. No sports heroes here, just a dedication of skills to the entire community. How’s that for an alianait idea?!
The entire experience made me realize how very much I had missed all the visual contact with people that modern technology has taken away. Without the constant checking for and sending of messages, these people actually interact face to face with each other. I was once again enjoying the incredible warmth and subtle nuances that can be experienced only through face to face communication with another human being.
What an alianait experience this had been for everyone involved!