Published in Above&Beyond March/April 2013
Text and photos by Isabelle Dubois
Maïna, the soon to be released (Fall 2013) feature film now in post-production is based on the book by the same name. The novel, by acclaimed Quebec author Dominique Demers was first published in French and tells the fascinating story of a young Innu woman taken on an epic journey from her homeland on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, far away to a land of ice, Nunavik’s Ungava Peninsula. It tells of her struggle to achieve ethnic acceptance there and of finding love.
There is a personal near surreal connection to young Maïna’s journey and the path my own life has taken. Much like my own story of going North, her story and my life seem to have mysteriously unfolded alongside each other’s in surprisingly similar ways…
The Call of the Wolves
Even as a young child I was very fascinated by Aboriginal cultures. I’m not exactly sure how or why it began. Perhaps it was the Amerindian dolls my mother collected for me, or the way my father would rub his nose against mine to wish me good night, in what he called an “Eskimo kiss”. My interest only grew stronger as I became a young woman when my brother and his friend introduced me to dog sledding, an activity that would come to play an important part in my life. Indeed, my connection to these wolf-like canines would take me further than I could have ever imagined.
In March 1997, as I’m about to leave for the Lower North Shore of Quebec on my first real dog sled expedition as a guide for French tourists, Dominique Demers publishes her novel titled Maïna.
Her novel, set centuries ago, long before the qallunaat arrival, begins in the very locale I’m about to discover for the first time. When I come back to my hometown of Sherbrooke, the very place where Demers graduated with a PhD in literature and taught at its University, I see her book everywhere in stores. After my own experience of a lifetime travelling by dogsled through Innu territory, I couldn’t help myself — I had to get my own copy of her book.
The natural pace of life increases, gets more complicated and things zoom along quickly. I can’t seem to find the time to read. Maïna remains on the shelves. Later, I move to France for a job at a magazine and forget all about Maïna and my calling for a while until I miss my snow-covered country so much and decide to head back to La belle province, ready for another adventure on the Lower North Shore by dog sled, some three years later.
On that expedition I bring Maïna along, in an attempt to read it and learn more about the mystifying Indigenous people who inhabit this remote region of Quebec that I have the privilege to explore once again, who’s culture I had only caught a glimpse of the first time around. It was there that I finally let Maïna tell me her story.
As each day ends, I read by the light of the fire keeping us warm at night in the cabins where we settle along the way. I devour each word and soon discover that Maïna and I are not so very different after all.
Of course, at first glance, we are nothing alike. Aside from our totally distinct shades of skin, she also has tundra brown almondshaped eyes and long, dark, almost black hair, shooting down straight like an arrow, while my eyes change from the still blue to the greyish green of the sea and my dirty blonde hair spirals in waves only surfers dream of. And of course the obvious — I am not Innu.
I keep reading while the pack of huskies parked outside howl at the moon like wolves do calling each other in the wild. I can’t help but feel a connection with Maïna. Like her, I too long for the great spaces. After all, here I was roaming an unknown land on a sled pulled by huskies that weren’t even mine, except for one I had adopted from my first odyssey in this now seemingly familiar place. And like Maïna, I was about to lose my father and embark on an even greater journey in search of myself.
In Natak’s country
Between the long days on the trail along the St. Lawrence River sea ice and the late nights tending to the dogs, time has gone by too fast and, as Maïna starts to head North following her stars, I have to put down the book once more and get back to the reality of modern times, as our excursion comes to an end. Instead of reading, it’s time for me to write, as work awaits back home on my desktop computer, and a strict deadline to complete a guidebook of Quebec’s greatest outdoor destinations.
Little did I know that my assignment a couple of months later would again bring me North. I again seemed to be following Maïna’s footsteps, and again I decided to take the book along with me, hoping to finish it during this new adventure, one from which I would never really return from.
In Maïna’s own words in the screenplay that would later be adapted from my now favourite author Dominique Demers’ novel, “the path my life would take was visible to me; I knew something exceptional was waiting for me at the end of my journey.”
The date at which this media trip to Nunavik, Northern Quebec, started, was, in itself, an omen of something about to happen. It was on April 1, at the turn of the new millennium, that I left what I now call the South by plane on First Air, Kuujjuaq-bound.
I was so ready for this, had been my whole life, so anxious to finally meet the Inuit I had read about in a number of books I had acquired over the years leading to this day. What I didn’t know was that this would be the best April’s fool’s trick ever played on me.
Again, like Maïna, I had followed my calling, one that led me North, where I was soon to find love in the compelling arms of a stranger, Etua, an Inuit hunter, just like Natak, who, in the story I was reading while my own life-story was being written, had taken Maïna to his frozen kingdom to make her his. I too was going to learn to love this harsh but oh so heavenly expanse of land. And I too, like Maïna, would have to stand my ground as an outsider at first to hopefully become accepted by these amazing people.
Fortunately, I would soon realize that, like Maïna, I had been brought up in [some] ways not so different from those of the man whom I had fallen in love. In fact, being out here in this winter wonderland brought me back to my roots. I could relive my childhood and remember the days when we’d go ice fishing with my maternal grandfather, enjoying turns on one of the earliest models of the Arctic Cat Kitty Cat snowmobile that one of my uncles had won. And we’d go hunting then too and I wouldn’t frown at the sight of blood, as I had grown up seeing my grandmother skinning the rabbits (hares) that my grandfather had caught in his snares and gut the fish that we, the grandchildren, so enjoyed playing with in the tub where they were being kept to stay fresh.
My mom used to make all of my clothing, not to mention a matching set for my doll and just as my mother had learned to sew from her own mother at a very young age, I too learned from my own mom. I did drift away from the craft when I became the typical in-store fashion-driven teenager for a short while. But now I am very grateful for what she taught me. In a remote community such as Kuujjuaq, where the general store is pretty much the only outlet, knowing how to sew comes in handy and I now take pride in making my own clothing, just as Maïna did.
It is now 13 years later and I’m still here and, like Maïna’s film character, I too have a family of my own with the man I love and a little girl whom I had at one time thought of naming Maïna. In the end we chose the name Niivi: a name that happens to mean something in both her father’s native language, short form for “little girl” in Inuktitut, and is phonetically similar to “névé,” which translates to “eternal snow” in French, my mother tongue.
Maïna’s story has never left my side. I have read the book many times over the years. And then about a year and a half ago, I received a call at Nunavik Tourism, where I now work, to promote this friendly, beautiful and wild Northern region of Quebec. The caller told me he is looking for an umiaq, a traditional Inuit boat made with skins. He tells me it is to be used as a prop in a movie based on a book, which will be shot in Mingan, on an Innu reserve on the Lower North Shore, and then up North in Kuujjuaq. He doesn’t need to say more for me to realize that Maïna is back in my life.
The feature film’s storyline based on the book Maïna was adapted to the screen by Pierre Billon. The project is spearheaded by filmmaker and award-winning director Michel Poulette (Agent of Influence, Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story, Louis 19: King of the Airwaves, etc.), with the assistance of Pierre Magny (Shadow of the Wolf) and director of photography Allen Smith (Seven years in Tibet, Seducing Doctor Lewis, etc.). Their concept brings together the Inuit and Innu people and cultures to the big screen for the first time.
This newfound bond between people is reflected in the cast, bringing together talented First Nations actors such as Roseanne Supernault (APTN’s new hit series Blackstone), Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal, and brilliant Inuit stage and actors such as Ipellie Ootoova (The White Archer) and Natar Ungalaq (Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner, The Necessities of Life, etc.), to name but a few.
The process of making the film contributed to bringing the non-aboriginal members of the crew closer to Innu and Inuit alike, working together as one for the first time in history and proving what Tommy Kajuatsiaq, a wise Inuk elder, once told me when I first arrived here: “Inuuqatigittugut” (we are all just people), which, interestingly enough, is also the title of a song by the man who captured my heart, just as Natak did Maïna’s.