This past summer, Students on Ice (SOI) embarked on its 15th annual Arctic Expedition aboard their floating classroom, the Ocean Endeavour, sailing through ice-covered waters on a life-altering journey from Greenland to Canada’s High Arctic.
The expedition brought together 115 students from 18 countries, including 40 Indigenous youth. They not only observed polar bears, but also considered the changes to their habitat from global warming. They saw the history of changes in landscape, naturally and human-induced; compared the different cultural and political experiences of people in Greenland and Arctic Canada; bridged the understanding and perspectives of Northern and Southern Canadians; and so much more.
Globally acclaimed as a leader in polar education and youth engagement, SOI has developed an alumnus of more than 2,500 students, continuing scholars and young professionals who have a breadth of knowledge; a sense of values and awareness of human and natural differences; an appreciation of the natural, planetary, and political world and their place in it; and an energy to do something worthwhile that they freely admit owes much to the inspiration and experience of SOI. The impacts of the SOI program and its alumni are being noted in cultural, commercial, educational, legal, political, as well as academic and scientific domains.
The following four perspectives were shared by SOI participants — Justin Fisch of Montreal, Udlu Hanson of Iqaluit, Robert Comeau of Iqaluit, and Cree/Metis artist Jaime Koebel of Ottawa — reflecting on their experiences and the impact of their SOI journey.
Every Students on Ice expedition charts a different path and tells a different story, but one aspect does not change: the opportunity afforded to share, learn about and discuss our country’s uneasy history with the Indigenous peoples of Canada’s North.
There are many ways the story of our North has been conveyed to us, as southern Canadians, with little to none being historically accurate. Few of us have ever had the opportunity to study alongside our Inuit neighbours, with even fewer able to openly and candidly discuss the difficult issues between our cultures with an eye to the future. SOI provides just that space.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission specifically asks us, as a country, to “[build] student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect”. For this call to be followed, an expeditionary mindset is crucial. The expeditionary lessons I embraced aboard Students on Ice facilitate my recognition of reconciliation as an open and crucial, yet difficult process, but one that we must undertake to move forward. As Canadians, reconciliation is our national expedition.
True reconciliation is achieved through reciprocal respect. To honour and celebrate our culture and language: This is how we will heal as an Aboriginal People. To honour and celebrate our diverse cultural heritage: This is how we will heal as a united and grateful country.
Overcoming a malignant era of misgivings and disastrous events requires an even keel and platforms of trust. SOI expeditions provide Inuit expeditioners with a platform to share unequivocally and unapologetically.
Showcasing the land, water and sky using a sailing classroom is the perfect opportunity to regain, instil and nurture reciprocal pride in a culture and country. As expeditioners, we become equal learners and observers.
SOI expeditioners leave the ship wanting to learn more, do more, and be more. Reconciliation of a nation starts and ends with our own personal journey to reconcile differences. SOI journeys celebrate and honour our ‘differences’.
During the 2015 Expedition to western Greenland and Canada’s Arctic with Student’s on Ice, my role was to participate as an Aboriginal Artist in Residence. The opportunity was made available because of a generous grant and joint endeavour between the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and the Canada Council for the Arts.
My intention was to bring what I know as a Nehiyaw/Apeetagosan (Cree/Métis) artist and share traditions and knowledge of plant properties and animal products in relation to our connection to the land and translate that experience into creative projects. We produced birch bark biting, fish scale art, personal paintings and drawings.
I was constantly amazed by all of the expertise on the expedition and how we were all equals in our own way. I felt that each and every person was valued and an important part of the group. Part way through the trip, it occurred to me that given the amount of scientific expertise combined with traditional and personal knowledge, this was an exceptional opportunity for acts of reconciliation between Indigenous people and others.
SOI brings people together who may not have ever had the chance to meet. Between Indigenous knowledge keepers, scientists, artists of all disciplines, politicians, educators and leaders, there are valuable opportunities to learn from one another. The way in which we learned on and off the ship about the places we visited were very much enriched from many points of view while always having that base of listening to the Indigenous peoples of the land.
For me, the entire trip was an act of reconciliation and I hope that many more people have the chance to be a part of it.
This summer with Students on Ice we went on hikes in Sisimiut, Greenland, where we were shown the sod houses that Inuit inhabited before colonization. We took core samples from a pond. One of the Inuit participants decided to construct an inuksuk. As I stood and watched, I was asked questions about the inuksuk and about Inuit culture. What I experienced in that moment was a feeling of pride.
As we continued our journey, questions arose about Inuit and our way of life. Having lived in an urban setting for many years, this opportunity to share who I am with people from around the world was amazing. This is because I had to overcome my own personal insecurities with my Inuk identity. These insecurities stem from instances of lateral violence and intergenerational trauma of the Canadian colonial project.
We pulled into Uummanaq, Greenland, taking in the icebergs and each other’s company. Next thing you know there was a group of people watching and then participating in traditional Inuit survival games. Inuit from all over Canada taught me how to play these games a bit better. Kids from the south joined in on the activities and learned why our ancestors played these games and why we play them today.
These individual personal moments and connections demonstrated the ability of SOI to enact and facilitate genuine reconciliation in the context of its expeditions.