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Inuit youth reclaiming their land
By Guillaume Roy

Featured in Above & Beyond July / August 2013

With eight-month long winters and ice as far as the eye can see, Nunavik is a kiteskiing paradise for those willing to give it a shot. Over the past seven years, over 1,500 people have learned to kite – ski in 15 communities in Nunavik and Nunavut. And more keep coming.

At the northernmost Quebec village, a light snow sweeps across as strong northern winds blow at 40km/h. Snow has been falling all night and 15 cm of fresh packed snow covers the bay. Blue, red, white, green and yellow forms are speeding up left and right in the Ivujivik bay. Looking closer, one can see skiers being pulled by colourful kites flying around. It’s a spectacular sight for the curious villagers who barely knew what kiteskiing was just a few days prior.

They better get used to it because when you begin to kiteski, it completely changes the way you see the world. Every time the wind blows, it makes you wonder if it is strong enough to ride. It turns on a brain connection that makes you crave to go out on your skis and ride as fast as the wind can pull you. It happens to me every time and I am always impressed how fast people become addicted to kiteskiing.

“It’s too much fun to miss. I don’t want to waste good wind anymore. Before, I thought that on a nice day, there should be no wind. I now despise those nice days,” says Aulla Qaunnaaluk, only five days after he first learned how to kite. No wonder why alianattuk, which means fun, was one of the first Inuktitut words I learned after anuri (wind).

I met Qaunnaaluk last April in Ivujivik, when I taught him to kiteski. I had always wanted to come up North, but I never had the opportunity. And what an opportunity it was to go to Ivujivik to share my knowledge about kiteskiing and discover the great Inuit culture.

The snow bike
The kiteski program up North started back in 2001 in Guy Laflamme’s head. When he first tried a Paraskiflex kite, he found that so easy, he wondered why everybody did not own one, especially up North. “It’s like a snow bike. All Inuit should have one. It only takes 30 minutes to learn.” But Guy had never been in the North. It was just a feeling. An idea.

He started to make contacts in some communities to see if anybody would be interested to launch a kiteski program. Six years later, it paid off. With the help of a teacher in Kangirsuq, Laflamme launched a weeklong training program to teach as many people as possible. Once on Arctic ice, he realized how keen the local community was to learn a new sport. “It’s like if the circus was in town,” he remembers.

In Kangirsuq, Laflamme’s team heard about a Makivik annual general meeting that was going to be held a week later in April, where all the northern community mayors would be. It was his chance to spread the word about the kiteski program. “It’s a great opportunity to bring kids out to reclaim the land,” he pleaded.

But communities would really need to believe in the program and invest in it if they wanted it to become sustainable. Here’s why.

“After our first kiteski training week in Igloolik, we packed up all the gear to go back home. Inuit told us ‘this is the saddest day’. It didn’t make sense to go up there, excite them about a new sport, give them expertise and leave with all the equipment,” thought Laflamme.

First of all, communities interested would need to invest and buy full kiteski equipment. Then, a team of instructors would come for about a week to train as many people as possible.

“People are so curious about kiteskiing, that up to 30 persons could show up every day to be taught,” notes Laflamme.

And Inuit are fast learners. Traditionally, they have always learned through imitation. Event if most of them have never skied nor handled a kite, 30 minutes after their first touch, they start gliding through the snow with a big smile on their face.

The Arctic smile program
Actually, the program’s first name was “the Arctic smile program”. “When the kids bring the kite up for the first time, they realize that it’s easy to fly, and big smiles appear. When they start skiing, they don’t want to stop and you almost need to take the kite out of their hands for the next initiation. The goal is to bring kids to do outdoor activities. It’s good for the health and for the soul,” says the program initiator. Nowadays, it is called the “Arctic wind riders” (AWR) program.

For Aulla Qaunnaaluk, kiteskiing also means freedom. “It’s exhilarating. It’s excitement. It’s anti-boredom. I feel 100 per cent awake when I kiteski because my muscles and my mind are working fast. If you like to push your limits, it’s a good way to exercise. When you are out in the bay, you exercise, breathe fresh air and you don’t think about what to do. For me, it’s doing me good and it’s keeping me away from negative enjoyment.”

Taalia Saanaq Nauya, 21 years old, thinks just the same. “It turns bad energy to good energy. I didn’t like the wind before, but now it is my friend. It gives me energy.”

KRG jumps in
Over time, the program became so interesting the Kativik Regional Government (KRG) decided to invest in a pilot project in 2011. “The sport was getting ignited in many communities and people requested it,” explains Nancianne Grey, KRG’s director of recreation.

Of course, one of the goals is simply to have fun, but, from the beginning, the main objective had always been to train trainers to make sure the program could keep living on its own. To make it sustainable, youth leaders needed to be identified and trained to become the instructors of the emerging local kiteski clubs. This would not simply be a hobby; it would be a perfect part-time job.

According to Laflamme, “It helps them become leaders in their communities and it develops community involvement. It might be only seasonal jobs, but it gives local youth highly valuable skills that are transferable to any other group activities. They could then create their own full-time job, teaching kiteskiing in the winter, and kayaking and mountain biking in the summer for instance”.

Thanks to KRG, the program is now creating jobs up North as two instructors are trained in each community to make sure the sport stays alive and spreads. The pilot project started with five communities in 2011: Kuujjuaq, Quartaq, Kangirsujuaq, Kangirsuq and Puvirnituq, and, after only a year, it became the “Nunavik kiteski project” and it expanded to two new communities: George River and Ivujivik.

Even if it’s not a pilot project anymore, the program’s future is unsure. The main funding source comes from the Safer Communities Program, managed by the Makivik Corporation, and it ends at the end of the year. This program, also named with the Inuit term Ungaluk, was launched as an alternative to building a detention centre in Nunavik. It provides $10-million a year to be used for crime prevention through the region. “We know that if youth are being active, it helps to reduce crime and it brings healthier living standards,” says Nancianne Grey.

“There is too many people asking for the same money, thinks Andrew Epoo, KRG’s recreation technical assistant and the kiteski project coordinator. We have a hard time convincing the program to fund our project because they do not see a cultural aspect in kiteskiing. I see many cultural aspects like reading the wind and the ice conditions or simply playing outside.”

In Ivujivik, the mayor, Mattiusi Iyaittuk who is also a renowned artist, believes exactly the same. “I am really proud that the people in charge of the kiteski program are helping people in our community to go out on the land and learn things that they don’t get to learn in school. Otherwise they would not be interested to go out on the land or on the sea ice to learn the difference between a good and a dangerous place to play. When you are kiteskiing, all your muscles are being used. It makes people more healthy and agile instead of just sitting around and doing nothing playing on computers and things like that. It should be promoted in all communities.”

Some Inuit kiteskiers even asked if they could have all-white paraskis to go seal hunting in the bay. “Without a skidoo, you can’t go very far. And since skidoo’s are so expensive, a kite can give kids the freedom to go wherever they want,” says Laflamme.

The story of Michael Petagumskum is a good example of how this modern sport can fit in the Inuit way of life. Living in Kuujjuaq, he is a kid that loves to go hunting and camping. When a few instructors came to his high school in 2010, they showed a video of kiteskiing. From then on, he started to practice every weekend.

“Being on the land is the most awesome thing you can do here up North. This is why I like kiteskiing so much,” he states. So he became one of the kiteski leaders in Kuujuaq. Since 2011, he is an instructor and he can jump as high as the ceiling!

Community exchange through competition
To build exchanges and share expertise through the communities, AWR launched a championship that has been held every year in the North since 2008, sometimes in Nunavik and sometimes in Nunavut. Long distance and triangle races, slalom and maximum speed reached and much more.

Inuit are loving it. In 2012, when KRG got involved, they launched the 1st Nunavik kiteski championship in Kangiqsujuaq and two riders from each community were invited to participate. In April 2013, they repeated the experience and 16 riders from six communities were involved.

“It was a awesome experience to race with other competitors in Nunavik,” says Petagumskum who finished second in 2012 and third in 2013.

For Qaunnaaluk, who had started to ride just a week before the event, it was a tremendous opportunity to learn from his peers. “It allowed me to learn much. The locals there were very helpful. When they saw someone who had not much experience, they gave a lot of pointers.”

Youth is the main target of the program but everybody is welcome to try and enjoy this wonderful sport. Lucasssie Turkirqi, 54 years old from Kangiqsujjuaq, might be the best example as he finished fourth overall in the championship.

What’s next?
In the end, KRG would like the communities to become self-sustainable. “We would not be where we are without all the help from the Arctic wind riders program, but we now want to become independent from instructors from the south,” states Nancianne Grey. For KRG, it’s time to go to the next step.

Laflamme thinks the same. “The program has evolved well. There are now enough kids that have the expertise to operate the local clubs and managers know the potential of the sport.” So what’s left to be done? “There will always be work to be done on the youth leadership and self-esteem aspects to make this program sustainable,” he adds.

It will always be a challenge to find leaders that will sustain the activity through time. It might work well for a few years, but what will happen if a motivated instructor leaves. There has to be more follow-up and communication between the kiteski clubs and the recreation coordinator, thinks Andrew Epoo.

“The kiteski project was initially thought as a pilot to create interest for municipalities. We wanted to help them create a local club, not regional structure, so that they can run it the way they want. It might be time for the communities to make the project their own,” says Andrew Epoo. According to him, even if the funding from Makivik does not continue, there are many ways to fund a kiteski club. He has been asking for funding since he was 13 years old. He knows how it works. He knows where the money is and how to get it. He now wants to share this knowledge with the communities who really want the clubs to keep going.

Crazy projects
As the program matures, new opportunity arises. Guy Laflamme now thinks of an 800 km expedition he could do with Inuit riders. “I’m thinking about an expedition on the Hudson coast from Akulivik to Kuujjuarapik or Kangirsuq to Aupaluk on the Ungava coast. I’m sure we could get 30 riders interested in the trip.”

In 2005 he did a 500-km test expedition with 10 riders between Chissasibi and Waskaganish.

What else is on the forecast for Inuit riders? Tourism. “Imagine kiteskiing to and back the Pingaluit crater from Kangiqsujjuaq,” dreams Epoo. “It has a great potential to start a kiteski tourism project.” And again, he knows where to get the money to start such an initiative. “With the Kativik Regional Development Corporation (KRDC), all you need is 20 per cent of the first year of operation. You just need to know who to talk to and which forms to fill out.” This is simply a dream expedition I would like to be on.

I will need to come back up North. I had too much fun in Ivujivik training over 40 persons of the 360 total population. It may now be one of the villages with the highest percentage of kiteskiers with 11 per cent. I’m glad I participated in that. The challenge is now to make it last.

Ivujivik and all Nunavik communities can become kiteskiing paradises, but even more. This first trip up North gave me the opportunity to meet a tremendously rich culture and discover an awesome landscape where bowhead whales and belugas come to feed. I even had the chance to go out with northern light hunters. According to them, I only saw tiny lights, but it was gorgeous. It’s only a way for the North to tell me I will need to come back to discover more of its wonders.