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For many years in the earlier part of the twentieth century, formal southern schooling for Inuit was colonial, spotty and limited at best.

After the Second World War, Inuit children were sent to residential schools until the late 1950s and 1960s when Ottawa built small schools in the new settlements. After 1967, when the Government of the Northwest Territories (which at the time had jurisdiction over the Eastern Arctic) moved from Ottawa to Yellowknife, attempts were made to somewhat “de-colonialize” the approach to northern education. Community input was sought, curriculum became more “northernized,” aboriginal teachers were trained and native languages began to be taught in territorial schools. With the signing of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement in 1993 and the creation of Nunavut in 1999, Inuit saw education as a critical tool for both preserving their culture and preparing their youth for a rapidly changing world in the North. So further efforts were made by the Government of Nunavut (GN) through its policy of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit to train Inuit as teachers, to teach Inuktitut in the schools, to develop more parental and community involvement and to include more Inuit culture in school programming.

However, as in all education systems, Nunavut’s schools continue to face issues.

Two-thirds of the teachers are from southern Canada, their turnover is relatively high and many Inuit youth are failing to complete their grade 12 for a variety of reasons. This leads to parental concern, Inuit youth struggling with low employment and identity issues and frustration for the GN in that it cannot hire enough Inuit to fill the ranks of the territorial civil service in numbers proportionate to their population in Nunavut. So retention and crosscultural programs are taking on even more importance for the Nunavut education system. With this in mind, Qikiqtani School Operations (the GN’s department of education in the Baffin region) has partnered with Mount St. Vincent University (MSVU) in Halifax for the past seven years to help orientate would-be teachers prior to their applying on northern teaching positions. This is done through the offering of a university credit course on Nunavut via the department of education at MSVU and fieldwork through a northern practicum experience in the Baffin region for four weeks in March and early April each year.

The northern practicum not only offers a hands-on, ESL, cross-cultural teaching experience but also helps these future northern teachers to later adjust more easily to their new environment so that they can more comfortably build relationships with their Inuit students and work with them to complete their high school education. The practicum is viewed as both a professional and cultural experience since it is important for the teacher trainee to understand that for a teacher in an Inuit community to be effective, schooling and local culture needs to be integrated.

The goal of the program is retention of both teachers and students, to enable teachers through better orientation to stay longer in Nunavut, for them to be better able to deliver more attractive cross-cultural courses and to form good relationships with their students which in turn will hopefully encourage Inuit youth to stay in school and complete their education. In this way young Nunavummiut will find meaningful lives, the GN will find qualified Inuit to fill civil service positions, more Inuit will start their own businesses and overall the territory will retain a modern version of its aboriginal character as outlined in the policy of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit.

Tackling the challenges of northern education Bursaries of $7,000 each are offered to five would-be northern teachers in their final year in the MSVU education department to cover travel and accommodation expenses as part of their four weeks in a Nunavut community. MSVU works with principals and staff in schools that are prepared to offer accommodation and mentoring, with the principal and co-operating teacher supervising and assessing the MSVU student in compliance with the latter’s B.Ed qualification requirements. This benefits both parties. The school gets an enthusiastic extra pair of hands in mid-winter, the chance to vet a possible teacher for the following year and some extra funding. The student gets the chance to taste what teaching and community life in Canada’s Arctic is really like.

Most of the students discover this northern adventure can be a steep learning curve. Usually sent individually to different communities and finding themselves outside their usual comfort zone, they quickly learn to be flexible, independent and to think on their feet. They have to get used to living within another culture, to not understanding all that is going on or being said around them, to coming face-to-face with the impact of sometimes distressing social issues and putting up with a very cold environment. Nonetheless, they quickly find that they do have something to offer as individuals, despite the fact that they find themselves among people who look different, who speak a different language, who have different cultural priorities and who are not always convinced that formal education is always so important.

Several students have commented that the experience can be exhilarating when faced with new personal and professional challenges, from appreciating the beauty of a totally unique landscape and its northern wildlife to being allowed to do things very differently in their classroom, to having the feeling that they are truly needed and that they can really make a difference in the lives of young people.

Partners in common goals

The students are given extra orientation sessions at the university prior to going, are expected to contribute towards the cost of their adventure, as well as having to write a report for their sponsors and to give a presentation to their final-year university peers upon their return.

To date, the university course and practicum has produced 23 individuals who have either taught or are currently teaching with aboriginal peoples or in the North as a result of this project.

The program is now building its own northern support network so that some current Nunavut teachers, who themselves once participated in this program, are now offering to host or mentor the new intake of MSVU students going North. The program has received support from several sources. It works in partnership with Qikiqtani School Operations and the staff of several of its schools, is endorsed by the Nunavut Teachers’ Association, has the encouragement and on-going financial backing of The TD Bank Group and Dr. Hans and Mrs. Annegret Uhthoff, while First Air Ltd. helps reduce costs by offering fares at discounted prices. All the sponsors are interested in the broader aim of improving literacy among northern youth, of helping them to stay in school and of enhancing their career prospects.

They say it takes a community to raise a child. Certainly it takes the efforts of many to build an effective education system. If young teachers can be given the encouragement and opportunity to think outside the box and offer their talents in Nunavut and other parts of this country, then new ideas may find new solutions.

Nick Newbery is the co-ordinator of the Nunavut Teacher Practicum Program at Mount St. Vincent University in Nova Scotia.