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Johnny Needs A New Home


by Ann Meekitjuk Hanson

It stood there, alone, high on top of a three-legged pole in the middle of the room. We, the community workers, volunteers and social workers were invited for the unveiling of this object. People sat in chairs or stood against the wall in anticipation, not saying a word. We just stared at it. We were told it was a video camera. This was in the winter 1970.

Prior to this, there had been filmmakers coming up to make copy of us, direct us to do this and that, say this and that and smile. We admired the film makers and some of them even showed us how their cameras worked. The first time we were taught formally through workshops about filmmaking was when National Film Board sent their filmmakers. I remember Wolfe Koenig, well known animator and later Peter Raymont, teaching us how to operate a huge camera. It was fun, exciting, fresh and very enticing.

Ajiliurijuq means “to make copy”. Ajiliuriji means a “taker of pictures” or “filmmaker”. The word aji simply means “a copy”. When we add descriptive suffixes at the end of the word aji, its meaning becomes active, alive and motivating.

Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) was created by active people in the early 1970s. There were many reasons that gave its ultimate creation purpose. There were motivating factors such as social issues, history, education, culture, health, saving our Inuktitut language, passing on Inuit survival skills, community events and current affairs. IBC opened an important new door to sharing more North-relevant information and stimulated ideas. It empowered people.

The plusses were many. IBC provided entirely new, more culturally relevant (and sensitive) avenues of entertainment and humour. It aroused creativity and the interest to explore subjects in the comfort of using our own language without the need for translation. It’s creation gave Inuit a wonderful new tool to entice our young people to take part in learning their mother tongue, learn more about their culture, and to make a connection to the unwritten knowledge of the elders. IBC fast became a bright new beacon of hope.

All of us — Inuit Broadcasting’s Inuit audience —cared little for and did not know much about what went on behind the doors in political realms regarding IBC and government funding agencies, as long as we were getting Inuktitut programming, be it good or bad (subjective).

At last, we had control of some television content. The television shows that came about, the things we watched were finally our own; created, produced, directed and viewed by our own people. This was a very new concept 40 years ago. Moreover, it meant a near beyond belief opportunity not previously imagined. We could only say to each other, “Inuit ajungilat,” meaning “Inuit are so able.”

One long-time IBC employee, Henry Naulaq, remembers the early training he received in television production as the ultimate inspiration, saying “everything was new and exciting.” He had never really paid attention to time before [as in minutes or seconds] but now declares “timing is everything” at least in television production.

Over his 30-some years working in Inuktitut language television production, Henry recalls with fond, wondrous memories three very special places on this planet, Axel Heiberg Island, Africa and Ukkusiksalik [Wager Bay, Nunavut].

This beloved, now famous Inuk cameraman told me, “Axel Heiberg Island is eerie and mysterious because no human beings live there, it’s just so quiet and vast.” Recalling his trip to Africa for IBC, his tone saddens as he describes the people he saw. He well remembers the starving people. The smell of starvation still lingers with him today.

As a cameraman, Henry has a keen eye and he pays attention to every detail, but when he tries to describe Ukkusiksalik, Wager Bay, he is temporarily at a loss for words. We finally came up with kajaanaqtuq, an Inuktitut word that is almost impossible to comprehensively translate into English.

The closest translated meaning could be, “the most beautiful scenic place in memory,” but its deeper meaning is entrenched in our psyche as “taisumaniapik” understood by the people who were “there in time and place and with whom,” meaning “at that lovely/wonderful time”.

Henry states he has seen and still sees many beautiful places and captures them into his camera. However, when he saw Ukkusiksalik for the first time, he wondered, “how am I going to do any justice to this kajaanaqtuq into my camera and show it to people who will never see it in person?”

Henry Naulaq has had many training sessions in all aspects of the use of a camera and the tools and quirks of television and video production. He has learned video editing, lighting, the importance of timing, and the art of interviewing. He knows how to fix cameras when they break, protect batteries from freezing in the High Arctic, and the need to keep up with new, always changing high technology.

Though he understands it is very time-consuming when he has to read all the instructions, after reading the guide lines and diagrams so many times, when he gets it, his response is simply to say “oh” to himself. Then he passes his newfound knowledge on to his fellow workers. His only complaint over the years working at IBC is having had to lift and carry very heavy equipment.

Naulaq is a walking archive, filing cabinet and historian for everything at IBC. He knows where each archival tape is stored. Laughing [at himself], he ends our interview with “when I can’t lift anything anymore, I will teach staff, digitize old tapes, tell stories, fix broken equipment and pass on my knowledge.”

Legends, Culture and IBC on a string

Most of our Inuit legends feature talking animals, rocks, bones, loons and many other tangible items. For example, in the legend of Lumajuq, a blind boy is lifted by two loons. The loons tell the boy to dive down deep into the lake, and to stay down below the surface until he is gasping for air. On his third dive down, the boy is no longer blind when he surfaces. In fact, his eyesight has become supernatural.

In another story, the legend of Kiviuq, the talking bones save Kiviuq from certain death. The bones sang to Kiviuq: “…put a big flat rock on your abdomen when you go to sleep tonight.” The old female shaman attempts to stab him with her huge sharp tail, but the rock breaks her tail instead.

In the same legend there are other talking creatures, such as the little lemming who shouted at Kiviuq: “…lift me up, I am stuck on the ledge, the tide is coming up.” Kiviuq travelled all over the world encountering various creatures and weird people while searching for his native homeland. Both legends are long with great details and have the songs to go with them.

So, when the puppets were first created 25 years ago by IBC staff, we, the Inuit audience naturally welcomed them warmly and with humour. The puppets reminded us of our many legends, myths and old stories and also of our own family structures. We call these Inunguaat, the “pretend Inuit”. These Inunguaat consist of grandfather, grandmother, grandchildren, Puuki, Taiviti, Matuu, Jajii, Uluakallak and one lemming, named Johnny.

Johnny, the lemming was created by Letia Ainiaq (Ineak) over 25 years ago. The voice of Johnny for the past 25 years belongs to Michael Aipili (Ipeelie). The other Inunguaat were created by various staff members, one of them being Blandina Makkik.

The creation of these puppets is greatly admired by Inuit of all ages. The puppets were originally created for small children so they can learn and speak their own Inuktitut language and to be familiar with our family structures.

Michael claims he is stuck being Johnny the lemming. With affection, people call him Johnny instead of his real name around the community. Michael explained further, “I often have to double in to do the voices when there is a staff shortage here at IBC. I also have to do the grandfather, some other puppet and especially Johnny, in the same show.”

The scripts are written to fit in with community life in the North, doing the usual everyday things. Perhaps a favourite scene of many is when the puppet children along with real-life children are seen playing outdoors together sliding down a big hill.

It is Johnny’s turn to slide down. Johnny is visually frightened, his little body is shaking. The voice is shaky and squeaky as he exclaims, “Ajaiiii!” when he starts to slide down this big hill very fast. His little shaky voice trails off and ends in a big thump.

Michael Aipili hopes Johnny and the other family puppets continue for another 25 years, continuing to grow and expand and to keep up with the times.

Today Inuit Broadcasting Corporation still produces new programs. Staff have come and gone. There have been good times and times that were perhaps, not so good. Still, IBC has experienced many firsts in Inuit television production. For example, recording the first time Canadian Inuit met other Inuit from the circumpolar world and formed the first Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) in 1983.

The other significant event for IBC was its first-ever live broadcast over Anik as the satellite was launched to serve all of the North in communications. There were others.

IBC broadcast for the first time a program done in our language an event that was all too familiar to us older Inuit, a horrible starvation in Africa. When we were living on the land full time, starvation was just around the corner when animals didn’t cross our path or the weather was bad for any length of time.

We had so much empathy and felt such a kinship with a country so far away and the people we had never seen. It was reported later that Inuit had donated more money, per capita, in Canada alone to the charitable organizations helping the starving people.

While we are not involved in day-to-day operations of our only Inuktitut television production organization, we have known for a long time there are many challenges the administration staff have to work on, must deal with.

Not only are there financial struggles from year to year, there are trying times to keep staff, keeping up with ever changing high technology, high cost of shipping, having to work in a dilapidated old building, having to do their own training when there is a high turnover in staffing. The saving grace however, is that it is fortunate that there is no shortage of talented people living here in the North.

Debbie Brisboise is a long-time employee of IBC and works tirelessly and delights in developments in spite of all the dilemmas that may arise. She simply states that, “staffing is definitely a challenge, related to financial limitations, of course. We cannot offer the same kind of salaries and benefits to staff as governments, CBC, or other Inuit organizations do, so it is difficult to attract and keep people, although we do also have an unusually high rate of long timers.”

In the very much-needed training area for those who are interested in the media, training is an ad hoc situation or it is offered as on the job training with more senior staff who are already swamped with other multi tasks.

Brisboise further explains, “We have to do all our training ourselves. There is no institution offering the kind of training we need, such as Arctic College for example. It is unfortunate they discontinued their journalism program. Despite many attempts to revive some kind of media training program it has not happened.”

“Johnny Needs A New Home” was first said by Madelaine d’Argencourt and has now become a catch phrase in the North. It means Johnny, the other puppets (Inunguaat), archives, old and new equipment, production staff, office staff, custodians, props, and everything pertaining to the inner and outer workings of IBC need a new place, a new venue to produce more Inuktitut television in safety and comfort.

What is not only desired but needed is a real television production centre that will house our treasury of archives, continue to produce relevant Inuktitut television content that ensures the preservation of our language for today’s and future generations, harness information and produce current events programming to move ideas forward and inspire discussions and youth, and of course entertain all ages and so much more.

To learn more and be incredibly informed, please visit the following websites: www.inuitbroadcasting.ca, www.Sanavallianiq.ca and www.Building4Dreams.ca