Thursday Tidbits

Posted on December 12, 2019 under Thursday Tidbits with no comments yet

Early morning sunrise special


The early bird gets the worm… most of the time.

I am a notoriously early riser. My internal alarm clock, which has been working efficiently for some 68 years, has me on the go most days at 5:30 a.m. It has always been a special time of the day for me. You nighthawks out there probably feel the same way. You like to stay up late into the night reading or catching a late sporting event or one of the numerous late night talk shows. I’m afraid I missed the Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jay Leno era.  Colbert, Fallon and Kimmel might as well be a law firm. The only time I can remember being up that late was sitting in outpatients at the hospital.

I think it is the tranquility of the early morning that most attracts me. The hustle and bustle of life is still buried in the blankets for most of the population. I particularly like to be outdoors at the crack of dawn to greet a new day. For the better part of seven months of the year, the chatter of birds in the trees is a welcome sound. Walking or running the back roads puts you in touch with nature and every sunrise is a spiritual experience.

This is all well and good unless you’re heading off to school at 7:00 a.m. when the temperature is -40 and the wind speed is a nifty 97 km an hour. If there were birds chattering, I couldn’t hear them over the din and roar of a winter storm.

Such was the case this past Monday. My apartment was shaking when I got out of bed that morning. I went through my usual routine of coffee and journal writing at 5:30 and then bundled up for the short ten minute trek to school. The school is down by the bay and the wind was coming off the water. In other words, I was walking straight into the teeth of a gale. A light snow was falling creating whiteouts. Visibility was very poor. The roads are well maintained but because of the snow and cold, the surfaces are hard packed. You could literally skate on them.

I was buffeted by the high winds but had no trouble getting to the school. With my Michelin man attire, I wasn’t the least bit cold upon arrival.

I started working on my lesson plans for the day. At 7:30 the familiar sound of a Messenger ping alerted me. Because of the cold temperatures and extremely high winds, school had been cancelled for the morning. I was both surprised and not surprised. I had been led to believe that only a furnace breakdown or a polar bear sighting was grounds for calling off school. I didn’t notice any polar bears on my way to school but mind you, I had my head down the entire way. It was simply too dangerous to have young children (and old farts!) walking in these conditions. At noon, with sustained winds nearing 100 km an hour at the airport, the decision was made to cancel the rest of the day.

Here is the existential question of the day:  On a storm day, who is happier, the students or the teachers? After four and a half months of school, the answer should be obvious!

Most of us are spiritual beings which doesn’t necessarily mean we’re religious. My halo is dented and quite tarnished. I am interested in the worship practices of different cultures and religions and often take the opportunity to attend a service. When traveling in a foreign country, I don’t expect to understand what is being said at a church service. I go to observe and see if I can pick up the vibe.

So it was that I decided to attend Sunday service at one of the two churches here in Kangiqsujuaq. It was bitterly cold last Sunday. It’s always cold here so I guess this statement is now officially redundant. I entered a rather non-descript building with a simple cross adorning the door. The building was L-shaped. I was met by a husband and wife team who run the service. They greeted me warmly. At this point, I was just in the hallway leading to the main worship room. When I turned the corner of the L, I stood in amazement.

The room had several rows of chairs and an elevated stage. It was beautifully decorated for the Christmas season. I blinked twice. Besides the podium for the preacher and a small electric piano in the corner, the remainder of the stage was full of musical equipment. I expected Mick Jagger to magically appear from the rafters. There were several acoustic guitars, a bass guitar and a drum kit befitting Charlie Watts. (The drummer for the Rolling Stones). There were numerous microphones, monitors and a handful of Peavey amps that could light up the Air Canada Centre. Sadly, on this day, neither the Stones nor the house band were in attendance. I casually mentioned that I played guitar and sang in a church choir for 40 years. I have been invited to play at next Sunday’s service. They didn’t ask me to preach!

The service started with a handful of hymns sung in Inuktitut. The soloist used some old fashioned but practical technology. He employed an old overhead projector and all the music was on those big plastic slides similar to the ones we used back in the 60s.

The preacher of the duo was the female. I just had a hunch that I could be in for a long session. I remember a service in India where the preacher talked for 2 full hours. The only word I understood was “hallelujah” which he repeated at least 150 times. She was just getting a head of steam going when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Someone handed me a headset and a power pack. Presto! I now had simultaneous translation.

Mick Jagger AND simultaneous translation. Who would have thunk? When the service ended, I went to the back of the room to meet the translator who spoke flawless English. I was once again astounded to see a sound mixing board that rivalled anything I had ever seen. It looked like a recording studio.

As I was leaving, the conveners met me to thank me for coming. The preacher mentioned a musical night they were planning later in December… the day before I was planning to fly home. She “suggested” that I come and perform. I took it as more than a suggestion.

This non-descript building provided many surprises.

Never judge a book by its cover.

Have a great weekend.

P.S. There aren’t a lot of worm sightings in the Arctic in mid- December!

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Monday Morning Musings

Posted on December 9, 2019 under Monday Morning Musings with no comments yet

“Country” food


“I can see paradise by the dashboard light.”

Paradise by the Dashboard Light. Meatloaf

I can almost see Christmas in the headlights.

As mentioned before, I don’t sense the usual hype leading up to Christmas. I listen to CBC radio a bit on the weekend but with no other commercial radio stations and with no television, I have escaped the deluge of Christmas ads and Christmas music. The two grocery stores in town don’t play much music of any description. Actually, all of the Christmas music I have experienced so far has been in my classroom with most of it provided by me.

We are busy preparing for the Christmas concert. We have two songs ready to go: Feliz Navidad and John Denver’s “Country Roads”. I happened to play the latter one day and the children latched on to it. They are getting a smattering of Maritime (Atlantic – don’t want my Newfoundland and Labrador readers to feel slighted!)  music of course. I’m teaching them about the capital cities in Canada in geography. I played a video of St. John’s and then taught them “Excursion Around the Bay.” “Oh me, oh my, I heard me old wife cry; oh me, oh my, I think I’m going to die”. They’ve already got the chorus down cold including the fist pump and “hey” at the end of each chorus! I’ve also shown one of the promotional videos for Nova Scotia. I decided to teach them “Farewell to Nova Scotia” instead of “Barrett’s Privateers”!

By the way, I appreciate all of the suggestions that teachers and retired teachers from back home are sending me with regards to curriculum. Thank you.

On my way home to lunch on Thursday, I met this tall woman coming in the other direction. I’m getting used to seeing new faces in Kangiqsujuaq as people “from down south” show up regularly. I overcame my shyness (!) and asked her who she was, where she was from and what brought her to town. “My name is Anna Dunn- Suen, I’m from Spryfield, Nova Scotia and I’m here putting on volleyball clinics for the next week.”

It turns out that Anna is a remarkable young woman. An academic all- Canadian, she played volleyball for the perennial women’s volleyball champions at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She is a professional beach volleyball player, a volleyball coach and a Master’s student at MacMasters. She actually lives and trains in Toronto. She was a member of Canada’s National team and has travelled to many parts of the world. I must admit that the last place on earth that I thought I would meet a professional beach volleyball player was on the frozen tundra of Northern Quebec… and from Spryfield to boot. What a wonderful world we live in.

I invited Anna to the staff Christmas party at the school. You can tell she’s seen some of the world. She fit in very easily with a room full of strangers. We chose to sit with several of my Inuit colleagues and their families. We shared raw, frozen beluga and warm conversation. The potluck table contained all of the usual suspects. I made sweet and sour meatballs and a large pot of mashed potatoes as my contribution.

There was a separate table, if that’s what you want to call it, for “country” food. This is the food that has sustained the Inuit for centuries: beluga, caribou and arctic char. There was also a pot of seal soup on the potluck table. The frozen country food was laid out on a piece of cardboard on the gymnasium floor. The women and children sat and carved off pieces of meat and fish with sharp knives and shared with anyone who wanted some. I tried the beluga and while it didn’t have a lot of flavour, I was told that it is very nutritious and warms the body when consumed during really cold weather.

One of the people at our table was the woman who made my parka. I am her number one fan. It will be a treasured keepsake from my time in the north but most importantly, it keeps me warm on the coldest days.

After supper, we all played some games. It was good to see the staff be able to relax and have some fun.

I am happy to share these experiences with my faithful readers as it might give you to some insights into daily life in the north. If you really want to learn about the history of our indigenous people, might I suggest an excellent book written by a local Inuk woman. “The Right to be Cold” by Sheila Watt- Cloutier is her personal account of growing up in Nunavik, this region of Northern Quebec.

For you “non-Facebook” folks, I put out an appeal last week for children’s glasses. If you have any children’s glasses lying around, would you please drop them off to Jason Burke at Antigonish Optical? Glasses are difficult to come by and very expensive up north. I hope to bring back several pairs when I return in January.

Have a great week. Hope to visit with some of you when I come home for Christmas. My social calendar still has some openings!!!!!

P.S. Thanks to all your shares, I was able to find someone to sublet my apartment in Antigonish. You guys are terrific. Much appreciated.

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Thursday Tidbits

Posted on December 5, 2019 under Thursday Tidbits with no comments yet

Welcome back, Kotter!


“Out of the mouths of babes.”

Matthew 21:16

I grew up in a small Catholic town. Antigonish is the seat of the Diocese of Antigonish which covers a sparsely populated but large geographical area. In its heyday back in the 50s and 60s, the diocese could boast a church in every village, town and city. Of course, this was the post war baby boom era. Churches were well attended for all masses and absolutely jammed to the rafters on special occasions like Christmas and Easter.

Large families literally had their own pews. We needed every square inch of ours when the ten of us showed up together. With the population explosion, there was always a newborn or two at mass and invariably, as if on cue, they would start crying when the priest was delivering his homily. Many adults felt like weeping too. Some of the older guard of priests simply couldn’t tolerate babies crying and would publically banish mother and child.

I attended the funeral of an Inuit elder last week. The small church couldn’t handle the expected crowd so it was moved into a community gymnasium. The ceremony was simple and dignified. The crowd grew and grew and by the time the funeral ended, I feel certain that nearly every one of the 900 residents had made an appearance. Included in these numbers were several very small children and a handful of infants. I was sitting beside a mother with a newborn. It couldn’t have been more than a few days old. Very near to me was another child who might have been three months old. It was only a few days later at supper that it hit me full force. I didn’t hear a single whimper from any of the babies.

What I remembered very clearly is that every single person, man, woman, boy, and girl in a thirty foot radius handled the young ones. They held them to their faces. They cooed, they kissed the babies, and they smiled. The love and affection was palpable and it seems the little ones felt it too. New life and death, the endless cycle were been played out right in front of me. At the end of the funeral service, all of these same people walked by the open coffin of the elder, once again sharing the timeless gift of love.

I have come to the conclusion that I don’t hate the cold. I hate being cold. Back home in Nova Scotia, I always feel cold in winter. My hands are perpetual iceboxes and I find the cold winter winds cut through me like a knife. Now I know why. I don’t think I was ever properly dressed for winter. Of course, when it’s raining one day and -20 the next, it’s hard to know what to wear on any given day. Up here in Northern Quebec it’s cold and it will get colder. For the first time ever, I have the right gear to keep me warm on the most frigid days. The Michelin Man would be proud of me. Two days ago it was -28 and I was playing volleyball with the children…outdoors. I’ll let you know what it feels like to serve a volleyball when it’s -57!

Some of you saw the picture on Facebook of my rack of seal ribs, the before and the after. I was given this meat by a local. It was frozen when I received it. I let it thaw for a few days in the fridge before making a stew. The instructions were straight forward enough. Throw the ribs in a pot of water, bring to a boil, simmer for a few hours and add vegetables. When I removed the ribs from the plastic bag, they were… very bloody. I manoeuvered them into the pot of water but no matter how I angled them, the whole rack wouldn’t fit. The pot was too small. No worries. I removed the ribs, pulled out a cutting board and tried to separate the ribs from the carcass.

The seal seemed to be insulted that I would so irreverently desecrate his body. Blood seemed to pour out of every fibre of his being. My hands were bloodied and my lower arms turned crimson. I was afraid if my roommate showed up that she might faint on the spot thinking that I had committed an atrocity. Well, in the eyes of the seal I certainly had. The dirty deed completed (literally and figuratively), I went to the couch for a much needed rest.

I must admit that the smell of seal cooking might not rank near the top of my list of great kitchen smells. By the time it was cooked, my appetite was compromised. I ate a few ribs. They received my seal of approval.

Have a great weekend.

P.S. In the “discretion is the better part of valour” category. Yesterday, I took a long walk to the wharf in the wee hours of the morning before school. I was carrying a bag of seal rib bones to give to the dog of one of the teachers. As I walked along the road by the bay, two VERY LARGE dogs approached me and they were snarling. At first, I thought it was me they were after but the main course for them (mercifully) was the bones. I hastily removed them from the plastic bag and dropped the contents on the ground. Friends for life. They accompanied me on the rest of the walk. My teaching colleague understood my predicament and I asked her to apologize to Kajuk!

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