Thursday Tidbits

Posted on May 20, 2021 under Storytelling, Thursday Tidbits with one comment


The Qaggiq


Just about every small town or village in Canada has an official or unofficial hub. It is the place where everything of note happens. It is place where people come to gather for a variety of reasons. Legion buildings are popular as well as community centres. Libraries, arenas and senior’s activity centres are also common places for people to meet and greet.

When I was growing up, the Catholic Church owned a property called The Parish Centre. It was only a handful of steps away from the cathedral and the priests’ residence. Everything meaningful in the town happened at the Centre. It was used as the gymnasium for physical education classes for the nearby elementary and high schools. It hosted community dinners, bazaars, wedding receptions, political rallies, legendary basketball games and even boxing matches. I can still see the Cochrane brothers landing punishing blows inside the ring. But fights of the unorganized variety were common too at Saturday night dances. While bands like The Strangers and The Escorts played popular cover tunes, invariably there would be a scuffle or two involving a “townie” and some lads from the farms. Want to read more? I wrote a lengthy piece years ago about the Parish Centre and the Bowling Alleys.

In more recent times, the nationally acclaimed People’s Place library in my hometown of Antigonsh is unquestionably the new hub of the town. It is much more than a library, providing a staggering array of services including English as a second language to newcomers to Canada, including many Syrian refugees.

It didn’t take me long to discover the meeting place in Kangiqsujuaq. The Qaggiq ( pronounced Haggick and not to be confused with the Scottish delicacy, haggis!), is located on the main street of the village. I had my first encounter with the Qaggiq shortly after arriving in the village. On my way to my apartment from the airport, I was given a quick tour of the community. I saw the Coop, the arena, the swimming pool, and the school also located on the main drag. Of course, after a long day of travel and it being dark, I didn’t pay close attention to these landmarks. My first day in the village got off to an inauspicious start. It was dark and -25 as I made my way to the school. I walked around the building at least four times, wondering why no one was there and the place in darkness. Of course, I was walking around the Qaggiq and not the school!

Qaggiq is an Inuit term describing an igloo (iglu) where people gather to strengthen culture and celebrate life in song and story.

The Qaggiq is primarily a recreation centre. It is a large building housing a gymnasium, walking track, weight room, meeting rooms and a kitchen. I quickly found out that it was much more than this.

Scarcely two weeks into my stay, I attended the funeral of an elder at the Qaggiq. School was closed for the afternoon ceremony as were the local grocery stores. When an elder dies, everyone comes to pay their respect. The deceased lay in a simple wooden coffin at the front of the gym below the stage. There were words, songs and mourning. When the service concluded, everyone filed by the coffin to say their final farewells and lay flowers. The wooden lid was nailed on by family and friends. As it turned out, it would be the only indoor funeral I attended. Covid changed all the rules regarding large gatherings. I did attend several burials on cold winter days at one of the local burial grounds.

In no particular order of importance, the Qaggiq is also used for sports and as a place for young people to hang out after school. It doubles as the local courthouse when a judge and court officials come to town. Of course, being curious (nosy?), I felt compelled at attend one court sitting. Even if it didn’t have the look or feel of a traditional courthouse, justice was administered in much the same fashion.

I attended a few meetings at the Qaggiq none more interesting than the one celebrating the 45th anniversary of the signing of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). Two of the signatories of this historic document were in attendance to give us a first hand account of the proceedings.

I contributed one of my coconut cream pies for a banquet held at the Qaggig for the return of a group of students and teachers who went on a five day cross country skiing excursion on the land in the middle of winter.

I received my first Covid vaccination shot at the Qaggiq.

In normal times, the Qaggiq is also the place where Christmas activities happen, literally around the clock including dancing competitions and a wide array of games. Sadly, I was unable to see the Qaggiq full throttle at Christmas time because of Covid.

I attended a volleyball tournament and was amazed at the talent level.

On a personal note, my most memorable time at the Qaggiq was the summer of 2020 when I returned to the north for a second year. After completing my quarantine, I volunteered at a day camp for children at the Qaggiq, providing music for young children. It was a lot of fun and it was my first experience witnessing throat singing. I have embarrassed myself enough in one lifetime and didn’t try to emulate these amazing women.

A few evening ago, I was out for my evening walk heading for the inukshuk. Passing by the Qaggiq, the back doors flung open. A gaggle of young children were standing at the doorway waving and yelling “Len”.

As it turns out, my last memory of the Qaggiq will be the best.

Have a great long weekend.

Please stay safe.

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Monday Morning Musings

Posted on May 17, 2021 under Monday Morning Musings with one comment

This is how my life felt when I arrived in Kangiqsujuaq


“All things must pass,

None of life’s strings can last,

So, I must be on my way,

And face another day.”

All Things Must Pass – George Harrison

Yes indeed. All things must pass.

Circumstances took me to the north and now reality will bring me back home.

It has been quite the ride. I still shake my head often and wonder what in the hell happened in the past couple of years. I promise that this is the very last time I will use the word surreal in a post, but this word best sums up this latest chapter in my life. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would return to the teaching profession, especially in the Arctic, in a fly-in community. But isn’t this the beauty and wonder of life? We’re never sure what’s around the next bend in the road.

My earliest days in the north were very hard but let’s face it, there are millions of people around the world who understand real hardship. The days were dark and bitterly cold. I was like a fish out of water trying to manufacture lesson plans in the absence of a formal curriculum. I inherited a difficult class, a group that continued to push me to my limits on many days but a group that I will love and cherish.

The school year will end in a few days. In some ways, the past week may have provided more real learning opportunities than all the previous months put together. A colleague from head office told me that this was the time to celebrate a year of hard work with my class.

There are two grade 6 classes in the school, one for students learning English as a second language and the other, French. My counterpart, Pierrick and I have worked together throughout the year. The two groups were considered a bubble under Covid protocols. We did a lot of activities as a group. With the year winding down and year end testing and reporting completed, we decided to put the books aside and have some fun, but fun with a purpose. We did a big cleanup of garbage in the school yard. With all the melting lately, the garbage surfaced. We went to the school kitchen and prepared spaghetti sauce and baked some cakes. We went for walks. We watched movies and we played games. My colleague’s boyfriend is the head nurse at the local clinic. He was able to arrange to have male and female nurses come to the school and talk to our students. We had a session on hygiene and another on puberty.

What did our students learn? Yes, they learned about wellness and their bodies but something far more important. They learned about responsibility (the yard cleanup) and teamwork. They learned about effort and reward. They really enjoyed the spaghetti dinner that they had helped to prepare. As is typical, we cooked way too much spaghetti and along with the remaining sauce, we put the leftovers on a table in the staffroom. It didn’t last long!

On a personal note, one special moment from last week stands out. It is no different here than anywhere else. There are students who don’t fit in. They come from difficult domestic situations. While school provides a safe and caring environment, they struggle mightily and often rage against everything and everyone. We were in the kitchen working in small groups. I asked Donna, (not her real name), a student from the other class that I only knew by reputation, if she would like to make a cake with me. With the hood of her hoodie covering most of her face (and wearing sunglasses!), she grudgingly agreed. The transformation was stunning. She was totally in her element as she almost single handedly whipped together the cake. She obviously knew her way around a kitchen. She was comfortable and confident. In the modern vernacular, I was “blown away”. I don’t know what will become of her but for one 30 minute period of time, Donna mattered and felt good about herself. I was thrilled beyond words to be a part of something special.

What’s next? My future is uncertain just like everyone else. Until we get a handle on Covid, it is very hard for any of us to make plans. I’ll come home at the end of May and quarantine for the fourth time (Q4!). I’ll continue to work on my 7th book and hopefully get some fresh Atlantic lobster in my belly. And rest.

In the meantime, I will finish the year and remain focused on the present. Someone sent me this quote a few weeks ago. It resonates with me.

If I think about how long I have left to be here, my heart and soul won’t truly be where I am. I am here until someone tells me I am needed somewhere else.”

Have a great week.


The finished product!

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Thursday Tidbits

Posted on May 13, 2021 under Thursday Tidbits with one comment

On the Camino with Tracy (Australia) and Marty (Argentina)


Oh, we won’t give in,

We’ll keep living in the past.”

Living in the Past – Jethro Tull

With humblest apologies.

It’s official. I’m incorrigible. I’m perpetually living in the past. The pandemic has brought me to my knees. I am longing for the good old days while staring into the future with uncertainty.

What is your favourite movie of all time? I think it depends on many things including the genre but for pure entertainment value, The Shawshank Redemption is still near the very top of my list. After reading this, please feel free to post your favourite.

I have just finished watching The Way for the fourth time. It stars Martin Sheen and is the story of an ophthalmologist living the good life in southern California. His son Daniel, played by Emilio Estevez,   is a PhD student and the two have a bit of a rocky relationship. The son is a traveller and a dreamer and decides to discontinue his studies, much to the chagrin of his father. His latest adventure takes him to southern France to cross the Pyrenees and start his march across Spain doing the Camino. On the very first day of this 800 -kilometer pilgrimage, Daniel dies in an accident in the mountains. His father flies to St. Jean Pied de Port, the starting point of the Camino, to pick up his sons remains. He has his son cremated and then decides to walk the Camino himself, carrying his son’s backpack, along with the ashes.

Two years ago today, I was into my second week of the Camino. I was inspired to do the walk by my late brother, Tom. A year before, he had done the Camino while in the latter stages of cancer. He raved about the experience. For many years, Tom had been an avid hiker. He and his best friend Mark had tackled some serious mountains and trails over a lifetime of great friendship. They often joked that when they were old and frail, they would tackle something simple like an 800 kilometer stroll across Spain! Mark never got the opportunity as he died while hiking in some bad weather. To honor Mark’s memory, Tom carried some of Mark’s ashes and deposited them at the highest peak on the Camino.

After hearing Tom’s anecdotes about his Camino and looking at the dazzling pictures, I knew I had to go. Tom was gracious and loaned me his backpack, his hiking poles and most importantly, a guidebook. My plan was to try as much as possible to follow exactly in Tom’s footsteps and write a book about it. For the first two weeks, I managed to match his frenetic pace but eventually I eased back on the throttle to make sure that I could actually finish the walk in one piece.

Upon completion of the Camino, I was preparing to return Tom’s equipment. He decided that his hiking days were over, and he gave me the backpack and the poles. He died shortly after I finished writing the book. I was so pleased that he had a chance to read it before he passed.

When I’m not teaching, I have a lot of time to think which is a dangerous preoccupation. The pandemic makes me yearn for happier days when I can see my family and friends and do some more travelling. At the top of the list is the Camino. Some of you who read my book must wonder about my sanity. The Camino is not for sissies. It is a long and difficult walk compounded by aching muscles and especially blisters. Why would I want to do this twice let alone once? The answer is quite simple. My plan is to do the walk when the pandemic has ended. I will take some of Tom’s ashes and take them to the highest peak on the Camino and reunite Tom with his best friend.

A few days ago, I reached out to my Camino friends. I met hundreds of interesting people along The Way and have kept in touch with a small group who are scattered around the globe. So far, I have received messages from The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France, Poland, the United States, Canada, Portugal, Spain and Argentina. I expect I will hear from many others in the days to come. I can tell you that every single one of them pines for better days and a chance to walk the Camino again. And yes, they are as sick of Covid as everyone else.

It is hardly surprising that The Way is now my favourite movie of all time because it is deeply personal to me. If you are healthy enough, go and do The Camino. If you can’t and want to experience it vicariously, I would encourage you to watch The Way. It is a feel good story in these difficult times.

Buen Camino!

Have a great weekend.

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