Thursday Tidbits

Posted on December 16, 2021 under Storytelling with one comment


The hug

What are the 10 greatest movies of all time? Books? Songs? Or, who is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) when it comes to ranking sports figures, female actresses or political figures? There seems to be a fascination with compiling these kinds of lists, but at the end of the day, this exercise is very subjective by its very nature. No one can dispute that Wayne Gretzky has amassed the most points in NHL history but was, or is he, the greatest hockey player of all time? My vote still goes to Bobby Orr.

As I take my leave from the north, I have a list of my own to share with you. Here is a list of my 10 most memorable moments… from a very long list. You may wonder why there’s barely a mention of my students but privacy prevents me from disclosing this type of information.

#10. Holding the end of a skipping rope at -30. Never, ever in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would return to teaching after a mere 40- year layoff or did I think that this would happen in the Arctic. I knew that dusting off my BEd., after such a lengthy hiatus, would be challenging. I knew my skills would be rusty and that school curriculum had probably changed a dozen times over the years. But somethings never change. Elementary students still go outdoors for recess. Some activities have stood the test of time. While schools have built incredible playground apparatuses, kids still like the basics like kicking a ball or skipping. But I have to admit, I was stunned on my first day of recess duty when I was asked to hold the end of a skipping rope. This in itself is not that remarkable but the fact that it was -30 was stunning to me. I thought a skipping rope would freeze and break into little pieces in these temperatures.

#9. Managing a possible water contamination. Our senior administration team was away at meetings when the news came that there was a possible water contamination problem in our school. I certainly had no expertise in this but was asked to coordinate the efforts. The school was closed for almost a week as experts from the south arrived to empty and disinfect our water tanks, have them refilled and tested over several days. It was a great learning experience for me.

#8. I was asked to take part in an after-school activity as the accompanist for a children’s choir. We met weekly at the local museum to learn songs, mostly in Inuktitut. The local FM radio station is a critical piece of infrastructure in the village. It is the primary line of communication. Everyone listens to the FM. One day the choir was invited to perform live. We crowded into a small studio (pre-Covid) and gathered around a handful of microphones. The children were simply awesome including some young throat singers. The phone lines lit up in the studio as many people called in to express their joy in hearing the young people of the community preserving culture and language.

#7. It is no secret that I love to walk. I have walked (and run) in all kinds of crazy weather over the years but nothing could prepare me for a 7 kilometer walk with two of my colleagues last winter. The distance wasn’t that impressive, and the degree of difficulty wasn’t an issue. However, when you decide to go walking when it’s -50, then it’s a big deal. I know that this sounds totally crazy (which it is) but the three of us have an adventurous streak in us. When you have the proper clothing, masks and footwear, walking in extreme cold is not really a big deal.

#6. One of the greatest thrills of my life happened very early in my tenure in the north. On the first weekend after my arrival (I came to Kangiqsujuaq on November 6, 2019), I went for a walk on the frozen lakes on the outskirts of the village with a group of teachers and students. On the return trip to the village, I could see a dogsled team off in the distance. They were coming in our direction. Despite the frigid temperatures, I removed my gloves and readied my phone camera. I was astonished to discover how quickly the powerful dog team steamed across the frozen lakes and tundra.

#5. When someone dies in the village, everything shuts down for the funeral. This includes the school. In the winter, the ceremony is conducted in the local gymnasium with burial in one of the cemeteries afterwards. Covid changed all that but the first funeral I attended was pre-Covid and this funeral was for an elder. You need to understand that elders are revered. I arrived at the Qaggiq (the local gymnasium) about ten minutes before the start of the service. There was a fair-sized crowd with people of all ages. By the time things got started, the place was packed. I was moved by the feeling in the room and the simplicity of the handmade wooden coffin. What intrigued me most was watching how people looked after several infants in attendance. They were passed around the room continuously. I never heard a whimper from one of them.

#4 – Christmas in Kangiqsujuaq. Last winter, Covid prevented many of us from travelling home for Christmas. The thought of spending my Christmas holidays in quarantine in Nova Scotia held very little appeal. I took part in several outdoor Inuit games. Me, and a number of my colleagues prepared Christmas dinner for about 125 people which we hand delivered to homes in the village. I’m normally not a big fan of New Year’s Eve mainly because I can’t stay awake! I was determined not to miss this one, so I went to bed for two hours and set my alarm for 11:30. I’m so glad I went. The fireworks display with the mountains and Wakeham Bay as the backdrop, was spectacular despite the fact it was bitterly cold. After the fireworks, I hopped on the back of a skidoo for a parade through the village.

#3. I got to go seal hunting and ice fishing with my students. This was a great thrill seeing my students in their element. The Inuit are people of the land and sea and watching young children do what comes naturally was a great joy.

#2. The sky. It’s hard to imagine that the sky could be on a top ten list but there’s something about the sky in the north that leaves you breathless almost every day… and night. Watching the Northern Lights in all their splendor is one of those things that needs to be seen. It defies description.

#1. The hug. This past fall, the village celebrated Truth and Reconciliation Day. Students and staff were dismissed early to do a walk through the village ending up at the Family House. The Family House is a safe house for families in need. Prior to the event, I was asked to come to the Family House after the walk to sing a few songs for some elders. They were seated around a dining table eating country food and telling stories in their native tongue. I listened intently to an interpreter. These women had been born in igloos or tents and I was fascinated with their stories of survival and resilience. I played a few tunes and even did a couple in Inuktitut. Knowing that these women were spiritual, I did a number of religious songs. I sang them in English, and they chimed in with their native tongue. The last song was The Old Wooden Cross. There was something about this song that touched them deeply as a few of the women had tears in their eyes. When the song ended, one of the women came up to me and gave me the biggest, warmest, and most heartfelt hug of my life. I nearly lost it. This, folks, is my number one memory of my time in the north.

I should give honorable mention to “country food”. The Inuit grew up eating food from the land and sea and they still do to this day. I had many opportunities to sample raw and cooked fish and meat. Caribou was easily my favourite (Cooked!). I also sampled delicacies like arctic char eyes, the brains of a Canada Goose and the eyeballs of a ptarmagin!

In closing, I want to thank everyone in Kangiqsujuaq for giving me the education of a lifetime. I was touched by your warmth and generosity of spirit.

What a great way to bookend a work career.

Have a great weekend.

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Monday Morning Musings

Posted on May 24, 2021 under Storytelling with 4 comments

A gift from Jobie. It says “welcome”.


“School days, school days,

Dear old golden rule days,

Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic,

Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.”

School Days


Do you want to hear about my last day at school? Of course, you don’t but I have nothing else to write about, so you’ll just have to suffer through this, all 1540 words.

Despite advanced age, most of us can still remember as children, the anticipation of the last day of school. Instead of the drudgery of school, we faced an endless summer of playing outdoors and going to the beach. I was an avid golfer and shortly after my report card was delivered home, I was on my way to the golf course.

“School’s out for summer,

School’s out forever.”

School’s Out – Alice Cooper

It is rather odd to end a school year at the end of May when it is still winter but that’s how it is in the north. As it turned out, it was a good thing that school ended the day it did because the morning after, we awoke to a blizzard, not to be confused with the tasty treat from DQ. Like so many other momentous days in our lives, sleep the day before a big event comes at a premium. Not that this would come as a surprise, but I was on the go at 4:50 a.m. on the last day of school, after what can only be considered a mediocre sleep. Adrenalin and the promise of a beer that evening would get me through the day.

Like many schools, ours is broken up into segments. The K-3 classes are a unit, followed by grades 4-6 and then secondary or high school. In our group there were two classes of 4, 5 and 6, English and French. I was blessed to have young, smart, energetic colleagues who took it upon themselves to plan out activities for the last few days of school.

Of course, the day started with the mandatory cleaning out of desks. There is something cathartic about tossing out all those notebooks and fossilized orange peels lurking in the bowels of one’s desk. When we were kids, the contents of our desk, along with projects and (gasp) even books, were amassed in an open field behind our neighbor’s house, creating a pretty impressive bonfire.

The students in the two grade six classes were “graduating” to secondary so a parade through the school was held. All of the students on the elementary side of the building made signs wishing the new graduates success. They stood in the hallways, clapping and cheering as the grade 6s paraded proudly downstairs and upstairs, ending the march at the entrance to the high school. I had never seen this done before but I have to admit that it was a pretty cool thing and one that the students aren’t likely to soon forget.

I decided to have a pizza party for my class after the parade. The school’s main kitchen called the Nirivik is handy to the art room. For practical purposes, I cooked the pizzas in the Nirivik and then carted them down the hallway to the art room. My students filled their bellies with pizza and some homemade chocolate chips cookies that I had made the day before. For background music, we listened to a collection of Inuit rap artists. Pizza and Inuit rappers… quite the combo!

“So let’s dance, the last dance,

Let’s dance, the last night,

Let’s dance this last dance tonight.”

Last Dance – Donna Summer

In the afternoon, each of the six classrooms (Grades 4,5,6 x2) hosted an activity. Every twenty minutes, students would rotate going to the next classroom until they had taken part in all activities. Not surprisingly, I decided that my class would be the music room. Last year, before Covid, the school held what was called Just Dance on the last Friday of every month. It was a chance for the entire school to go to the gym and let off some steam, dancing to music videos projected on to the wall of the gym. The videos were high octane featuring animated characters. Sadly, Covid put an end to that.

The high school students, by and large, were far too cool to take part in these dances but the younger children on the elementary side just went nuts on Just Dance days. When the students arrived in my class, I told them that I would award a prize (an Oh Henry chocolate bar) for the best dancer and singer. It was amazing. Even students who are generally reticent to take part in these types of activities were busting moves. Unbridled joy is the only way I can describe it. After three Just Dance videos, I accompanied the kids with my guitar as we sang Country Roads (every student in the school knows this John Denver classic) and a well- known Inuit song. They were all smiling and laughing as they exited my room.

And then, they were gone.

It was a fantastic day but unfortunately the day was not over. We had to rearrange our classrooms for parent teacher night that evening. You heard right. After an exhausting day we had to return to the school for two hours that evening to meet parents and hand out report cards. Walking to Ballantyne’s Cove (42km) was not nearly as tiring as this day!

One of my most challenging students arrived with her father. Even though we had our battles, I was very fond of this young girl. Her father thanked me for my service and told me that he and his daughter were both sad that I was leaving the community. He then presented me with a piece of handmade Inuit art (seen in the picture above). I’m sure there was a measure of fatigue involved but I had a lump in my throat at this expression of friendship and generosity.

I was running out of gas as I awaited the arrival of the last family. “Hi Len.” An 8-year-old girl from the grade 3 class was standing in front of me. “Will you sing me a song?”

It should be mentioned that on Parent-Teacher night, many of the parents bring some or all of their children with them. The children wander the halls.

In a previous post I mentioned that there is a program in the school called AIM. From K-3, all instruction is in Inuktitut. Once the students get to grade three, their family has to decide on French or English as a second language when they enter grade 4. While they are still in grade 3, they start to take introductory classes in English and French three periods a week. Part of my job description was to work with the grade three students who chose English. I used an excellent program called Jolly Phonics and along with some old Sesame Street episodes and my trusty guitar, I was able to give these children a start.

Now, the young girl standing in front of me was NOT in my grade 3 AIM class. She was in the group who went for French instruction. Her English was remarkably good. I went and grabbed my guitar. I asked her what song she would like to hear.

It should ne noted that on most occasions, I ended my AIM classes playing my guitar. Rather than put the guitar away, I would walk the students back to their home room. More often than not, we would be singing one of the songs that I had taught them, like Skinnamarink or Baby Beluga.

“Could you sing Ed The Invisible Dragon?” I would be surprised if any but a few of you would be familiar with this children’s song. I learned it last year. It was recommended by a friend who asked me to sing it for one of her children during one of my 55 Pillow Talk shows on Facebook.

A look of shock must have registered on my face. How could she possibly know this song when she wasn’t even in my class? Yes, she would have heard snippets of it in the hallway as this was a popular choice with my AIM students, but it was a surprising and mystifying choice. I was doubly shocked when she started singing the chorus with me, word for word.

There were many special moments from this last day of school but this one will stand out for me for a long time.

Part of the mystery was solved the next day when a colleague told me that the young girl had attended summer camp last August. Before school started last year, I volunteered at the camp five days a week doing music. There were a lot of children in this class that I didn’t know including the girl who now stood in front of me.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Music is universal and it is powerful.

I crawled home at 8:30 p.m.

Reading, writing and arithmetic will always be the foundation of a child’s education. They can be easily measured.

There are other school experiences that are harder to quantify but are every bit as important.

Pizza and Inuit rap come to mind!

Have a great week.

Happy Victoria Day!

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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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