Nunavut students get taste of southern life
Month-long exchange aims to create northern leaders
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Aug 01, 2012 06:00 am
When Liveena Toonoo and Anne-Renée Angalik arrived in Edmonton last month from Nunavut, they did what almost everyone does when they come to town – they hit the mall.
“The prices here are so cheap,” raves Angalik, and unlike her hometown of Arviat (pop. 3,000), there’s more than one store.
They both went on a shopping spree, says Toonoo, who is from Cape Dorset (pop. 1,300).
“I have, like, seven pairs of shoes now.” she said.
Toonoo and Angalik, both 16, are soft-spoken, badminton-playing, fashionable young women from Nunavut who are now staying with a host family just north of Big Lake in Sturgeon County.
They’re part of a national exchange program called Northern Youth Abroad, which is meant to teach them job and leadership skills.
It’s been a bit of a jump adjusting to the size of St. Albert, Toonoo says, which program staff had described to her as a “small” community.
“It was weird going from 1,300 people to 60,000!” she said.
Northern Youth Abroad is a charity that has been running exchange programs for Northern Canadians for about 15 years, said program director Rebecca Bisson. The 10-month program sees kids in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories spend about six weeks in Southern Canada doing volunteer work and earning high school credits.
“The communities they’re travelling from are small and isolated,” Bisson said, when describing the need for this exchange. Many participants have never left the North before. Most are of Inuit or First Nations descent.
“They’ve never seen a cow. They’ve never navigated a bus system,” Bisson said.
This exchange is meant to help students overcome their culture shock so they can better pursue jobs or education down south, Bisson says. About 33 students aged 15 to 22 have been placed throughout the provinces this summer, including two in Alberta (Toonoo and Angalik).
Toonoo and Angalik arrived in St. Albert on July 3 and are now volunteering at the YMCA Citadel daycare and the Sweet Momma spa (respectively). They’ve also decked themselves out with fancy clothes, sunglasses and painted nails.
Towns up north are much smaller than St. Albert, Angalik says.
“Every town has the same design of houses,” she says, and there are no malls, movie theatres or trees. You usually have two to three schools, but only one place for food and clothes (the Northern Store).
You also have polar bears.
“Every night we could go [to the dump] and see, like, five polar bears during winter,” Angalik says. “There was this one time where there was 16 polar bears all around our town.”
You have to be really careful if you live on the outskirts, she adds.
One big difference between here and home (besides the non-24-hour daylight in the summer) is the presence of strangers, Angalik says.
“Everyone back home knows each other, so we all just smile and say hi,” she says, adding that doing the same here feels far less comfortable.
Another major difference is cost. Basic goods are extremely expensive up north, Toonoo says, as it all has to be shipped in by plane or boat. Two litres of pop costs just $3 here, for example, compared to $12 back home.
While it does get into the low 20s in July back home, Angalik says she’s been roasting in St. Albert’s recent weather.
“I hate the heat!” she said.
They’ll feel really cold when they go back later this month, Toonoo adds – it usually drops down to 10 C in August.
Many students who have gone through this exchange get a stronger sense of their own identity, Bisson says, and go on to pursue jobs and post-secondary degrees.
“There is so much opportunity in the North,” she says, and she hopes these students will become leaders in their communities.
Toonoo says the best moment of the trip for her so far has been visiting Fort Edmonton Park with the daycare kids.
“I’ve never gone on a train or a street-car [before],” she says, and she got to ride the one there.
As for Angalik, she says her best moment was the trip to the mall.
She says she plans to pursue an archaeology degree once she finishes high school, and that she’s excited to tell others back home about her trip.
Toonoo hopes to get a teaching degree and says she’s gained a lot of self-confidence on this trip, and will encourage others to give the exchange a try.
“You learn so much more about yourself,” she said.
The girls head home this Aug. 8.