When Mishael Gordon arrived in Ottawa three years ago to attend the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Training Program, an innovative college program for Inuit youth, she wasn't prepared for what she was about to learn.
The 22-year-old knew that the award-winning program had a unique curriculum that mixes traditional academics with life skills and courses on Inuit culture. She was also aware of the program's success in preparing high-school grads for jobs in the Government of Nunavut, and the world at large. But she didn't expect to learn so much about her own heritage. For instance, she had no idea that as part of the historic land claim agreement that created Nunavut in 1999, the Inuit had to sign over their Aboriginal land title.
“I came to Ottawa not knowing anything about the history of my people,” Mishael admitted. She wasn't alone.
Mishael, like many of her generation, was a teenager when Nunavut was formed nearly a decade ago and was never given an opportunity to learn any of details about the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement—a pivotal moment in Inuit self-government and arguably the most decisive moment in Inuit history.
After graduating from high school in Rankin Inlet, she landed a position in the territorial government (a prestigious place of employment in Nunavut) where she did clerical work and served as a translator for people who were traveling south for medical care. Although she travelled outside her Inuit community often, she says she was never fully comfortable with it and generally unsure of her place in the world, wavering between staying in her job or moving on to university.
That all changed when she was accepted into Nunavut Sivuniksavut (or NS). The program, which is located in the heart of Ottawa's Byward Market, serves as a transition year between high school and post-secondary studies (not unlike Quebec’s CEGEP system). Every year NS welcomes up to 22 students in their late teens and early 20s plucked from Nunavut’s best and brightest. Classes, which run from September to April, give students a rich academic and cultural experience with visits to Parliament Hill, the House of Commons, and Library and Archives Canada (where they comb through thousands of anonymous photos from the Arctic as part of an effort to identify the Inuit featured in them).
For Gordon, the course was a doorway into another world; a chance to learn about her own people while living in a part of the country that is traditionally difficult for Inuit students to acclimatize to.
“It was a really good stepping stone before I made an actual attempt to attend a post-secondary institution in the south," says Mishael. "Because a lot of students don’t succeed when they come south for school.”
NS has gone a long way to bridging that gap. Since its humble beginnings as a pilot project with just two students, more than 300 students have graduated from the program, many of whom have gone on to post-secondary studies.
“This is an unconventional program with an unconventional history,” says Morley Hanson, a program coordinator.
Created in 1985, Nunavut Sivuniksavut was originally designed to train young Inuit to become involved in the negotiations that would eventually result in Nunavut’s creation. A year later the program, which was accredited through Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology in Thunder Bay, expanded to 10 trainees who were intended to become fieldworkers who would liaise remote communities about land claims issues and the progress of the negotiations.
According to the program’s teachers, big city life proved "exceptionally hard” on the students, most of whom came from tiny, remote communities in the Arctic.
Thanks to a combination of culture shock and home-sickness, only six of the original roster completed the program. The staff recommended that the program be moved north from Ottawa, but the graduates intervened. They told the program's administrators that although it was tough, living in an urban setting had been a critical element of their learning experience.
In Ottawa ever since, the program has outgrown its initial purpose and surpassed many of its founder's wildest dreams. Today, NS operates as a two-year semester program and only one out of every three applicants is accepted.
Rather than being curriculum-driven, Hanson says NS has followed cultural principles and evolved based on need and relevance.
“We work with students to follow the lead from their questions, so everything that has happened has come from students’ own questions and ideas.”
One consistent theme has been a desire to know their own story and to understand the events leading up to the Arctic becoming "a colonized territory."
“We try to respond to that,” Hanson says. “We’ve turned those questions into courses, courses in Inuit history, in Inuit government relations, into the land claim agreement and how it was negotiated, and so on.”
This has contributed to the program's own take on the traditional “three R’s”, which in this case Hanson says stands for relationships, responsiveness and relevance.
The teachers have flexibility in terms of how long to spend on a subject, and how to tackle it. They are free to modify the curriculum based on what each year’s student need.
They also interact with the students constantly and respond to their social, psychological and emotional needs, as well as their academic ones. Faculty members not only teach the entire class, they run small group seminars and counsel individual students about life skills (like the importance of paying the rent on time), as well as responding to crises.
Students like Gordon also learn cultural skills that others in their generation have lost, such as throat singing and drum-dancing.
“With the coming of missionaries to the Arctic and the resulting conversion to Christianity, many traditional practices…were frowned upon and sometimes outright banned in certain areas,” says Hanson. They survived only because elders in certain communities remembered and taught others.
In the last decade, there has been a renaissance in reviving these skills and practices, says Hanson. When the Nunavut Sivuniksavut students return home with these skills, they perform at community events. Often, the parents and grandparents who were cut off from these aspects of their culture are deeply moved, and express their pride in the students.
“That’s the way for these young people to feel like they’re part of this society, to feel that they have a place in it, even though they may live very differently,” Hanson says.
The colonization experience also played a role in modifying the way the Inuit see themselves and their positions in the society. Succeeding in the NS program helps rebuild pride and overcome the obstacles to post-secondary education that exist in the culture. Most of those obstacles, says Hanson, are internal, not external.
“It’s these attitudes [of pride] that are really key,” he says.
Today, Nunavut Sivuniksavut is accredited through Algonquin College. Students receive two certificates upon graduation, including one from Algonquin. If they continue to a second year, they can get credits from the University of Ottawa, Algonquin and the University of the Arctic, through its distance education curriculum.
About 80 percent of the students who take the program each year complete it. One of the critical reasons they finish is because of the relationships they develop, with each other and with the staff, say Hanson and Gordon.
“We become each other’s family,” Gordon says. “Seven of us that completed that first year went on to take the second year together. You’re each other’s best friends and you know everything about each other.”
The intensive support the students get has resulted in success that translates beyond simply completing the program. In a recent survey of 180 graduates, only four were unemployed, with the rest either in full-time jobs or having gone on to further post-secondary education. A significant number of graduates are working in the new Government of Nunavut (21 from September 1999 to January 2001).
Several Inuit organizations (including Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.) as well as the federal government and the government of Nunavut contribute to the program’s financing. Students also raise money for a yearly trip, where they share their Inuit culture with indigenous people in other parts of the world.
The program does emphasis traditional academic skills, such as researching, analyzing and presenting information in written and oral formats. But since many of the students have only learned English as a second language and come from an oral tradition, they are at a disadvantage compared with their southern counterparts when beginning university or college. Faculty members respond by building skills around the content that is most relevant to the students, such as land claims, contemporary issues and Inuit-government relationships.
The students’ progress is evaluated not only through formal evaluations and marks (which are often not big motivators for the students) but also for the increase in the young people's ability to live independently, prosper and function in this new setting and society.
“Students go away with a huge increase in pride and respect for where they come from, for their culture and their people,” Hanson says. “They have a great deal of confidence in themselves. They’ve demystified the experience of living in a southern society. They have a great deal of enthusiasm for getting involved.”
Those are the gains that Gordon cites as well, when talking about how Nunavut Sivuniksavut benefited her. Although she found her university classes the most difficult part of her second year experience with the program, because of the workload, she is grateful she persisted and completed them.
“I’m a lot more aware of what’s available out there for me (now),” Gordon says. “I know that I need to persevere. I need to do other things that could give my family that’s younger than me … somebody to look up to. “
In the end, it is the experience of living and learning together that motivates the Inuit students, not the piece of paper they receive when they graduate, Hanson says.
When they graduate, as one student wrote in her evaluation, they are ready to participate in whatever the future offers.
“After taking this program I can now say ‘I can do it,’ and I am now an independent adult ready to take on the world and what it has to offer,” wrote Salome Qaunaq, from Arctic Bay. “I have become even prouder to be an Inuk woman with a unique history and I feel fortunate to live in this generation where the Inuit are taking back the control they once had.”