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first person

Illustration by Wenting Li

“Don’t be a snow goose,” an honest friend told me once. What he meant was, don’t act like an annoying Southerner who’s just landed in the Far North. He used this metaphor to describe many non-Inuit folks who go North to work or live. Like the snow geese, they arrive in droves, consume everything in sight, make a huge mess, then leave when winter threatens again.

Some of them go North with something to prove – they think they can fix all the problems or save all the souls. Others migrate for the adventure, to be able to say they did it. But none arrive with an ancestral connection to the land. They are merely visitors, passing through.

I am merely a visitor passing through on this land, too, trying to do so in the least clumsy way possible. I am imperfect and often trip over myself, and always grateful for those who reach out to steady me.

When I was young, my family used to travel “up north” in the summertime, to my grandparents’ trailer on Manitoulin Island along the northern shores of Lake Manitou in Ontario. Sitting at the laminate dining table of that musty old trailer, Nana spoiled us. She always baked our favourites: lemon loaf, shortbread, peanut butter-butterscotch squares. She’d have a tray of them waiting when we’d arrive. In the early mornings, still in my pyjamas, I would crawl up on Papa’s lap. He woke early to light the wood stove and we would sit listening to the logs crackle.

Up north was heaven. My child’s eye studied the art museum before me: the scaly cedar needles that turned russet when they fell to the forest floor; the flash of a red squirrel as it darted up a high spruce; the stained glass wings of a dragonfly. And I listened to the orchestra of the land: the croaks of the spring peepers; the waves lapping against the rocky lakeshore; the squeak of the metal hinges when we swung the front gate closed. I never wanted to leave, and my time on Manitoulin first taught me to appreciate the beauty of our world.

Decades later, I got a job working as a guide aboard an expedition vessel and found myself in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, more than 2,600 kilometres north of where I’d gone “up north” in my childhood.

One evening we were invited to a celebration at the local community centre. Walking up the dusty roads, I soaked in this new gallery: the sprawl of teal, orange, cherry and ash-coloured houses; the syllabics that danced across street signs; Arctic char drying in the seaside air. I listened to Gjoa Haven’s symphony: the crunch of the gravel beneath my boots; a dog barking; the roar of an all-terrain vehicle in the distance. This North was heaven, too, I thought.

We ate steaming muskox stew, warm bannock, dried caribou and fresh char, all washed down with sweet tea. We were spellbound by the drum dancers and throat singers and mesmerized by the community’s tiniest square dancers as they jigged around the room.

My hosts shared much invaluable advice.

“Listen to the language of the land,” they told me. Uqsuqtuuq, rather than Gjoa Haven. It means “plenty of fat” in Inuinnaqtun, named for the richness of fish in the area. Say Mnidoo Mnising, not Manitoulin, which means “island of the great spirit” in Anishinaabemowin.

“Learn the stories of the places you visit,” they encouraged, so I sat down to read the treaties of Mnidoo Mnising. I cringed at the patronizing language of Treaty 45; my head spun at the duplicitous legalese of Treaty 94; I marvelled at the map of Wiikwemkoong that was never ceded to the Crown. I listened, too, to the tales of Amundsen’s Arctic expedition, heard how differently Inuit see him from other European explorers. I’m told he listened to their traditional knowledge, that Inuit chose to make a temporary settlement with him in Uqsuqtuuq until he left.

“Understand your own history,” said our hosts, as we gathered in a circle, elbows looped through each others.

But I winced as I recalled my relatives proudly recounting our forefathers’ arrival with Champlain. Later I would scroll through ancestry websites showing our name listed in Quebec since the 1700s, some of the earliest colonizers to land on these shores. I felt like I’d found a flaw in the fabric of my family memories. The more I fussed and pulled, the more it unravelled. The growing hole couldn’t be filled with nostalgia of baked goods and campfires, and so instead I’ve set to mending it myself, carefully darning each row. I am not my ancestors, but they are part of me.

“Put your money where your mouth is,” my new friends have reminded me. So in a feeble attempt to repay their generosity, I buy the deer-hide moccasins and the porcupine-quill boxes when I visit Mnidoo Mnising, the seal-skin cuffs and the caribou antler earrings when I step ashore in Nunavut.

Still, I worry. Would they welcome me with open arms, share bannock smothered in aqpik jam, brew me tea from a kettle boiled over smoking cedar boughs, if they knew my whole story? If they dug back into my family tree a bit deeper?

At best, maybe my ancestors were like Amundsen, learning from the wisdom of the peoples who knew the land best. At worst, I wonder if they traded in smallpox-infected blankets. It had to be someone’s family that poisoned another’s. Was it mine?

Travelling to Uqsuqtuuq that summer was a journey of reckoning for me, bringing me face to face with my experience as a white-settler Canadian. I was learning that so many of my preconceived notions about Canada and about the North were biased and narrow-minded. I am grateful to have met Cheryl Fox, originally of Wiikwemkoong, and Barbara Okpik and her father James Qitsualik of Uqsuqtuuq, and for their guidance and knowledge. The heavenly “up north” that I had grown to love as a child, I saw now was only borrowed – and forcefully at that.

Canada’s history is no masterpiece of art, and it seems few want to bear witness to the ugly bits where the colours run muddy. But it is time for me to really study these canvases, each and every vivid brushstroke, even the ones that hurt to see.

Ellie Clin lives in Waterloo, Ont.

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