Few people have a better window on Nunavut's youth than John Fanjoy, and few people are so irrepressibly optimistic about the territory's future.
Despite the social concerns that permeate much of his job as vice-principal of the 300-student Aqsarniit Middle School, he insists he works with the world's best kids in the world's best place.
"We have students who have some major issues. We have students who struggle in literacy. But our students, for the most part, are respectful, willing to learn and, above all, love living in Nunavut," he said. "Many of them are pulled in many directions culturally, depending on whether they're at school or at home, but they come here and work hard."
That resilience in the face of perplexing cultural demands is reflected in the essays here. Heading into their teen years, students at Aqsarniit carry some very grown-up concerns about life in Canada's newest territory: food prices, truancy, over-hunting, global warming, cultural erosion.
"The biggest issue we face is these social problems being brought into the school," Mr. Fanjoy said. "We have students who don't eat enough, students who have substance abuse at home. We try to do a lot to make the school as warm and welcoming a place as possible."
Mr. Fanjoy realizes he's always working against a historical image problem. Decades of abuse at residential schools created a widespread distrust in public education across the North. A chronic shortage of Inuktitut-speaking teachers and a lack of outdoor education only compound the cultural wariness. Across the territory, just one in four Inuit students finishes high school.
But the kids who stick with it receive an education on par with any school system in the country, according to Mr. Fanjoy. "We don't have a graduation issue, we have an attendance issue," he said. "People have to realize the idea of daily education is a very new concept in Nunavut. What was the graduation rate of Ontario in, say, 1885? It's an evolving process. There are students here now who are going to push Nunavut onto great things."
WHAT NUNAVUT'S YOUTH HAD TO SAY
We asked students at Aqsarniit Middle School to tell the rest of the country about their lives in Nunavut's capital. Here are seven of their written responses.
ROSALINA DEMESCHON (13), GRADE 8
In Nunavut, many children don't eat much healthy food, they eat mostly junk food. Sometimes they skip meals because their parents can't afford the high prices of food. Hunger happens a lot up here in the North. I think it is wrong that the prices of expired food are cut down low while the rest stay the same. It is unfair. Also, fast food is less expensive here than healthy food and I personally think it should be the other way around.
Many people are concerned by the high costs. On Facebook, there are many complaints on the prices and there is a page that is called "Feeding my Family," which is filled with tons of pictures of the price tags of all different sorts of food from our local stores. The prices we have here in Nunavut are so high compared to the ones down south. Whenever Inuit travel somewhere besides Nunavut and go to a market, they're shocked that they can buy much more food than in Nunavut.
It's sad seeing Inuit buy groceries because they cannot buy many of the things that they need. Even just buying a couple of the plastic bags of food can equal up to $100, and the food they're buying can last only a couple of days. Families often struggle to eat and fill their stomachs, and it's no fun going to school or work while your stomach is growling!
I think that the government needs to make a change to the high food costs in Nunavut to make families happier instead of having an empty fridge. I hope that one day it happens and people can just walk through the aisles in the store and finally get to see low-priced food in their communities. It is overwhelming to see how many families can't afford it.
GRACE SALOMONIE (12), GRADE 7
In the Arctic, there are animals we hunt, eat and wear as traditional clothing. Inuit have been living like this for thousands of years. But what happens when a part of the wildlife is taken away?
People in the North are being forced to pay the price for the southern people's pollution. Global warming will affect the land and animals, which will have major impacts on Inuit culture.
Wildlife was once the only thing Inuit lived off. Inuit used to follow wherever caribou migrated. Inuit have been hunting for thousands of years. Some people hunt for food, others hunt for game. The hunting rate is rising, meaning that more animals are being killed.
The polar bear population is low because of hunting and global warming. There are about 20,000 to 25,000 in the global polar bear population. In 2005, the polar bear population was upgraded from least-concerned to vulnerable by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist group.
The younger generation here litter because they don't know the importance of the land and what it was to the elders when they were growing up. Hunters bring food when they go out and do not leave their garbage on the land, yet some do and this causes an even greater problem because some animals will eat that garbage. This unfortunate animal will become ill and, in worst cases, die from the garbage.
Caribou is a common animal that we hunt for. Many people hunt for it. The more people that hunt for it, the less the population in caribou. If the caribou go extinct, the food chain of the North will be broken. This will be life-threatening to most carnivorous and herbivorous animals up here and it will gradually affect other food chains negatively. Hunting too much and polluting have devastating consequences to the land and people, so we should show restraint.
MAXWELL COUSINS (12), GRADE 7
There are a lot of concerns facing Nunavut and the people who call it home. One of the biggest concerns that I see on a daily basis involves education. Being in middle school and having classmates that don't attend, it's rather obvious that there's a lack of care shown to the schools and the people who put a lot of work into them. There are a lot of people who aren't able to be successful and have good jobs because they didn't care about their education as a child. While a portion of it can be considered the child's fault, seeing as ultimately they have to make the final choice on whether or not they care about their education, the parents of these children can take the blame as well. If the parents of these children don't care enough about their offspring's education to just make sure that they get on the bus, then how much do they really care?
When it comes down to the schools and those who help run them, it's not bad at all. Through hard work and dedication, anyone who tries can go from kindergarten here to postsecondary education anywhere else. This has happened in the past, and it seems that it can only get better with more students following through and going on to colleges and universities. If more effort were put into school by the students, they would be able to realize their dreams and perhaps represent Nunavut and themselves in a positive way in the future.
The education system here isn't perfect, and I doubt it ever will be. But with a little more effort and dedication, it can be what we all need it to be.
ZACHERY CARPENTER (11), GRADE 6
I have lived in Iqaluit all my life. I know there are issues in Nunavut. However, my life has been good, and I believe there are more good things about living in Nunavut than bad.
One problem in Nunavut is the number of people who smoke cigarettes. Smoking makes people unhealthy and causes sickness. A lot of adults smoke, but a lot of kids in Nunavut smoke as well. Smoking also causes people to have less money because cigarettes cost a lot in Nunavut.
Another problem in Nunavut is addiction to drugs and alcohol. Being addicted to drugs and alcohol is bad because people become unhealthy, sick, drunk and waste their money. If there are children in a house with adults who use drugs and alcohol, it is very scary and dangerous for them.
Another problem in Nunavut is the high prices, which increase poverty. This means people cannot afford healthy food, good clothing or a nice house.
However, there are many good things about living in Nunavut. One of the best things is the outdoors. In the summer you can go boating, camping and hiking out on the land whenever you like. The summer here is also fun because it is light out all day and all night, which means you can play outside any time you like. In the winter you can go snowmobiling and sledding lots. You can also build snow forts for days.
It's also good growing up in Nunavut because of the small towns. This means that it is easy to visit family and friends because it only takes a few minutes to drive or walk to places. It also means families can spend meal times together more easily than in the South. Small towns are also good because wherever you go people know you and it's hard to feel lonely.
Another cool thing about living in Nunavut is the blizzards. Blizzards are great because you get time off of school to rest or do something fun or special. Blizzards are also good because you get to watch movies, lay around and play outside. Blizzards also bring a lot of snow and huge snow drifts to play on, or dig in, for hours.
Although there are things I really like about visiting the South, I like living in Nunavut and I have had a good life in Nunavut so far.
KIARA JANES (11), GRADE 6
Many people tend to focus on the many challenges facing Nunavut. But what most people should remember is Nunavut is a fairly new territory which has undergone a lot of changes in a very short time. It was only 60 years ago when the Inuit were living a nomadic way of life and living in igloos and tents. Many of the issues in our territory can be attributed to this sudden and radical change in lifestyle. So instead of focusing on some of Nunavut's challenges, I am choosing to celebrate some of the unique qualities of our territory.
One of Nunavut's unique qualities is art. Nunavut has many pieces of jewellery, carvings, paintings and murals. It's wonderful when you sit down at the Frobisher Inn restaurant in Iqaluit and see these kind people come to your table with their pieces of art that they have created. The new hospital in Iqaluit has a very creative and unique mural on it. It was painted by Jonathan Cruz. The painting is a picture of some things that represent the Arctic.
Nunavut has so many pieces of art that truly capture the beauty of the Arctic. Jewellery, carvings, paintings and murals are not the only forms of art in Nunavut. There is throat singing and drum dancing.
Throat singing and drum dancing is a very traditional art in Nunavut. Throat singers and drum dancers perform at many celebrations and also show their talents outside of Nunavut. Students from Inuksuk High School have gone to the Arctic Winter Games to show their wonderful talent of throat singing and drum dancing.
Painting murals, carving, jewellery making and throat singing and drum dancing are wonderful arts in Nunavut. Nunavut is a wonderful place, filled with artistic people and things.
And that is the amazing art of Nunavut.
ASINI WIJESOORIYA (13), GRADE 8
The cold, isolated territory found in the North on the map of Canada is unknown to the majority of the people. However, there is a culture which is respected and believed by the Inuit people a long time ago, but presently stumbling to continue.
Today, Iqaluit has many technologies and devices. As the years have gone by, many people from different ethnic backgrounds have come to Iqaluit, but their arrival influences young Inuit children to act and behave differently. This causes them to be distracted from their culture by the variety of people and the modern entertainment which young children have become accustomed to. This is becoming a problem because grandparents and parents want them to carry their culture on to the next generation, but the present generation cannot do this if the schools, the community and family are not helping enough to help keep the culture alive. It is also partly the individual's problem, too. If that person is more intrigued to kill zombies in their video games or do their makeup than learning their own culture, how are they going to teach their own children in the future?
In schools, the teachers and elders are not providing enough Inuit activities to teach the Inuit children what life was like as a true and strong Inuk. Compared to the other communities in Nunavut, Iqaluit has a variety of cultural backgrounds. For example, the majority of citizens in Clyde River are Inuit, so it is much more important for that community to teach the youth the importance of the Inuit culture. Schools there are teaching the students how to survive on the land with certain equipment and how to make Inuit clothing. In Iqaluit, we occasionally have culture-related activities and we have Inuktitut classes for 40 minutes every day. This is unfortunately insufficient for the Inuit children to learn about their own culture.
The Inuit culture is extremely important for the new generation in Nunavut. Having the new generation of children carry it on gives them a connection to their family's past and shows them that continuing their culture will help the Inuit culture blossom once more.
JOY NOWDLUK (13), GRADE 8
Growing up in Nunavut as a young Inuk I try to learn everything I need to know. But I'm learning in a different way than my parents did. With my father growing up speaking Inuktitut and my mom speaking English, I'm having a hard time learning Inuktitut even more. Because I have to go to school, I never have time to go on the land with my dad.
The traditional language of Inuit is Inuktitut. While Inuktitut is one of the strongest aboriginal languages in Canada, not as many people use it any more. I think one of the main reasons it is decreasing is because of the media. The media such as TV, radio and social media like Facebook are mainly in English. There are not a lot of articles and shows that are written or spoken in Inuktitut.
Another reason that the use of Inuktitut is decreasing is that we do not have a lot teachers who speak Inuktitut and the teachers don't have a lot of resources in Inuktitut. This means that they usually teach us in English. We do have one [class] in Inuktitut, but it is not enough to make us fluent. If we had more teachers who spoke Inuktitut and the teachers had more resources, then maybe we would become better at speaking and reading it.
My friends and I aren't being raised like our grandparents or parents. We are being raised in communities and not on the land. We do not have to hunt for our food, we buy food at the store. We don't have to make our clothes, we can buy them in stores, too. Back then they would travel by dog team, and now we go by cars. We don't know how to hunt like our ancestors or live and learn from the land. We don't have the traditional knowledge of our ancestors.
It is important to keep our language and culture strong because I want my kids to learn what I learned. If we lose our language and culture, then we wouldn't be able to remember what it means to be Inuit, proud and strong people with a fascinating culture. I hope that our culture will last for many generations, so that other people can learn our language and traditions.