I still knew the Cree and Inuit village in northern Quebec where I worked for six months as a co-ordinator for a Cree youth employment program right after finishing my BA at McGill as “Great Whale River” or, in French, “Poste de la Baleine”. So when I first heard about the six Cree youth from “Whapmagoostui” who had hiked 1,600 kilometers from their village in northern Quebec to Ottawa, beginning in January and arriving March 25th, it didn’t register with me they were from that same village. I did know, however, that some of the First Nations villages in northern Quebec that used to be identified at least by Whites by their European names were now generally known by their First Nations’ names, and 1,600 km seemed about the right distance, so I eventually checked on-line. (I probably would have clued in faster if the distance had been reported in miles.) “Great Whale River”, or “Poste de la Baleine”, and “Whapmagoostui”, or “Kuujjuarapik” (the Inuit name for the village), are all one and the same–at least in geographical terms.
Culturally, however, there are four distinct cultures–including two cultures widely regarded as Canada’s founding cultures, English and French, and two significant Canadian First Nations cultures, Cree and Inuit–represented in this small, isolated, village. This makes Whapmagoostui, as I’ll call it here, unique. (“Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik”, which now seems to be the official name for the community as a whole, is too much of a tongue-twister for me, at least just yet. I have to first get used to just the Cree part.)
Whapmagoostui is the northernmost of the ten Cree settlements in Quebec, and also the southernmost of several Inuit settlements in northern Quebec. A Canadian Air Force base, built during the Cold War but already closed for many years by the time I visited, in the late ’70s, had drawn the two groups to the same place. All of the Cree lived in one part of village while all of the Inuit lived in another part, separated by an all-important runway (there is still no year-round road access to Whapmagoostui); but the two groups shared many community amenities.
The predominant second language among both groups, at least when I was there, was English. Yet most of the Whites who then lived in Whapmagoostui, or who visited the community, were Quebecois, who spoke French among themselves but who also could communicate in English–and sometimes also in Cree and/or Inuktitut. When they were speaking with me, because my French is limited and because I was, after all, from Vancouver, they spoke English–although I heard more French in the six months I was in Whapmagoostui than I had heard in the three years prior that I had been living in Montreal, and even tried speaking French on several occasions (especially after I’d had a few drinks). I also learned a few words in Cree and Inuktitut.
Arriving at this this very special Canadian crossroads, where four linguistic and cultural groups converge, almost immediately after completing an intense academic program at McGill, my thoughts turned to Canadian post-secondary education in relation to Canada’s supposed multicultural identity. Perhaps, in the months following university graduation, most recent graduates go through a process of reassessing what they’ve just been through; but, in my case, the process seems to have been especially intense because of where I was residing during this period. The Euro-centric educational program that I had just completed did not do justice to the multiculturalism that I experienced in Whapmagoostui.
Even now, while many Canadians currently critique our universities in terms of economics or the poor job prospects, and sometimes also high debt loads, of many Canadian university graduates, my critique begins with a consideration of cultural factors. That’s not to say that is where my critique ends; but that’s where it begins. And this seems to go back to my six months in Great Whale River–or Whapmagoostui–followed by a year of helping to set up a program on three First Nations reserves in my home province of British Columbia modelled after the program for which I’d been working in northern Quebec.
Congratulations to those six Cree youth from Whapmagoostui who made it all those 1,600 kilometers, in the middle of a frigid northern Canadian winter, to Ottawa. It was a great personal triumph for all of you, as well as, in my view, a very significant step forward for Canada as a whole in its long march towards a just, multicultural, society. You brought with you in your trek to our nation’s capital the Northern Lights of your unique community, that can help to show the rest of Canada the way.