Trigger warning This post alludes to trauma.
Year One, Chapter Four: Doing My Duty Travel, Plus, How This Blog Started
Thursday, March 7, 2013 (Rankin Inlet)
About to finish the first leg of my cross-territory journey. I know I’m learning about a million things a minute, but it’s so entrenched in the experience that I can’t clearly articulate anything.
My first job in Nunavut and my first full-time job ever was with the Department of Health at the Government of Nunavut (GN). For a year and a half, I was the territory’s Sexual Health Program Coordinator, a title that seems really, really fitting considering my educational and personal background. I studied public health, with a focus on sexual health promotion, and have been working as a sexual health and/or assault counsellor since I was in grade eight (yes it does suck that you have to kind of be both of those things if you want to work in this field). I was really, really excited when I joined the Health Promotion division; I remember telling Justin that I thought it was the perfect job for me.
Early in my tenure, I was able to organize a number of community visits to provide training and support to frontline healthcare workers across the territory. It was my first time visiting other communities, and the trip took me to quite a few: Rankin Inlet, Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, Coral Harbour, Chesterfield Inlet, and Pangnirtung (plus stopovers in Yellowknife). It was incredible. I feel so, so lucky to have been able to get out of Iqaluit, for both professional and personal growth. And those aerial views of Nunavut - wow. From my notebook:
Saturday, March 9, 2013 (flying over Cape Dorset)
Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between land and sea. In the winter, Nunavut, “our land,” grows to include its frozen lakes, rivers, and bays. The “land” itself is, in a way, fluid and changing, not hindered by shoreline, not bound by ground, solidifying into its own new state.
I did the trips with my colleague, Theresa Koonoo, a nurse, community health specialist, and fellow sexual health advocate. Theresa, who is originally from Pond Inlet, has spent a lot of her career travelling and studying across the North, and also in the south. To be honest, Theresa was kind of assigned to escort me, the n00b, ostensibly to help with logistical and programming support. I knew the trip would be challenging in ways and I was so relieved that Theresa was there to help; I did not anticipate just how much and in how many ways that help would be required.
Theresa and I left Iqaluit with general expectations of what we were going to do and what we were going to talk about, and I, at least, was completely blindsided by the actual conversations we had with community members. With an intensity and honesty that belies desperation, we encountered many, too many, disclosures of trauma, abuse, assault. I need not get into details, because those stories are not my stories to share or represent; suffice it to say I was both humbled and stunned to be privy to these discussions.
It wasn’t the first time that I encountered these colloquies (remember, I had worked as a counsellor for the better part of a decade), but it was the most direct or impactful encounter to date. Unprepared but not resistant, I did the best I could to appropriately and authentically represent my employer, my purpose, and myself. Often, I would turn to Theresa, to gauge her processing, to follow her lead.
This is where I also spiralled into an existential crisis that I think (I hope) is common amongst southerners in Nunavut, or aid workers in places we deem worthy of receiving aid, or anyone else who goes to “help” in a place where the outcomes have very little impact on their personal development. What, really, was I doing there? I looked disparagingly at the materials I had brought with me, the kit, the condoms, the posters and pamphlets created by people and companies that had likely never even heard of Nunavut; who did I think I was, and what was I perpetuating?
What I was, was a settler stressed by Indigenous histories and reliant on an Indigenous woman (as if they don’t have enough of a burden to bear as it is) to give me support and access as I struggled to deal with realities that are not part of my cultural identity, but certainly are a part of hers. It goes without saying that her presence as an Inuk also lent me clout and, more importantly, trust that I may not, as a qallunaat, have rallied on my own. I felt like a fraud and a chump.
It wasn’t until I came back from duty travel that I started to process the weight and reality of what we had witnessed. I know now that I experienced both shock and secondary trauma, the latter of which manifested in bouts of confusion, anger, and helplessness that I still deal with today. On top of that, I began questioning my role in the department, the department’s role in promoting health and wellness, and wellness itself as a social construct in Nunavut.
Unsure of what to do but sure in my need to do something, I met with my supervisor and told her everything that I had heard and seen, and all the things that I was trying to forget.
I told her about my sleepless nights.
I told her about the sobs that crept up on me when I was driving, eating, talking to someone.
I told her about the voices and stories I did not think we should ignore.
I told her plainly that I did not think the direction and content of our sexual health promotion program was adequate or relevant to the needs of the population.
And she listened as I told her these things and more. She responded with care and validation, and an honest concern for both myself and the people I’d spoke to. She told me to put it all into a report, and I did. It was the first and last time I wrote about that experience, until now.
By the end of that summer, I was becoming more and more disenfranchised with my job at the GN. There were several internal and external factors that made my time there frustrating and unfulfilling (more details on that in a future post; hold onto your butts for that one!), and this left me feeling disconnected, and unsure of my purpose and place in the city itself.
Discontent and yet still inspired by what was happening around me (just not at work!), I started coming up with solutions to my stymied creativity. I bought a new and better camera and vowed to take more pictures, and I started sending out pitches to publications as a freelancer, mostly little pieces about what I was seeing and experiencing in Iqaluit.
Truthfully, at the time, I wasn’t very good at pitching, and even if I had been better, the stories or ideas I had didn’t really fit into the publishable categories of mainstream media. They weren’t news items or travel guides or anything like that; they were just interesting (at least to me) observations and anecdotes about the city I was starting to get comfortable in.
It didn’t take me long to jump onto the idea of self-publishing. I’d had a blog before (no one read it) and I was comfortable with social media (I was active on “Iqaluit Twitter,” which when I first moved up is how I started easing into Iqaluit’s community IRL). Plus, I saw a gap in the Iqaluit web scene: it was the only capital city in Canada without any sort of a place blog. Toronto, for example, has several, like Torontoist, blogTO, She Does the City, and more.
With that idea sorted out in my head, I thought it would be easier and better if I had a partner. Long-term readers will know that that person was Sara; what you don’t know is how it all came together. To start, I texted Sara and asked her if she wanted to meet and chat about something; she agreed, and we decided to go to The Legion (first mistake).
We were sitting at a table on the loud side (second mistake), about to get into it when, as happens often at The Legion, a stream of friends and coworkers and acquaintances came in. In between greetings and hugs, the DJ started up with a classic Legion set: mainstream hits that were popular six months ago (old enough to be out of date, not old enough to be a throwback). Sara and I were swept up in the sweaty dance party that only The Legion can provide, and suddenly, it was closing time, and we never spoke a word about the blog.
On the five-minute drive back to Sara’s apartment, I gave her a truncated pitch of what I wanted to do, finishing as I pulled into the parking lot of the eight-storey. Always keen (which is why I asked her, obviously), Sara exclaimed “I’d love to blog with you!” before stepping out of the car and into the cool August night. It is just one of many important relationships that have been made at or immediately after leaving The Legion in Iqaluit.
I went to see Theresa at the Department of Health a few months ago, carrying a memento from our early travels together. We both burst out crying and clung to each other when I pulled it out. Sitting in the lobby of the building where we first met, on a weekday afternoon, in the light of the afternoon sun, all those moments and memories we shared - so many of them so heavy and many others so easy and pleasant - came back a little too fast and much too hard. I know people, some of them my former coworkers, passed us tangled in tears and whispers; I thank them for letting us remain undisturbed, ugly and raw in that moment.
There is something fundamentally icky about working for an institutionalized government whose job it is to administer, regulate, and monitor a mostly-Indigenous population - especially if that government itself is then governed by the same body that tried to control, nay, abolish Indigenous nations barely two generations ago (ie. The Feds). It should come as no surprise that imposing a colonial-style government on an Indigenous population that is still fighting the effects of colonization will come with some growing pains - but the distribution of weight does not need to come down on only some of us.
Ultimately, you can bury your head in the snow and run on intention alone, but the truth is we are all, every one of us, problematic in innumerable ways. It is only when you’re actively and incessantly questioning the system that you stand a chance of making any fundamental, radical, brilliant change. The type of fluidity and flex in Nunavut’s landscape that I so lovingly noted above is equally valuable for its people, permanent or otherwise.
This doesn’t mean non-Inuit or southerners don’t have expertise or experiences to share in Nunavut; I just think it’s important to always be aware of the power dynamics involved in our interactions, in the North and really, everywhere. Even if maybe, you won't always get it right (I sure don't), at least you tried to be a part of something better and different.
To this day, Theresa is the only GN employee who has ever spoken to me about the incidents of that trip. I assume my report remains on file with the department.
If you or someone you know has experienced trauma, here are some resources.