Thursday, October 27, 2016

Treeplanting and Northern living part 1

When in a radically new situation it is natural to draw comparisons to past experiences. I seems like it'd be natural for me to compare my current situation with my experience teaching in Vietnam. After all, it is my only other teaching experience, it was teaching to second language learners in a foreign culture, far from home. Yet Vietnam mostly comes to mind as a contrast, as the life most different from the one I'm living right now. For some reason my mind drifts back continually to treeplanting.

The few direct parallels between teaching in Inukjuak and my time treeplanting in BC fall away under a little scrutiny. They are both in “the north”. But it depends on north of what. Inukjuak is much farther north in a much less temperate part of the country. Treeplanting is always in the summer, and north in the winter and north in the summer are different worlds. There I am planting trees, here I'm above the treeline.

Treeplanting is isolated. Treeplanting you may be 100km down a logging road from the nearest town, but to get here you need to fly. The isolation is of a very different nature as well. While planting you're spending long stretches of the work day totally alone, and during your free time you're spending with the same 30-50 people. Your social world is limited to those people. Here I am working with people all day and I have a theoretical pool of nearly 2000 people to choose from for my social life. But I have found the sense of isolation is more pervasive here. While I never had as many people to potentially relate to treeplanting as I do here, it is easier to relate because treeplanters mostly belong to a very narrow demographic. Nearly everyone in a planting camp is the same age range, nearly everyone has the same job. Most planters are white and middle class, most are left wing and atheists. While there are obviously a range of individuals and everyone is special unique and ect, people who plant are almost exclusively a) college students b) artists or c) ski bums. I find each of those lives easily relatable (I have never really been one for skiing but I appreciate being able to just bum around). Planting also has an added social advantage: everybody is in the same position.

There are many divides between people in Inukjuak, and while there is a lot of good work to form bridges across those divides (the community here is in many ways very warm and welcoming, more on that in another post), I also think that its important to respect the reasons they exist. Aside from the obvious sources of division, class, culture, heritage, and age (I have met very few people who are plus or minus 5 years of my age) there is a division is in how we are experiencing time. For me everything is new, the most mundane is the most fascinating. Since, every thought I have about this place feels like a brand new thought, its hard for me to know what's original and what's being rehashed (most of it is, of course, rehashed). This separates me from the Inuit who must see me as part of never ending cycle of short term teachers (I am told that the community becomes more trusting of you when you return after Christmas). It also separates me from the other Qalllant (non-Inuit, I've been told it literally means “bushy eyebrows”) who have been here for a year, since they now see the mundane as mundane.

Another distinction between me and most others is that I have an end date in mind. I need to return to school next September so I do not have the option of renewing my contract. I do have the desire to to return here after I graduate, but knowing how way leads onto is impossible to tell. Knowing that I will return to my normal life in June gives a very different feel to being here. It has the feeling of a separate life, detached from the life in Montreal. I picture life in Montreal as being rather static, I am told the fall colors are out now, but that just bares memories of the distant past. When I try to picture Montreal today I still see summer, its hard to picture my friends wearing the extra layer they must have on by now.

When I treeplanted I also had the sense that I was living a separate life from my primary life in Montreal (especially in my first few seasons), yet this feeling didn't isolate me because it was common among most treeplanters to some degree or another. They are putting a pause on their life to have this other experience (and to make money). In my first year treeplanting this detachment manifested itself sometimes when I closed my eyes before going to sleep. I would picture a map of the world and I would zoom in on the spot that I was. As I approached northern BC, in my mind, it became more and more strange to me. There was a strange sort of cognitive dissonance... It felt like it couldn't be right, my mind couldn't except the fact of me so suddenly being in this strange piece of earth so far from all of the places I'd imagined going to. Now, six years later again I find myself picturing a map: no that can't be right—but it must be.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

One person's adventure

My first week and a half here I didn't have internet, but one of the neighbours had wifi that I could sometimes steal. I remember laying down on the couch holding my phone in the air, keeping my arm as still as I can, all in order to keep reading posts on a hockey forum. At this moment I thought: someone back south is probably picturing me having a real adventure in the arctic. I guess that's how it goes.

Whale Day

On Tuesday morning I had a prep period, my students were meant to be with their Inuit culture teacher. But the students all came into my classroom saying there teacher wasn't there. This was puzzling to me as I'd seen him less than an hour earlier. With my class, I go down the hallway to his class which is empty. I ask another student walking down the hallway if he'd seen the teacher.

"He's probably at the Belugas downtown," he says, "I'm going now." Most of my students follow him out. 

I go back to class where there is just one student looking out the window who had missed this exchange. I say, "Should we go see the Belugas downtown."

"Belugas?!?" He says and gets ready to leave.

I walk down with him and with the two youth fusion workers (my travel companions in the first post, Emily and Xanthe). As we walk down town I notice for the first time that I have the habit of walking in the middle of the roads here, it is the first time that there has been a flow of two way traffic in the town. Cars behind us honk to get us off the road so they can rush downtown. ATV's are passing the other way, with passengers holding onto sagging garbage bags.

I can smell the whales before I can see the crowd around them (and I have notoriously bad sense of smell). The hunters had caught four whales, but by the time we get there, there are just two remaining and the skin had already been taken. The water near the shore was pure red from all of the whale blood that had been drained into it. People were coming up and the men were handing out large chunks of the whale to each of them. Sharing food is very common in Inuit communities, so when there is a hunt as successful as this the whole community gets to partake.

One of the other teachers asked me if I'd tried it yet. "No." "Why not?" "No one has offered me anything." "You have to ask." So I asked one of the men  if I could try it. "You need a bite?" "Umm, well I'd like to try it." And he cuts me off about a pound of it, "You can eat it, raw or dry it. What you like."

Whale is not like anything else I've ever had before. I would describe as tasting like a mix of red meat and fish. I tried a few more bites to see if I could get used to it. It was never bad, but it didn't become something I craved more of. I gave tiny pieces to Emily and Xanthe (they are both vegetarians but didn't want to miss out on the experience) and took the rest home to dry. It's better dried.

(That's a photo of me and one of the students from the girls IPL class biting into our whale chunks, with Emily on the left taking the selfie.)

The timing of this is quite interesting. The day before was Thanksgiving, and I had asked the students on Friday if any of their families ever did anything on Thanksgiving. "No, its just a day we don't have to go to school." Was the general response. I remember thinking that it was a bit of a shame that with all of the corruptive influence of Southern culture (Halloween is popular for people of all ages, but many don't dress up and simply go door to door to feed their candy addiction), Thanksgiving seems to me be a holiday based more on true virtues of love, gratitude and sharing among families (despite its colonial past and messed up historical narratives). I see now that the lack of celebration in this community is not because those qualities are not deemed worthy of celebration, as much as the people find no need to celebrate them because those virtues are so ingrained in their culture.

I have travelled a fair bit over the last few years, living in Ecuador and Vietnam for 6 months a piece. This experience made me realise that thought those places are different countries and much further away, here I am in a place more different from the world I grew up in. Its a nice feeling.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Gold-Digger Conundrum

Perhaps my first real cultural conundrum came this Friday, the students with some free time on the computer decided to play several “gold-digger prank” videos. I had never seen these videos before and I was intrigued by them in very much the same manner that one is intrigued by the arguments of trump supporters on Facebook: how can someone live in the same world as me and see it so differently?

To save you from googling this and to save these videos from getting any more views I'll describe the premise of these videos. In these “prank” videos a man goes up to a woman and attempts to get her number. The woman, obviously, does not respond positively to street harassment and rejects him. The man then finds a contrived way to show the woman that he has a lot of money and she, for some reason, then decides to give him her number. (There are many of these videos with minimal variation, it seems odd to me that students who seem to find everything boring could watch so many of these predictable, dull and contrived videos.)

I like to think that most of my readership can see what's bad about these videos without much outside guidance, but to my students, it is perhaps a different matter. Most of my students have very limit experience with large cities. Most have been to Montreal once or twice, but I don't believe that any of them have spent more than 2 weeks there. I think this makes understanding street harassment more difficult for them. Inukjuak has 1600 permanent residence and about 300 temporaries (like me!) – it is not quite so small that everybody knows everybody, but it is small enough that if you don't know somebody it would not be weird to get to know somebody. There is also a distinct shortage of outdoor public space that one uses to be alone. My students do not understand the anonymity of city spaces, so they do not recognise when its being violated. To my students the woman is being quite rude when she refuses to speak with the man.

The other difficulty when dealing with situations such as these is the complexity of gender relations here. Inuit culture is distinctly gendered. There are “Culture Classes” that are a large part of the curriculum at all levels, which are separated into two genders. The IPL classes are separated into two all boys classes and one all girls class. This is not meant as a criticism of this practice. Their culture is their right and has been proven to be an essential aspect of their education for other aspects to flourish—and their culture, like many cultures, create different roles for men and women (this is further complicated by the fact that boys learn to use power tools in their culture class, which is obviously not part of their traditional cultural roles, but an import from the cultural rolls of the south). Nor is this meant as a judgement on how sexist their society is—in many ways they respect women's work more here than they do in the south. I am simply outlining differences in gender roles that make this more complicated.

While the circumstances of the videos are not likely to be recreated in the lives of these boys, what these videos imply about the character of women can have very detrimental effects. The misogyny represented in the context of the culture south can manifest itself differently in the culture of the north.

How do I explain the immorality of an act without coming off as judgemental? How do I teach critical thought when they have so little context to understand the situation? How do I start a discussion with a group that's so reluctant to engage intellectually and so tied to the opinions of the group?

First week of school

I wrote this a week ago but somehow didn't get around to posting it:

While mystifying a new experience is natural, it is also dangerous. Part of what drew me to the north is the sense of adventure: going to a place very few people have experienced, a place with conditions harsher than you've ever experienced before, a place both rapidly changing with overwhelming numbers of youth and a place rooted in a tradition entirely foreign to you. But while all of this may be true from my perspective, it is important to that I remember that the frontier for you is the everyday for them. Your thoughts about the issues the community struggles with are new to you, but very old them; most have been mulled over for a generation. The owl that visited me on my first night is a common creature of not much particular use.

Perhaps the best way to demystify a place is to try to teach teenagers there. Before I began teaching I had planned on connecting with the students by sharing with them a book about sculpture largely from the Inukjuak area. I have for a long time appreciated Inuit art but I don't know a great deal about it. I thought that having them teach me about their culture as I teach them English and math would help make a more reciprocal relationship. To this idea, one of my other teachers responded, “some of them might be interested in this, but you have to remember they are teenagers first and Inuit second” and boy is that true.

I teach an IPL class, hypothetically containing 9 boys aged 14 to 18. I say hypothetically because I have taught for more than a week and I have only met 6 of them, and there have rarely been more than 4 in my class at once. Francis, the other IPL students, has 12 hypothetical students, he has yet to meet one of them, and several others have been to class only a handful of times. I believe IPL stands for something like Independent Personalized Learning. At this point I have only heard the acronym expanded once, even in the mass of literature I have been given about the class (some of it surprisingly useful) they use only the acronym. Whatever the acronym stands for is quite irrelevant in the end the important details of the class are as follows:

  1. Students are placed in the class when the administration feels that they are at risk of dropping out.
  2. Some of the student have learning or developmental problems and some have behavioral problems. Some have both. Some have experienced poverty. Some have had a bad home life.
  3. I have no outside pressure for these students to achieve any academic standards. My primary goal is keep the students from dropping out.
  4. Each student has his own independent academic goals which I help them set for the semester. These goals are based on their needs, abilities and interests.
  5. Much of the learning is centered around one large project. In this case (as it has been at this school for the last several years) a cafe which sells treats during recess and fast food once a week after school.
I have not yet asked for permission from my students to talk about them in this blog. Out of respect for them I will try to keep my comments general in this post.
Teaching this class is complicated for a number of reasons. First off I am teaching students with learning disabilities sometimes fairly profound learning disabilities, which I have no training in. Also I am dealing with students who have behavioral issues, who often do not struggle with academics. When you provide the same material to all of the students, the stronger students complete it quickly and act out—distracting and sometimes discouraging the students with learning disabilities. The fact that I am hired to this job without any special training (not even a completed education degree), and little previous job experience, speaks more to the severity of the teacher shortage in northern Quebec than it does to my character. However, before I came my spot was vacant and none of the boys I'm teaching right now had a teacher.

It will most certainly be difficult, but I do feel up for the challenge, as the class has already proven to be at times rewarding. After my first week I was asked by Emily (one of the travelers that accompanied me in the first post) to give a run down of each of my students, and in giving a few details about each it became clear to me that I like all of them, in one way or another. “He's very sweet, he always smiles but is very quiet”or “he is usually the first to show up and he goes straight to the back, gets on a chair and looks out the window” or “he's funny, not as funny as he thinks he is, but funny” or “he just thinks that school is bullshit and doesn't see why he should have to listen to me, but he kind of has a point”.

I'm finding myself sometimes enjoying their defiance of me, partially because it reminds me of the shit-disturbing friends I had when I was young, and partly because it limits my teaching to what is immediately relevant to them, better to have them tell me what they think is useless then to let me carry on secretly despising the material. When they express distaste for a lesson there are two possibilities.
  1. They dislike the material because it is not relevant for them, in which case I can set it aside until it becomes relevant.
  2. The lesson is important to them now and they are resistant because it is easier for them not to learn, in which case I have to find a way to make it more palatable to them, or apply my will to teach them over their will to not learn.

I'm sure as the class progresses I'll become better at discerning between the two.