I arrive at the airport in Rankin Inlet on the flight from Iqaluit. My plane will continue on to Yellowknife today, and be back in a week for the next flight in.
The airport is itself just one very charming turquoise building, about the size of a school gym. They are serving coffee and homemade cakes inside. I step outside to wait for my shuttle and a vaulted pickup truck rolls up with the name of my hotel spray painted along the side. Four of us new arrivals hop in and the driver takes us on a tour of the town on our way to the hotel: the flats along the water sprinkled with fishing huts; the local shelter; the new seniors centre being built; the hockey arena where Jordin Tootoo, the NHL’s first Inuk player, grew up skating.
As we arrive at the hotel our shuttle driver opens the hotel door, asks us to take our boots off and leave them in the foyer (a common practice in Rankin), and disappears momentarily. He reappears behind the front desk, ready to check us in.
“We all wear a few hats around here”, he says.
I am here in Rankin on behalf of OJEN to deliver workshops to young people at the high school. I have spent the last couple months collaborating with the Law Society of Nunavut to draft the series of sessions: one introduction session, one on rights and responsibilities around cannabis and alcohol (my session), and the final session on the prevention of harassment in the workplace (led by two lawyers from Ravenlaw in Ottawa). The mandate for my session exists in part because Rankin Inlet has opened the first wine and beer store in its history. In Nunavut, each of its 25 communities chooses whether to allow, restrict, or prohibit liquor in their municipality.
We aren’t sure how the workshops will go, though we have had registration open for a few weeks. The principal at the high school tells us that when an event is on, the high schoolers tend to flock to it, especially when there is food. We end up hosting between 20 and 30 young people per session. Because the content of the workshops is so diverse, we relay the information through stories and scenarios to tie things together.
The high schoolers catch on right away, vying with each other for coveted opportunities to play the characters in the scenarios. It is surprising how quickly the community of young people embrace us and feel comfortable sharing their views. In addition to delivering legal information around substances, we have some difficult but very fruitful conversations. Ultimately, the young people are developing the skills they need to navigate the complex realities of alcohol and cannabis in the north.
The way of life in Rankin is very different from where I deliver programming in communities in Ontario. But in addition to having its own ways, Rankin is in fact, an international community. Throughout the course of the week, we meet families from around Nunavut, the Philippines, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other parts of Canada. Two or three languages can be heard flying around the gym at any time as the teenagers work through the legal problems. After each session, the group cleans up their food, returns the garbage bins to the hallway, puts away the chairs, and sets up the volleyball or hockey nets for the afternoon class, all unprompted. Though things aren’t perfect or easy for many in Rankin, these high schoolers are used to working together, welcoming people into their community, and they are good at it.
On our final day, we host a community feast with food provided by local suppliers. The menu includes candied arctic char and narwhal maqtaaq. People trickle in slowly at first. Two young Inuk mothers, babies in tow in the traditional Amaut (a type of hooded parka/baby pouch), shyly poke their heads into the gym. A few elders arrive to help prepare and present the meal. We can almost feel the word spreading through town, and despite the persistent, freezing rain/snow storm outside, more and more truck lights start cutting across the parking lot, and more wet boots start piling up in the foyer by the door; we have a proper feast!
We meet some new people over food. Some young people from the high school have brought their families, others just heard about the meal. One of the elders (who I recognize from serving cakes at the airport) stays until almost everybody has left. Near the end of the night, she is having one of those difficult conversations with one of the young people from our program who has recently lost a cousin. I join her to drive the young person back to where they live at Rankin’s only shelter and respite site. The elder tells me that though she doesn’t know this particular teenager, she sees it as her job to look after the safety of the young people in her community. She also happens to have thoughtfully pocketed some of the arctic char from the feast to bring to the other residents of the shelter.
Everybody wears a few hats around here.