Far north in the Canadian Arctic, there lies a gigantic, barren, frost-ridden territory, with sweeping winds and long, cold winters. For the most part, this vast area remains the land of northern aboriginal peoples, the Inuit. When other nationalities began to colonise the region, the Inuit were forced to abandon their traditional nomadic way of life and settle in large groups in remote villages.
There are no roads or railways into this area, or even between the settlements, and almost 2,000 kilometres separate the most northern village from the city of Montreal. The only way to reach the region is by aeroplane, but a ticket from Montreal costs a whopping $4,000! This makes the cost of living extremely high. Deprived of basic needs such as housing, education and health care, the Inuit community is in crisis.
Sounds daunting? Not to Maggie MacDonnell, a Canadian teacher, who saw the potential to make a real difference to this underdog community. Wanting to help Inuit youngsters overcome adversity, she joined a local secondary school of 200 children in an Inuit village called Salluit in 2011. After years of teaching in Africa, Maggie was inspired to make a positive contribution to her own country.
Fast-forward to 2017, and Maggie MacDonnell is the stunned winner of the prestigious Varkey’s Foundation Global Teacher Prize of $1M! Her grateful Inuit students secretly nominated Maggie for the best teacher prize.
— Video credit: Global Teacher Prize
We met with Maggie in London, earlier this month, to talk about her amazing story.
What is life like in Salluit for the indigenous people?
The last few decades have been full of turmoil for the Inuit community. When European settlers arrived, they imposed their western way of life on the Inuit, and brought a lot of problems, such as tuberculosis.
Traditionally, the Inuit hunt and fish for their food. Some people are very lucky to still be able to do this, but many others can’t.
Nowadays, there’s a huge amount of overcrowding and unemployment among the Inuit. Most of my students don’t have a bedroom – they sleep on the sofa in the living room. Life can be very stressful when you have to skip dinner, and you see so many problems around you.
Some of the teenagers I teach are still very close to their grandparents. We often go to see the elders, who speak the native language and have memories of childhoods and experiences that are very different from modern life. They have cultural knowledge and wisdom, an amazing skill set and stories that they can pass on to new generations. It’s fantastic.
But lots of other people are dealing with trauma, and their way of coping is often through addiction to drink or drugs. Many young people have lost their connection to their grandparents.
The Inuit’s connection to the land was always a huge cultural resource. They sustained themselves for thousands of years. Without doubt, they became disconnected from the land because of colonisation, but there is also opportunity here.
Some people are keeping the cultural heritage alive – thanks to the prize money from the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, I can help revitalise parts of that connection. I’m very excited to be able to do that.
This summer, I took four young people and adults from the community all the way to Southern Canada, and we did a level 1 kayak course. They spent almost two weeks on the water, learning the different parts of the boat, learning how to paddle, how to flip over in the boat, how to self-rescue, how to rescue a partner – as well as just enjoying themselves.
Physical activities and connecting with nature are an amazing way to build resilience. We could do it by going hiking in the tundra, but by going kayaking, we’re helping to reintroduce the ancestral connection. After all, the Inuit invented the kayak.
I asked the people I took how it felt to be on the water. “It feels so amazing,” one said. “It feels like I left my problems on the shore!” That was awesome – just what I wanted to hear!
Another said, “It felt like I was with my ancestors.” A mother was so proud: “I can’t wait to teach my daughter how to kayak.” And a dad said, “I’m going to pass it on to my son.” They now want to know how to build kayaks.
I’d been kayaking with my students before the prize, but now I’m doing something more formal – I am helping them to go back in time.
How do environmental issues affect the community?
For indigenous people, environmental rights are human rights. They are so connected.
In our modern way of life, we’re several steps away from food production, but most indigenous communities are much more connected to it.
My neighbour invited me to try two fish that she’d caught in different rivers. She said I would taste the pollution. And I did. One didn’t taste good. It was from a river close to a mining site. Normally, I’d never even realise that, because I go to the grocery store to buy my fish. But she knows exactly where she gets her fish. She knows there’s a mining site and it’s polluting the water – the place where she gets her fish, where she brings her children to go fishing at the weekend and take their catch back to their grandma. You can’t give your grandma a polluted fish… So, she’s losing a precious source of food for her family.
Indigenous people are experiencing climate change four times faster than anyone else. My students notice things – Earth is changing, and there is very obvious climate change.
In one of the more southern villages, small trees are getting taller and taller. There are no trees in Salluit, but there are more shrubs now…
Twice this summer, black bears came into the village. No one in the community had ever seen a black bear before – even the great, great grandparents. Due to global warming and longer growing seasons, the vegetation has changed – so now we have black bears where they’ve never lived before.
In Salluit, we live right on the water. One parent told me about the day she was born, 45 years ago: “I was born in September and my dad took my mum to the clinic on a skidoo (a snowmobile). Now, in September, we’re picking blueberries!” In just 45 years, winter has been delayed by six to eight weeks.
What do kids in Salluit dream of?
There is a lot of stress, and sometimes it’s difficult for children to even have the privilege of dreaming. Some youngsters dream of being musicians; they write rap songs and want to release an album.
Some want to become better hunters and be able to provide food for the community. Hunting is seen as an amazing profession – to know how to navigate the land and bring back a caribou! Traditionally, the Inuit wouldn’t buy food. Hunters risk their lives to capture an animal, bring it back and share it with the community. It’s a position of honour.
But to become a hunter, you usually need a family or community member to teach you. Is grandpa going to do that? Then you need money to buy the right gear, a gun, petrol for a skidoo…
Others want to travel the world. The Inuit were traditionally big travellers. Now they live a settled life, so it would be wonderful to see them travel and explore again.
What is your biggest achievement as a teacher in Salluit?
Being able to connect with the indigenous people and build genuine relationships, to help create meaningful moments through the kayak programme, and share those moments with my students and their parents. Now I have access to a million dollars, I can help to rebuild the old connections. I’m so lucky!
I’d like educators to realise that not every classroom has four walls. We should teach in different ways, especially when working with an indigenous community. That’s a lesson that I hope people will learn from my story.
Do you know an awesome teacher at your child's school?
Then hurry up, the nominations for the US$1 million Global Teacher Prize 2018 are open now. Nominations can be made at www.globalteacherprize.org and the closing date for applications is Sunday 8 October 2017.