At the Kuururjuaq National Park Interpretive Centre there hangs a large topographical map of the area with points marking the campsites that have been used by Inuit for generations.
During a tour Governor General Mary Simon points to the one marked with the letter D and says “That’s where I was raised.”
Although Simon spent most of her formative years in Kuujjuaq, she was born near Camp Pyramid, not far from what is now called Kangiqsualujjuaq, an Inuit community located about 1,500 km northeast of Montreal, near the Labrador border.
Kangiqsualujjuaq translates as “very large bay” and sits at the mouth of the George River. While Simon looks out over the bay, the sun periodically poked out through the clouds to illuminate the rocky terrain, while down the road streams of water run down the streets of Kangiqsualujjuaq from the spring thaw.
“I’m ecstatic to be here,” says a beaming a Simon in an interview with APTN News.
Now after years away, Simon is back in the community where she still has friends and family… only this time she is visiting as part of a tour of Nunavik in her official capacity as Governor General.
“In all the work that I’ve done over the years, I have always remembered where I come from,” Simon tells a community gathering at the school gymnasium “I remember my roots every day.”
While Simon was showered with hugs and gifts throughout the one-day visit, she also met with Kangiqsualujjuaq Mayor McCombie Annanack to discuss some of the challenges the remote community faces.
“Communications, infrastructure, mental health,” says Annanack when naming his top priorities.
The Inuit territory of Nunavik in Quebec struggles with all of these things and Kangiqsualujjuaq is no different. But the community of less than 1,000 does have some in-house solutions.
“One of our goals, since day one, is to be able to break the cycle with violence or [youth protection] placements, because that’s creating traumas over and over again,” says Ellasie Annanack, a counsellor for the Qarmaapik Family House.
Qarmaapik won a $700,000 2016 Arctic Inspiration Prize for its work in providing a safe house for children and families facing abuse and other difficulties at home. They also provide counselling services, family activities, and programs for young parents.
“It was a flood of people who need support,” says Ellasie of when they started “We know the community members, and we feel like they need the support, especially not knowing the system that we have or any other services that they deserve to have, it’s a really good service because we use our language and we do research on what we can do to help them out for their family.”
Ellasie says one of their goals is to help before youth protection gets involved and places a child elsewhere. In 2018 the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services testified at the Viens commission that about one in three children in Nunavik come in contact with youth protection at some point in their lives.
Ellasie says Qarmaapik took it upon themselves to keep Inuit kids with their families and work towards solutions for Inuit by Inuit.
“There are only a few workers of youth protection that are here, so I feel like they don’t have time to talk about their system or their services so we had to find out ourselves to see what rights we have as families or individuals,” explains Ellasie.
Qarmaapik has had success despite working out of an old converted building that has seen better days.
“It’s also very small when we have a big night, we don’t have enough room for families,” Ellasie adds.
“That has been a part of the challenge, making sure these organizations are resourced adequately,” says Mary Simon in an interview after a tour of Qarmaapik
“They’re making their presentations to government and eventually I’m sure things will evolve but all I can say is that I think it’s really important that these agreements take place in a timely manner and that people are given proper resources to continue their work that is really important for families.”
While one of the mandates of Simon’s tour of Nunavik is to shine a light on Inuit-driven wellness programs, it also has a less formal motive, allowing communities like Kangiqsualujjuaq to celebrate one of their own.
Before leaving, Simon was treated to cultural performances that had the crowd jigging and square dancing in the gymnasium.
Simon joined them on the dance floor before taking up the accordion herself. After playing tentatively at first, Simon soon found a rhythm that had the dance floor back up again.
“Today was exceptional,” says the mayor Annanack “Today was a day of hope, with Mary being an Inuk, that is a sign of hope that being an Inuk, you can accomplish anything in life.”
The Governor General’s tour of Nunavik will continue to Inukjuak on Thursday, stopover in Kuujjuaq on Friday before returning to Ottawa.