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UBC Inuit youth research project garners international attention

A University of British Columbia research project aimed at helping Inuit youth learn more about their history and culture captured international interest at a student conference in China last week.

Fourth year sociology student April Dutheil presented on the Nanisiniq Arviat History Project at the Universitas 21 undergraduate conference held at Fudan University in Shanghai. Universitas 21 is an international network of 23 research-intensive universities.

Now back in Canada, Dutheil says a lot of students at the conference were interested in how they could adapt the project in their own countries. "They definitely saw there was value in this project for places like Australia," she says.

The Nanisiniq project jump started after Frank Tester, a professor from UBC's School of Social Work, was approached by Inuit elders from Arviat, Nunavut.

"They had a lot of things that they wanted to pass on to young people, but didn't know how to do it," says Tester. "They were of the opinion that young people were not aware of their experiences and what they might have to offer them."

Out of that sentiment grew a plan to produce a documentary exploring the history of colonization from an Inuit point of view.

"There is no group in the history of the world that had to change as fast as the Inuit," says Paule McNicoll, also a professor from UBC's School of Social Work and a project collaborator. "The people who are the elders now, are people who were born in igloos and on the land and now they're dealing with negotiating with the government, with computers. However, what you find is there is a lot of disconnect between the generations where the elders don't feel completely comfortable in being elders anymore, because they have difficulty recognizing their world. The youth in some ways often do not recognize the wisdom and the knowledge of the experts."

McNicoll says the intent of the project was always to train young Inuit researchers. "When we finish with our work, it's important that there are people who own that work who are Inuit and that it's not always researchers from the south doing the research," she says.

There are currently three youth researchers working on the project, Curtis Kuunuaq Konek, Jordan Konek and Amy Owingayak. They've all learned how to conduct, shoot and edit video interviews for the documentary and post research updates frequently on the Nanisiniq website.

Owingayak, 19, says a lot of what she's learned interviewing the elders wasn't covered in her schooling. "None of relocation, anything to do with religion, the Rankin Inlet nickel mine that most Inuit went to," was covered she says. "All of the things that we were taught in school were like: Inuit lived in tents and something about shelter and food, not deeper information."

Most of the curriculum currently covered in Inuit schools is imported from Alberta, says McNicoll. In particular, she said that the effects of climate change in Nunavut should be addressed.

"They're learning... not to water their lawn too often, when there's no lawn there, there's no grass, so in some ways it's very useless," she says. "For example, the fact that there will be more southerners, that there might be some ports opening there, how it's going to change their society, so we hope that by learning more about their history and getting engaged with their history will make them more engaged in the present and that they will be involved in the decision to be made in their future."

McNicoll is hopeful though that the Nanisiniq project will help propel some new curriculum development.

The Nanisiniq team is aiming to complete the documentary by early summer next year. "My hope is that it will help Inuit youth appreciate the relevance of understanding their own history and culture to their well-being, sense of who they are and their future," says Tester.

Ainslie Cruickshank is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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