Queen's University

Preserving northern culture

Neil Christopher, Ed’97, is working to bring back the Inuktitut language among Inuit youth.

The language of Bart Simpson and Kanye West has quietly become the mother tongue of Inuit youth. However, as elders disappear – taking with them an ancient language and rich mythology – Neil Christopher, Ed’97, is working to halt the cultural loss.

Neil’s Arctic life began when he came across a job posting in the Faculty of Education in 1997. The thought of starting his career in the Far North intrigued Neil, and so the Ottawa native applied. A few weeks later, Neil had been hired on a one-year contract to help start a high school in Resolute – an Arctic community of fewer than 200 people, most of whom were Inuit.

With few classroom resources and no existing course materials to work with, Neil found himself working long hours to create curricula that reflected the experience of his pupils. When time allowed, he took trips “on the land” alongside Inuit hunters and their families. With each passing month, Neil became increasingly committed to his work. One year turned into two, and then the community invited him to sit on town council where he would have an opportunity – beyond the classroom – to use his skills to bring further positive change to Resolute.

Nearing the end of his third year, Neil saw his first cohort graduate. It was an historic occasion for the community. Although he’d become deeply connected to the people of the North, Neil realized he’d lost touch with his own family in Ottawa, and so when he received word that his grandmother had fallen ill, he returned home.

There, he began a Master’s program and took a job teaching at a local high school. It was a stark contrast to the experimentation and creativity that had benefited his students in Resolute. Sixteen days after earning his M.Ed degree, Neil returned to the Arctic and a job as a cross-cultural science instructor and math educator at Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, where he trained Inuit teachers to teach science and math. With a population of 6,000, high-speed Internet, a grocery store and even a movie theatre, Nunavut’s capital was a metropolis compared to Resolute.

Neil found Iqaluit to be fertile ground for innovation and development in teaching, but he saw a lack of will when it came to promoting the Inuktitut language. Most educational materials were English, and none of the stories or characters in the books reflected Arctic themes. Concerned by this, Neil and some teaching colleagues founded the Nunavut Bilingual Education Society, a non-profit organization aimed at promoting, preserving and protecting Inuktitut from cultural encroachment and potential extinction.

However, with Inuktitut teaching materials being rare or non-existent, especially at the elementary school level, it soon became apparent that that task was almost impossible. For that reason, Neil jumped at the idea when an Inuk colleague suggested they start a company to publish bilingual books for Nunavut classrooms. Inhabit Media began producing books for children, youths, and adults that supported cultural literacy and Inuktitut educational programs across the territory.

One of the company’s most successful initiatives has been the adaptation of Inuit traditional stories into children’s books. The goal of these publications was to give Nunavummiut children the opportunity to grow up reading about their own Inuit heroes and adventures. Eight years, 50 titles, two magazines for youth, and many book awards later, Inhabit Media is one of Canada’s most exciting new publishing companies.

Last year, Inhabit Media began experimenting with animation as a way to share Inuit stories with contemporary audiences. The company’s first short film, Amaqqut Nunaat (Country of Wolves), has won awards, earned wide critical acclaim, is being adapted as a graphic novel, and a feature film is in the works.

Queen's Alumni Review, 2013 Issue #2Queen's Alumni Review
2013 Issue #2
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