McCombie Annanack’s mom had written on one of her care packages that he should “thaw some and keep some frozen for later,” but after he fried the Arctic char she sent him, he did the typical Inuit thing—he shared the rest with his college friends. Annanack, from the northern Quebec village of Kangiqsualujjuaq, is one of 17 new Inuit students to arrive at John Abbot College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, part of metropolitan Montreal, in early August. A feature article on Saturday in the Montreal Gazette tells their stories.
The students all come from small communities where they know almost everyone else in town, and they will have adjustments to make in the huge city environment. They have different backgrounds, of course, and different hopes for the future. Annanack hopes to return to the north as a lawyer after he completes his education. His goal is to protect the Inuit. But at the moment, the young man—he is only 15—especially misses the country food, and really appreciated the care package.
Louisa Etok, also a new student, is five years older than Annanack. She worked at a daycare center for a year after completing high school, while he skipped two grades in his schooling. But she is also homesick. The malady hit a couple weeks ago while she was watching movies with her friends in the John Abbot dormitory where all the Inuit students stay. She got an intense bout of homesickness and called her mother, also in Kangiqsualujjuaq. Her mother urged her to stay at school and continue her schoolwork.
The Inuit students quickly form friendships with one another. It seems to help. They walk to classes together, eat together in the dorm, hang out in the living room, and take public transportation downtown with one another. The cook in the dorm, Tina Tupper, assumes the role of unofficial den mother. She listens carefully when the youngsters talk out their concerns.
Many of the students do not last long enough at John Abbot to graduate, much less to go on to a university. (Students in the province of Quebec graduate from high school one year sooner than in the rest of Canada, and some go on for two years to a college—equivalent to a junior college elsewhere—before they are then admitted to a university.) Johnny Padlayat, 20, has returned to John Abbot to see if he can make it through. He failed the intensive preparatory course and left a couple years ago, before the college courses even began.
He went back to his hometown and worked at a deadend job as a stock clerk for a while. He admits he did a lot of drinking and got into trouble. But his drinking days are now over, he says.
Stacey Kasudluak, an 18 year old from Inukjuak, also says she misses the country food of her hometown, particularly boiled seal and caribou. She makes it clear to the reporter that she wants to get her education so she can become a doctor. But she does not want to return permanently to the Arctic. “There are too many problems up there—alcohol and drug-related. I’m not surrounded by those problems as much here. Knowing I want to stay out of the North is keeping me motivated to stay here,” she told the Gazette. But she admitted she was nervous about all the work she would have to do at the college.
Dealing with culture shock will be a significant challenge for many of the students, according to Mike O’Connor, a counselor at John Abbot. The students tell him they feel more lonely in a city of three million than they did in a village of a few hundred. They have moved from a society that is community-focused to one which is totally individualistic and competitive. It’s hard for them. Also, they are not used to the heat of southern Canada, and the crowds of people bother them.
Three quickly failed in early August during the orientations and preparatory courses, and one other left for personal reasons. English is a second language for them, and their written English is not up to the standards of the college. Out of the 160 Inuit students who have arrived at John Abbot since 2003, only 20 have graduated. But Louise Legault, coordinator at the Aboriginal Resource Centre at the college, says that the numbers do not necessarily reflect the value of the experience. Some of the students go back to their home communities after only one year and are able to get good jobs as a result.
Of the 13 new Inuit students who remain, Sammy Adams, for one, is determined to graduate. He admitted that he fell asleep in one of his classes during the first week of school last week, but fortunately he had his sun glasses on so the instructor was not aware of it. He comes from Kuujuaq, the largest community in Nunavik, the Inuit territory of northern Quebec. Kuujuaq has 2,500 residents, about half the student population of John Abbot College.
He is particularly bothered by the crowds. “I miss being in a place with less people and fewer cars,” he says. Everybody talks all the time, he complains. He’s comfortable with quiet, and not used to the constant noise of the city. But after he graduated from high school in Kuujuaq, he got a job for a construction firm. His bosses urged him to go back to college. “They told me to continue my education—or they won’t hire me back,” he said in jest.
Sapina Snowball, a recent graduate of John Abbott, is ready to start her first semester at Concordia University in Montreal. She talked with some of the new students last week, who went downtown to meet up with her. She is from the same town as Louisa Etok, and is the same age. She gave some good advice to her friend. “Home will stay there forever and you won’t be here forever. Do your work, hand it in on time and make friends with your teachers,” she suggested. Solidarity among the Inuit students seems to be a key to their adjustments.