Great Experience

Canada's Inuit Are a Story — and Song — of Resilience and Hope

by Stephanie Vermillion
All photos by Stephanie Vermillion.

As we think about our future travel plans, our thoughts turn to remote destinations and places that exhibit a purity of experience. Nunavit, the newest and northernmost Canadian province, certainly fits the bill. On a tour with Adventure Canada, Stephanie Vermillion learned about the traditions and history, at once noble and heartbreaking, of the Inuit people who live there. While the Canadian Arctic remains closed to cruise travel for 2020 for Covid-19 precautions, Adventure Canada will return to its expeditions and operations in 2021.

POND INLET, Nunavit, Canada ‑ With each raspy breath of the Inuit throat singers' song, my goosebumps grow to record levels. Throat singing is far from the refined style of a Mozart aria or the awe-inducing vocals of an Aretha Franklin, and that's exactly why I like it. In this traditional Inuit musical performance, two women acoustically compete in a face-to-face duet to see who can sing the longest. This rhythmic pattern of inhaling and exhaling is raw, unfiltered, and powered by cultural pride.

While the singing in and of itself is hauntingly beautiful, it's the cultural symbolism that's hitting me at my core. In its purity, throat singing is emblematic of Canada's Inuit culture, a culture that's intrinsically connected to the land and sea, and a culture that prizes community over riches or things.

Canadian Inuit traditions were virtually (and intentionally) wiped out no more than 50 years ago, which is why this cultural throat-singing demonstration in Nunavut's Arctic hamlet of Pond Inlet is so much more than a tourist photo opp.

From 1831 to 1996, Canada's government placed an estimated 150,000 indigenous children in church-run residential schools designed to educate, convert, and integrate them into Canadian society. Children were banned from using their native language at these abuse-riddled schools; an in-depth study confirmed this approach was "cultural genocide."

Heidi Metcalfe-Langille, a young Inuit culturalist with Arctic expedition company Adventure Canada, grew up hearing horror stories about residential school from her father.

"My dad went to a residential school, and we know that a lot of abuse happened there. When I went to school in southern Canada, he never stepped foot in the school with me or any of my siblings. He would tell me, ‘you don't need to come to school today,' or ‘stay at home with me and you'll learn more.'"

Metcalfe-Langille finished school due to her Dutch mother's persistence, but she couldn't shake her cultural connection or her father's hardships, so she became an Inuit advocate and culturalist. Cultural education is one of her many roles with the small-ship expedition company; she speaks about Canadian Inuit history and customs to ensure guests understand and fully respect the culture before visiting small communities like Pond Inlet.

When I joined an expedition with Adventure Canada, I knew I'd learn about Inuit traditions and maybe meet an Inuk or two, but Metcalfe-Langille's presentation on the Canadian Inuit culture captivated then shook me in ways I never imagined. This trip was no longer about travel or an Arctic bucket list; after Metcalfe-Langille shared her family's story, these eleven days became a cultural education I'm still baffled I needed.

Few Americans — or anyone outside the community, for that matter — know the horrors the Canadian Inuit faced. I knew almost nothing. Residential schools were only one example. Another occurred when the Canadian government forcefully exiled 90 Inuit, relocating them 1,500 miles north — pawns in Arctic politics.

Outspoken advocates like Metcalfe-Langille are working to not only raise international awareness, but also to help the once endangered Inuit culture rebound in Canada.

"Look at the landscape around you and imagine having a people not only survive but thrive here for 4,000 years," she said as the boat neared Pond Inlet. "We're extremely resilient, and even with all that recent history, we've negotiated four different land claims agreements, which is a huge accomplishment."

These land claims agreements, signed in all four Inuit regions across Canada, give Inuit the title to certain blocks of land. The combined agreements cover roughly 40 percent of Canada's total land mass. The deals hardly make up for decades of abuse and a near genocide of Inuit culture — nothing can salvage that. But as we're immersed in Pond Inlet's throat singing presentation, an omnipresent sense of pride confirms things are looking up for Canada's Inuit culture.

The elders wear giddy smiles as the singers battle, near breathless, to outlast one another. Costumed children clap along, while starry-eyed girls watch with admiration, hoping they'll get their shot at singing soon. Metcalfe-Langille, a throat singer herself, happily taps along.

My goosebumps are ever-growing, but it's from more than these talented young throat singers. I feel honored, humbled, and almost unworthy to be stepping foot into a celebration of a culture this resilient and beautiful. But their welcoming smiles remind me that, even as an outsider, I'm welcome here. That's one of the many things the world could learn from Canada's Inuit culture.

"When Inuit get together, it's all about connections and how we're connected in some way," Metcalfe-Langille says proudly. "We're very family focused, we have great respect for the land, and we tend to see the good in people."