• Students and staff at Nunavut Sivuniksavut Photo: Katherine Takpannie

    A group of students and staff from Nunavut Sivuniksavut, an Ottawa school devoted to Inuit youth education. (Photo: Katherine Takpannie)

Inside the Nunavut Sivuniksavut building on Rideau Street in Ottawa, you might hear people talk about something called the NS curve.

It’s a simple one-page diagram that encompasses major highlights of Inuit history. The curve — which starts on a high point of pre-explorer days, dips to a low in the late 1960s following systematic sled-dog killings by government administrators and begins to peak with the development of local councils and land claims agreements in the 1970s — serves as a jumping-off point for a character-building journey that some 40 students generally aged 18 to 20 take on during the eight-month program run by the non-profit organization.

The organization’s name translates roughly as “Nunavut, Our Future” and that’s where students and instructors are focused. To look ahead, they look back and try to put into context all the rapid change that took place and led to the establishment of Nunavut in 1999.

The diagram is shorthand for a transformation that many have witnessed, including Melissa Irwin. She was born in Chesterfield Inlet in 1975 and later moved to Rankin Inlet, the nearest community that had a high school. She came to Nunavut Sivuniksavut as an 18-year-old in 1994, when what would become Nunavut was still part of the Northwest Territories.

“Really contributing is going back home,” Irwin says — and she did, working for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, CBC North and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the organization that assures that land claim agreements are enacted. She eventually found her way back to Nunavut Sivuniksavut, where she is now an instructor.

In one of Irwin’s classes, students read, line by line, the minutes of the Coppermine Conference, held in what is now Kugluktuk in 1970. It was a turning point for Inuit independence when, spurred by massive oil and gas exploration taking place on Banks Island, people gathered to draw up resolutions on Indigenous rights, education, hunting and trapping, administration, and the control of polar bears. 

Reflecting on her students’ reactions to this peak of Inuit politicization, Irwin remarks on the evolving relationship between Inuit and Canada in the country’s 150th year. “We continue to evolve, grow and aspire to be a contributing part of Canada,” she says, “but an equal part of Canada as well.”

Murray Angus, who founded Nunavut Sivuniksavut in 1985, recalls its early years. “Youth were finding one another at a seminal time in the socio-political world,” he says. After years of sustained land claims negotiations, Inuit leadership saw there would be a need to make sense of what happened for years to come. Out of that came Nunavut Sivuniksavut, the first incarnation of which was as an organization that trained fieldworkers. “In a sense, Nunavut Sivuniksavut has become an equivalent to that place for Inuit youth of today to come together and get a grounding in their history and culture.”

Students apply to Nunavut Sivuniksavut and are chosen based on character references. They leave with a college certificate in Inuit studies and, less tangibly, a better sense of self as they think critically about dynamics of power, control, independence and autonomy. Those skills help young people on the cusp of adulthood develop pride in their heritage, while living in Ottawa for months at a time helps demystify the south.

Students are shown a paved pathway to post-secondary education through courses run in conjunction with Algonquin College and Carleton University. Cultural programming brings alive traditions that have waned, such as beading and making parkas, drums and ulus (a type of knife), while trips abroad — recently to New Zealand to visit with Maori people — bring global indigenous issues into the frame. These experiences help build a strong, active citizenry with the goal of having northerners contributing to the future of the North. The students develop agency, rather than being spectators in the world being played out before them, says Morley Hanson, Nunavut Sivuniksavut’s coordinator, comparing the pre-contact North with the complexity of today’s modern Arctic.

“Through the program, the students start to answer the question, ‘If we were once like that and we’re now like this, what happened?’”