image by Michelle Valberg
Canada became my country when my family emigrated from southern Germany to St. Catharines, Ontario during the early 1950s. The prevailing post-war social and educational climate in southern Ontario of the 1950s was, at times, most hostile to German immigrants because Canadians had not yet had enough time to adjust to peacetime. Many negative experiences at school taught me sensitivity to racial prejudice and discrimination issues. In self-defence, I mastered the English language to blend in with my peers at school while learning to read and write German at home from my mother without being aware that I had a hearing disability.
My lifelong hearing disability, first diagnosed accurately in 1984, made me aware of the difficulties and negative social effects of an unsuspected learning disability or problem. My failure to complete high school coupled with my unexpected success in university taught me empathy for, and understanding of, thwarted adult learners.
The start of my recovery from childhood abuse and the influence of the feminist movement at university in the early 1970s acquainted me with feminist concerns. After graduation from Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and German Literature, my first marriage failed, and I took what I learned to Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Nunavut, at the northernmost tip of Baffin Island in Canada’s arctic. I did not then know how vital these lessons would be in my life among Inuit and my career with Inuit adults.
My ”apprenticeship” in Inuit living with my husband, my elderly parents-in-law and extended family-in-law lasted 12 years, up to 1986. As daughter-in-law to elderly traditional Inuit, I felt privileged to share a portion of their lives. In order to understand my “saki” (mother-in-law), I made the effort to learn to speak Inuktitut, the Inuit language, in spite of my hearing problems, to the point where I was able to make travel and work arrangements for local Inuit who spoke no English. After a few years, I was able to understand quite a bit of the stories that were told me by the old ones and others of the community. The only drawback to learning Inuktitut was the erosion of my French language skills. My first language, German, also suffered a bit through disuse.
It was my privilege to participate fully in my Inuit extended family’s lifestyle. I learned to sew clothing and footgear, worked seal and fox skins for sale, ate whatever game was caught for the family including seal meat, went camping, hunting and fishing, learned land survival skills and how to tend a “qulliq” (seal oil lamp) for cooking and heat. In short, I learned all the necessary Inuit contemporary and quasi-traditional house and land skills. I kept house for my parents-in-law for five years before establishing my own household. I shared with my extended family the money earned from part-time jobs and sales of prepared skins and self-made crafts (finger-woven items, wall-hangings and necklaces made from local materials). I cared for the younger children of my extended family along with my own two children as needed and helped wherever and whenever I was able. I shared in the birth, deaths and all the trials and tribulations of my family and the local community.
In 1976 my son, Ruben Komangapik, was born and, because he remained an only child, in 1979 I custom-adopted my daughter, Lillian Ulayuk Komangapik, as arranged by my mother-in-law. I raised her as if I had given birth to hermyself. That was easy because she was 5 days old when I received her.
In 1978 I won the design award in the "Things that Make us Beautiful" contest for Inuit artists. Because I had married my Inuit husband before 1986, I was legally considered "Inuit". My winning necklace, made of Inuit traditional materials in a modern design, is currently in storage in the Inuit Art section of the Canadian Museum of History (formerly known as the Museum of Civilization) in Gatineau, Quebec. The museum values this piece as an example of "Inuit cultural transition", I was told. I made this necklace for the contest in an attempt to demonstrate to my extended family how to establish an arts/crafts career. The necklace served to inspire my son, Ruben Komangapik, to become a well-known, respected Inuit jeweller, sculptor and carver.
1981 saw the demise of the seal skin industry as a means of support for local Inuit families. The effects were unparalleled social change in the Inuit community. The local people were forced to take wage employment to earn money or, if no employment was available, to seek social service support. I and my extended family were also affected. As if this were not hard enough, in that very same year both my parents-in-law died within months of each other. This passing devastated all my extended family, particularly my husband.
I had made it a practice to maintain part-time employment while in Mittimatalik aside from my home and craft activities to earn money to help make ends meet. Through working as a part-time instructor of laboratory procedures for a sea-ice study project, as part-time expeditor of personnel for the oil exploration companies and as part-time local airline agent, I rounded out my practical knowledge and experience of the local weather, geography and transportation as well as the vagaries of local ice and sea and their functions in Inuit life.
Viable full-time local employment was scarce in Mittimatalik in the mid-1980s, so I, as a newly single mother, gained my Training for Trainers Certificate in 1986 at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and began my career as community adult educator with the Government of Northwest Territories, which took me and my children away to Ikpiarjuk (Arctic Bay), Nunavut, in 1986, and from there to Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River), Nunavut, in 1988 where I ended my "camping-on-the-land" days.
In early 1991, I moved with my children to Iqaluit, Nunavut, located in the southeast of Baffin Island on Frobisher Bay, where I worked as an adult educator and instructor on campus at Nunavut Arctic College. For three years I coordinated and instructed special programs for Inuit adults with learning and social problems. In 1993 I attained my Masters Degree in Adult Education from St. Francis Xavier University. My Master’s thesis concerned native first language adult literacy as a necessary foundation for English adult literacy learning.
In 1994 I became a grandmother during the time I began writing my chapter of the Canadian Congress of Learning Opportunities for Women (CCLOW) feminist literacy book, Making Connections, published in 1996.
Throughout my northern career, I was passionately involved in aboriginal literacy issues. I initiated the idea for the Peter Gzowski Invitational (PGI) Celebrity Golf Tournament on-the-ice fund-raisers for aboriginal literacy. I was honoured by Peter Gzowski’s invitation to the first northern PGI Tournament held in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in 1990, which raised funds that led to the establishment of the Northwest Territories Literacy Association, which later formed the Nunavut Literacy Association. This association provided literacy funding for community aboriginal literacy initiatives. (They disappeared during the mid-2000s due to government budget cuts.) The following year, in May 1991, I was invited, but this time as a so-called celebrity, to the PGI Celebrity Golf Tournament held in Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), my former home community, at that time the place I had lived the longest in Canada. In May 1997, I had the honour of being sponsored as the Poet Laureate for the PGI Tournament held in Iqaluit, Nunavut, while employed as museum curator/manager of Iqaluit's Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum.
I always dreamed of becoming a poet and writer. I won a poetry award in high school in 1965 and wrote poetry all my life. During my university years, I served as manager/editor of Brock University' s student poetry group, Poesis, writing and editing for their Poesis Magazine, 1972-1974. In 1995 I received a Northwest Territories Arts Council grant to write poetry on northern themes. According to the grant provisions, I publicly read my poems in Iqaluit during 1995 and 1996 and was thrilled to be well received by my Inuit English-speaking audience.
In July 1996, I completed writing Uqausivut, English language workbook for low level literary, using adapted Inuktitut Magazine articles, a project begun with the Iqaluit Centennial Library and completed with Nunavut Arctic College. The College distributed the manuscript in-house for adult literacy training in the Baffin Community Learning Centres in 1996.
Between March 1996 and January 1999 as a result of budget cuts, I worked part-time as Coordinator of Academic Assessments and Educational Counselling at Nunavut Arctic College. At the same time, I worked full-time on staggered hours as the Manager/Curator of the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum. At the museum, I managed the re-installation of the museum's artefact collection into its then newly expanded building. I documented, cared for and exhibited the museum’s collection, conducting museum educational and artistic programs and promoting Inuit traditional cultural knowledge. Meanwhile, I also conducted my micro-business, called "Uqausivut", writing, editing and providing educational services, which I still pursue today.
From 1994 to 2000, I trained adult male inmates on evening part-time contracts delivering personal skills development workshops at the Baffin Correctional Centre, Department of Justice, Northwest Territories Government. I also taught evening English as a Second Language classes to non-aboriginal students for Continuing Education at Arctic College as well as Business Communications and Mathematics for Arts Careers for the Jewellery and Metalwork Program at the college. I found it difficult to write creatively with all the various demands on my time to support my family. Relief came in January 1999 when I was rehired as a full-time permanent Instructor for Academic Studies, Community Programs, Nunavut Arctic College on the formation of the new Nunavut Territory.
As a result of a series of family tragedies and their complications, I left Nunavut Arctic College in summer of 2001. I found contract work as an English as a Second Language teacher to new Canadians, immigrants and refugees at the Folk Arts Council, St. Catharines, Ontario. In December 2001 this contract ended and I moved to Ottawa, Ontario, and then took on a 5-month instructor contract with Community Programs, Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit from January to May 2002. During the same period, I also contracted to instruct English as a Second Language and to provide editing services for Human Resources, Government of Nunavut. In February 2001, I received a long-term service award from Nunavut Arctic College and was re-offered a permanent instructor position. I had considered returning to Iqaluit prior to this contract, but my personal health and family concerns convinced me to continue my life in Ottawa, Ontario.
In 2002, I re-established my business, Uqausivut, in Ottawa, Ontario. In 2004 I was hired as a part-time adult LBS (Literacy and Basic Skills) instructor by Ottawa Catholic Schools. That same year I embarked on the LBS Practitioner’s Training in order to enhance my instructional skills for adult students. In the Ottawa area I devoted my time to part-time instruction, my various writing projects and developing my academic, presentation and artistic skills.
I volunteered my services whenever the opportunity arose, a practice I have maintained throughout my career. I have advocated for the Canadian Hearing Society. I am a former director and later served as occasional advisor/editor to the Board of Directors of the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre which operates the Sivummut Head Start Program and Inuit Day Care Centre. I was also a long-term volunteer for the Canadian Authors Association, National Capital Region Branch, as the Communications Coordinator. In December 2014, I received my Speech-reading Intructor Level 1 Certificate from The Canadian Hard of Hearing Society in order to help those who are hard of hearing.
I retired from my part-time job with the Ottawa Catholic Schools and moved to the Gaspesie region of the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec at the end of December 2014. Since March 2015 I live in New Richmond, Quebec.
2015 will bring a new chapter to Uqausivut in Quebec, with its new licenced French business name, Enterprise Uqausivut.
My prime interest outside my work activities remains my family—my Inuit children and grandchildren. They keep me connected with contemporary Inuit culture and the language, Inuktitut. They keep me current on the topics of Inuit social wellness, education, employment, and the arts. An ongoing concern is the preservation personal histories for my Inuit family, their traditional stories, as well as those of my birth family in whatever way that they are told, in words or image.