A new television series, Arctic Air, began about the time I moved from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to London, Ontario a few weeks ago. Questions and comments about Arctic Air and Ice Road Truckers reflect peoples’ interest in the North, and in particular, about how well these programs correspond to reality. The comments remind me of a young Dene woman in the isolated fly-in community of Trout Lake, NWT. Having watched television programs about cities in southern Canada she refused an invitation to visit Hamilton, Ontario because it is altogether too dangerous. While I have often driven on ice roads (although not in a huge transport truck), and flown in small planes, life is much less dramatic than the television programs portray.
What is it like to live north of sixty? Our pilots and flight engineers are well trained persons who take their responsibilities seriously and would never operate in the cavalier fashion portrayed by actors in Arctic Air. Our health care workers would never allow a woman in labour to sit in an airport or go on a flight in dangerous weather and unescorted by a professional. Nor would passengers behave as inebriated rowdies depicted in the January 24 telecast.
The north has many social problems and Arctic Air gives us a glimpse of these. A nomadic culture in a very harsh environment produced strong, independent people, close knit family groups, and cultural norms very different from norms in southern Canada. Fur traders introduced alcohol. Europeans brought new diseases, foreign concepts of governing, and ideas about educating children which tore families apart. Missionaries brought a new religion and understanding of God. There has been a huge and rapid change from living on the land in family groups in a culture based on hunting and trapping to living in town where there are necessities such as heating fuel, electricity, store bought food, and gasoline powered vehicles together with high unemployment and a desire for modern goods and services.
The effects of rapid change are exacerbated by the legacy of residential schools. Many of the clients I saw in my counselling practice had been profoundly affected by either their years at residential school or the intergenerational effects of being raised by parents or grandparents who had attended these schools. To hear their stories is to understand how their dysfunctional lives are simply an attempt to cope with pain. My hope is that the services now being provided through the Indian Residential School Program (IRS) will bring about healing for aboriginal people and a better future for their children.
So, enjoy Arctic Air, but know that it does not begin to show the amazing dignity and strength of the elders or the struggles of people who are still learning to live in a very different world than that of their grandparents.
Patricia McKeon, csj