Column: Confessions of a homesick Inuk

It took a few months, mishaps and a march to get a fresh perspective on her Northern home.

By Cecile Lyall, illustration by Monika Melnychuk

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 When I first moved to Ottawa, the biggest thing for me—my friends and I found it very funny—was that Inuit are used to using our faces to answer questions. Have you seen anyone say “yes” with their eyebrows and “no” with their nose? In restaurants, we’d always piss off waiters because they didn’t know what we were saying. They’d ask us questions and wonder why we weren’t answering. It took me a good three or four months to learn to actually talk.

I moved to Ottawa in September 2012 to start at Nunavut Sivuniksavut, a two-year post-secondary program for young Inuit. Going down south with NS was really different from moving there on your own, because there were 30 other students with me. We all got used to the city together.

I’d grown up in Taloyoak, Nunavut, and had travelled mostly to nearby communities and Edmonton. Before Ottawa, I’d never really lived away from home. I could feel the difference even on my way there. In Taloyoak, we start to get snow in September, so I left home wearing my fall jacket. Bad choice. The closer I got to Ottawa, the more hot and humid it got—so my first experience there was being really overheated. Then I moved into an apartment with no air conditioning…

At first, I got really homesick. I Facebooked my family and friends a lot, and it helps. We’re really lucky with social media. Also, through our school we’d get free cargo with First Air, so my parents would send lots of caribou and fish.

But Ottawa is such a different place from the rest of southern Canada, because there’s a really strong Inuk presence. There’s an Inuit health centre that offered weekend sewing sessions. The third Thursday of every month, they put on a lunch of traditional foods.

One thing that really affected me was a protest I went to, one of the Idle No More marches. Some young First Nations people from northern Quebec had walked down to Ottawa for an audience with the Prime Minister, and my friends and I walked with them up to the Parliament Buildings.

The march started on Victoria Island, about 15 minutes from downtown. My journey in Ottawa had begun here months before, when we had our first NS performance, singing in an indigenous artists’ program. Back then, I’d been more closed and scared and nervous. This time I felt a deeper connection with the city and myself. As we marched up to Parliament Hill, you felt a sense of family, that we were all there for one purpose. When we reached the Hill the speeches began, and out of the blue a lone eagle flew circles in the sky. It was like a sign we were on the right path.

Seeing the reactions people had from this one eagle was moving. You could feel the power and excitement roaring through the crowd, coursing through your veins. At that moment I was no longer a small town girl; I was a part of the global community.

Anywhere I went could be home.

Then me and a few of my friends went out for Chinese food. This time, I had no trouble ordering my food.

Having lived in Nunavut my whole life, I didn’t really know the battle that Inuit had to go through to make Nunavut happen. Going outside Nunavut, I got to appreciate that a lot more—not just the land, but the people and all our accomplishments.

By the time I returned to Taloyoak the following summer, I realized how small my hometown was. In my first few weeks back home, I felt a little bit isolated. I had never felt like that before.

On the other side of that, coming home to all this open space and no trees—being able to see everything in front of me—really helped me appreciate how beautiful it is here.