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  • Writer's pictureKelly VanderBeek OLY, Broadcaster, Trainer, Artist

Strengthening My Canadian Identity

(Also covering this trip was an article in the National Post)

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How do you summarize a trip that not only helped add a missing piece to my Canadian identity, it shone a light on my ignorance, and left me in awe of this vast country I call home.

I was asked to join Canadian company, One Ocean Expeditions, as part of their social outreach program. My husband, & 5x Olympian, David Ford also joined and our goal was to leave a positive impact in remote communities on Baffin Island.

Our voyage took us from Iqaluit (Nunavut’s Capital) to Resolute Bay with stops planned along the way. The schedule included visits to three remote communities of Pangnirtung, Qikiqtarjuaq & Pond Inlet. However, we quickly learned schedules are worth very little when your facing the Norths natural elements.

The pack ice that normally builds up against Greenland was, due to winds and currents, covering Baffin Island’s West coastline. This forced us to sail 160 to 200 kilometres off the shores and meant two community visits were cancelled. A profound reminder of just how isolated these communities are.

However, things were looking up when on the calm and sunny day 8 of our voyage we visited Pond Inlet. A town of just over 1,600 people welcomed us to their visitors centre to speak, then onto the community centre for a cultural demonstration that included traditional Arctic Games.

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Hijacking the libraries reading group, I, a ski racer from Kapuskasing, ON and David, a whitewater kayaker from Edmonton, AB spoke to a small group of kids with a focus on having come from unlikely places to achieve success in our respective sports.

(Photo: Roger Pimenta, One Ocean Expeditions)

We strove for authenticity in our time with this group, all under the age of 10. We wanted to foster hope and optimism through our stories of misconceptions, hardships and using creativity to achieve success.

In our time with this group, one moment took me by surprise.

I asked the group if they’d ever felt fear (a normal question I pose to this age group). An average response to this question results in one or two hands tentatively raised. However, in this group all but one kid raised their hands with ease.

This told me two things. One, they acknowledge their fear and two, they were willing to admit so in front of their peers. This is a remarkable contrast to other youth groups I’ve spoken to. Although we didn’t have time to delve into what caused them to feel fear, I soon learned more about a darker side to this quaint community.

Our host, a petite women with barely a wrinkle on her face and a smile that welcomed strangers, walked us from the visitors centre to the community centre.

When asked if she had kids, she responded plainly with, “Yes, 5. But my two boys did suicide. The oldest would have been 37.” Her raw and profound trauma shone through on her otherwise peaceful face. It was a somber reminder why building bridges with these remote communities is so important.

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Now at the community centre, the One Ocean Expedition passengers were dazzled by an athletic demonstration of traditional Inuit games. The athlete jumped, twisted, and seemingly flew to achieve the ultimate goal: make contact with the hanging birdie.

David and I, with 6 Olympic Games between us, are used to extreme challenges. However, we were put to shame as we attempted these physical maneuvers.

(Photo: Roger Pimenta, One Ocean Expeditions)

After doing our best to survive our attempts to reach the birdie, we had a chance to chat with the demonstrator.

His name is Brandon Killictec and in 17 days he hoped to qualify for the Nunavut team & compete in the 2018 Arctic Games in South Slave, NWT. Assuming he had training partners & coaches, I asked him about them. However, it didn’t take long to learn just how solitary his athletic pursuits are.

With a shy and unassumingly demeanour, Brandon explained, “I had a training partner. But he got a job in the mine, so doesn’t train anymore.”

I went on to ask him if he was mentoring others, and how many youth might take up the challenge to strike the hanging birdie? With a hint of sadness in his voice, he responded by saying he was the only one.

In an effort to encourage the athlete before us, David left him with a poster and encouraging words. As we left the gymnasium, I caught sight of him glowing as he showed an elder what he’d been given - this sight warmed my heart.

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Although my time in Canada’a Arctic was short, my memories of it’s people, polar bears, and ice won’t soon fade.

I now appreciate how little I had known about our Inuit people and their history. I developed a love for this Northern landscape, seemingly barren, but full of life if you’re willing to look closely & patiently. My Canadian fabric also feels more complete having experienced a part of our land that I’d identified with so deeply.

Lastly, if our time in Pond Inlet connected with even one person, this trip was a success.

When asked if I would return to the Arctic, if given the chance to connect again with these remote Northern communities, my answer is a resounding yes.

(Above Photo: Kelly VanderBeek, Beechey Island Graves)

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