Rigolet In Three Acts

Early Wednesday morning I said goodbye to Ashlee and Jamie, as I made my way to the Goose Bay airport with Sheri to begin the first leg of our journey home. As I stood in line waiting to get my boarding passes, I couldn’t help but think how quickly our research trip to Rigolet and Goose Bay had been. It really felt like I’d only just unpacked, but in reality so much had happened between the time I arrived and the moment that I stood there waiting to board my first flight home. And as I boarded the plane to Halifax I started thinking about the past year and my experiences in Nunatsiavut.  

My first visit introduced me to the remote village of Rigolet seemingly a million miles from everywhere. After flying from Toronto to St. John’s, St. John’s to Goose Bay, and finally Goose Bay to Rigolet in subsequently smaller and smaller planes, I really had no idea what to expect when I landed with Oliver on that chilly October morning last year. All I know is that as soon as I stepped off the plane I was bear hugged by my friend Victoria, introduced to Karl (of the famous Sandi and Karl), and then whisked away to our home-away-from-home. Before Oliver and I had a chance to unpack, we were barreling across the dark waters that provide the community access to traditional hunting and gathering grounds, taking in the scenery and breathtaking beauty of the land and the water and the sky. And as we flew across the water at break-neck speeds in a craft expertly piloted by Karl towards a weekend getaway with the bulk of the research team, I knew instantly that I was going to love this place like no other I’ve been to. 

That first experience introduced me to the land, and the people who call Nunatsiavut home. It taught me how they have come to co-exist with the harsh and beautiful environment here, thriving because of a learned and deep respect for what the land provides and for how easily that can change if that respect is forgotten. And it gave me a chance to experience first hand what I imagine is a small fraction of the powerful bond that exists between the land and its people. It was an incredibly rewarding and entirely humbling experience.

When I returned to Rigolet in February, the team once again spent time on the land. This time, however, we were exposed to the harsh realities and stunning beauty of the circumpolar winter. Temperatures that dove far beyond sub-zero, blowing wind, white out conditions, ice, and snow; all giving rise to an otherworldly, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring vision like nothing I’ve ever experienced. And in the same trip we were transported across the land and through the forests surrounded by trees covered in impossibly perfect and pristine dollops of blue-white snow. The land was quiet and entirely peaceful, the air crisp and fresh and refreshing. It was altogether surreal, and stunning, and entirely impossible to describe in a way that does it the justice it deserves. And once again I learned of the importance and need for a deep respect for the land, and how it can’t be separated from the community of people who live here. 

This trip was no less remarkable. We joined the community to take part in the Rigolet Salmon Festival, an annual multi-day event. And everywhere I went, every activity I took part in, every event I attended, I was surrounded by smiling faces and laughter and community. Wide-eyed and chubby cheeked children waved furiously as a line of brightly decorated cars paraded through town, while others chased deflating balloons that shot through the air. Parents and grandparents sat around chatting and laughing, seemingly oblivious to the chilly winds that had me dancing on the spot to stay warm. 

On one particular afternoon I wrapped my cupped hands around a delicious bowl of home-made soup, and then again around a cup of freshly brewed coffee, fighting away the chills that were threatening to cascade through my body. And as I sipped the coffee, inhaling the gentle aromas that steamed up and fogged over my glasses, I took in the crowds and enjoyed the simplicity of the scenes that unfolded before me; the groups of people who’d gathered to listen to music, to share good food, to laugh. And everywhere I looked, wide toothy grins and impossibly happy eyes greeted me, welcomed me, made me feel at home. It was, at least to me, the very definition of joyful, and altogether humbling. 

The festival culminated Saturday night with a huge community feast and dance, and as I sat in the hall enjoying the delicate and delicious salmon that was the centrepiece of the festival, I was impressed and inspired once again by the group of people who had assembled to share a meal together. It gave me a different perspective than my previous trips to Rigolet, because I was able to witness how the culture and community had shaped itself around the fruits of the land, had made it an integral part of their existence. And again it was impressed upon me the fact that this community couldn’t be separated from the land; it was, it is, and always will be a part of them. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that the land and environment are changing, and it’s having a significant impact on the health and wellness of the community. With extreme weather (the result of climate change), Rigolet and the entire Arctic region are seeing changes and experiencing effects that the rest of us should be paying far more attention to. Currently when the inconvenience of extreme heat hits the lower latitudes of Canada, many of us complain about the weather and promptly turn up the air conditioning, but for the most part we go about our days unconcerned about where our food will come from, or whether or not our health and wellbeing, our way of life, will be affected. Things aren’t quite so simple in the north. For a community so connected to the land, a changing climate means that traditions that have stood for countless years are now in jeopardy. Arctic communities are unable to access the land to hunt and gather because the ice they rely on for transportation no longer forms when it should, and when it does it is too thin and too unsafe. The result is that communities like Rigolet are being forced off the land, the very land that is so central to their identity, and this is having a very serious effect on their physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and cultural health. It shouldn’t be this way. 

The good news is that this community and others like it are extremely resilient. And I think this is borne of their connection to the land, a land that has stood the test of time and has weathered countless storms and challenges. It may be rough and jagged, and it may bear the scars of these challenges, but just beneath that surface is a strength and beauty and incredible life force that will continue to see it through whatever future challenges come its way. I see that same strength in the eyes of the people here. There’s a knowing that seems to twinkle in them, as if to say we’re in this for the long haul.

I feel very fortunate that I get to spend time in this community. I am humbled by the things it has taught me, and shared with me. Yes, I’m in the community to do a job, to develop a tool with this amazing community that will allow them to easier monitor the changing environment and its impacts on their health and well-being. But I can’t help but feel that this is so much more than just a job. This place, the people who live here, are so incredibly unique and special, that to consider this just a job would be offensive. 

Thank you Rigolet. I hope to one day to be able to give back to you what you’ve given me. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever come close.

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