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reading hello

January 14, 2017

Living back in the South again, it’s been easy to readjust to trees and mild moist weather. It’s harder to stop speaking Inuktut to say hello.

A southern colleague felt slighted when I greeted them by looking in their eyes and raising my eyebrows. They thought I was ignoring them. In Nunavut, that same greeting often results in a softening and brightening of the Inuk face I’m looking at, and a longer mirroring gaze back at me. We take the time to see each other. I’m speaking the local language and that means something.

I miss this silent language of greeting. Back home, I smile and wave and speak ritual words. I experience this as more effort for less connection, and sometimes as less honest.

suddenly we’re singing

February 9, 2016

I’ve been uncomfortable with a colleague – something prickly between us. I asked this person to watch me while I did a new skill that involved poking someone who has some fear of needles – one of those moments of unvoiced vulnerability and courage which are so common in health care.

Suddenly she starts singing an innocent song from the time and place where we both grew up – a song that probably means nothing to anyone else in the room. I sing along. The patient is calm. The procedure is finished. My colleague leaves and we go about our days.

That shared cultural moment in a place where we are both outsiders felt so very sweet. It only lasted a minute. It was unexpected medicine, from an unexpected source – all the more potent because it came through someone I associated with conflict.

To whatever magic, grace or inspiration brought that song into that moment, through that person, I am grateful. My heart is still open. My face is still smile-softened. Curiosity feels better than judgment.

national costume as solidarity

October 10, 2015

Canadian solidarity, with humour – understated or blunt?

Niqabs of/du Canada

from the land which grows the stories we become

September 25, 2015

Pacific Island and Arctic communities have much in common. Hearing that some Islanders are relocating as their food and well water are being poisoned by salt water, while others choose to stay on the land they know, as their ancestors have directed them, even as it shrinks and changes, I think of forced relocations of Inuit, and refugees the world over.


What happens to what we know, when we are displaced from the land which grows the stories we become, and from the ancestors who guide life on that land? How do we keep knowing how to live, when everything is changing? What happens in the people who stay, the people who leave, and the stretched connection between them? In the meeting grounds which result from displacement, what images help life-supporting connections to grow?

The dislodged shipwreck could batter village during unusually high king tides resulting from climate change. The blue building is the hospital which was flooded by king tides, and rebuilt.

Stories from different Pacific Island communities are being added to 350.org/frontline-truths every few days – Fiji most recently.

when helping hurts

September 18, 2015

The borderlands that separate genuine helpfulness from meddling—or worse—are an unruly region in the realm of thought…riddled with questions of consent and of who-knows-best.

Here’s an interesting discussion about de/colonisation, aid work, and when “helping” hurts. Haitian workers and citizens give very clear examples of well-intentioned policies/practices which have actually promoted poverty and removed people’s independence. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/ideas-from-the-trenches-just-trying-to-help-1.3227693

I’m now struggling to see what the good ways of helping are. Wealthy nations continue to cause disaster, poverty in Haiti. And the path to understanding is looking at how we contribute to that destruction.

Marylynn Steckley, PhD graduate, Western University.

Where is that “path to understanding” being walked in my communities and workplaces? Where are the small spaces where we can step together into looking at our own practices, with help from examples like this podcast?  Where do we pause to notice what is going well “on the ground” compared with “on paper”? There’s often an air of being “too busy” for these conversations – but what, really, is more important than decolonising ourselves and our work as “helpers”?

Isn’t it a special kind of twisted, when people who need help have to receive it from people who are at the same time actively, if unintentionally, perpetuating harm? I have been so hungry for self-compassionate and critical conversations which change business-as-usual in caring work done in/for/with/by Inuit and First Nations communities. I’ve seen good people come and go, good working relationships begun and abandoned, when committed attention to effectiveness could have kept helpers and the people they work with connected, satisfied, engaged, together co-creating contagious positive change. Let’s talk! And let’s breathe, reflect, wonder, inquire, adjust, pause, notice, repeat.

how to say

September 17, 2015

This week I had the delicious experience of discussing ideas with a group of people from several cultures. As we shared ways of expressing similar concepts in our different languages, I felt sad that we don’t do that so much in Nunavut. There are often interpreters at public events, but that is not the same as a discussion. There are radio shows in Inuktitut, English or French, but I don’t remember hearing any multilingual programmes. Why not have language & culture education like CBC Radio’s C’est la Vie, with the languages and dialects spoken in NU?

It delights me to find Inuit language where I don’t expect it – like framed on a friend’s wall in the Netherlands. What does it mean that a non-Inuk (and non-Danish) person brings word-phrases to my attention which I did not learn while living among Inuit? Here’s “itinerant printmaker” and former Writer-in-Residence at Upernavik Museum, Nancy Campbell, speaking about How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic.

While I feel uncomfortable to learn from a non-Inuit artist without hearing the voices of the Inuit who presumably advised her, I find the simple presentation of text effective at catching my attention and making me want to hear more. One evocative phrase at a time leaves me with plenty of blank space around it, into which to cast my imagination. Am I able to absorb cadence and meaning more easily with so much space around each phrase?

That space is much like my impression of the land of Nunavut – many of its vast distances uninterrupted by anything tall. My predominant elemental relationship is with air, not water or ice or even the ground on which I walk. All that space and silence gives me plenty of room to think. As I write this, I begin thinking of gaps as rich grounds for imagination and potential understanding. I’d like to see images of Northern lives with blank spots to show how little we from North and South are connected, and overlapping or blended or concentrated spots for the places where we meet.

To close, here’s Drude Aviaja, of the Language Centre in Sisimiut, sharing an introduction to Kalaallisut, Inuit language spoken in Greenland.

displacement & daily practice | hanging out with what I don’t yet know

September 6, 2015

Working in Northern health care, I’m partly in and partly out of my own culture, partly in and partly out of a familiar sense of place (familiar health care culture and clinic setup, unfamiliar host culture, terrain and climate). I end up sitting with lots of questions, and few places to talk about them in helpful ways. That’s the main reason I started this blog – to connect with people who sit with related questions.

Journalling has helped somewhat. Making things with my hands and walking on the land/ice has given me space to turn over these questions in my mind. A regular, loosely-structured image-making practice helps a lot, but even though I am an art therapist who believes deeply in the power of creativity, I have not been so good at sticking to a daily creative practice.

Lately, my questions have crystallised around the notion of “displacement.” I’ve voluntarily displaced myself in order to follow interesting work that happens to be with an entire culture which has been displaced involuntarily. I am clearly away from home, even when I’ve made a home in Nunavut (which means “our land” – but not mine). Then I return “home” to the island where I’ve spent most of my life, as a Settler on Coast Salish territory. Or I visit my ancestral “home”lands, and mourn the displacement of the wild in those highly tamed places — George Monbiot’s “bare waste of sheep-scraped misery” comes to mind (from Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding) — even as they return me home to the familiar and comforting territory of childhood books like Wind in the Willows and Swallows and Amazons.  I’m sure that there is value in Settlers looking at our own displacements as a way to live slightly unsettled, a little lighter on the spaces we occupy, with more empathy for people whose displacements are not so comfortable. I have enormous questions about how to disrupt colonising forces in my own work, so as not to harm while healing — and more than that, how to work across differences, as allies, in what Joanna Macy calls The Great Turning — how together to grow faster and more substantially than we’ve ever been called to do before, to face the changes that are threatening us all. Big questions, indeed, and too much for one little person to answer, unsupported.

Back to personal practice… Here are a few artists who are inspiring me to be with the themes which dance in me, supported by daily art practice. Maybe they’ll inspire you, too.

Helen Terry kindly describes her daily practice and recommends a few artists.

Often when I spend time on something that doesn’t directly contribute to making work – reading, drawing, mark-making – my mind starts running on all the things I think I should be doing instead. Which pulls my attention away from what I’m doing and creates a conflict between what the experience could be and what it actually is. I think part of the value of a regular practice lies in assigning time for something and giving it your full attention. Giving yourself a chance to notice something you didn’t already know.

Part of the delight for me in Terry’s work is that she is inspired by the land. People who have read this blog will know that contemplative photography on the land is part of my practice, which both restores me and gives me helpful images from the tundra, about healing and resilience in the Arctic. The weather and darkness don’t permit outdoor photography as a daily practice, though, and I miss it through the grimmest weeks of winter.

Helen Terry’s guidelines are simple:

I committed to 40 days – long enough to see the impact yet short enough to feel achievable. I knew that to be sustainable it also had to be easy – so that on the worst day there would be no excuse for not maintaining it. So there was only one rule – one page a day, any mark, any medium. A single line would count.

Fiona Wilson committed to 365 prints – making a different print block each day for a year. What I love about her daily practice is that it doesn’t need special materials; cardboard, glue and X-acto knives are cheap or free, and easy to come by, even in remote places. Most Inuit communities have some kind of printing studio with inks and rollers, even if it is at a school. There’s always pencil rubbing, if printing supplies are truly out of reach.

Here’s Wilson’s day 35. At day 199, she’s getting tired and uses folded paper as her print. Lately she’s been using styrofoam trays, like the kind vegetables are packed in at the Northern store or Coop.

Leslie Morgan says 15 minutes maximum works for her. (Art therapist Lani Gerity likewise recommends keeping things short and simple, so they are very easy to commit to, in her work on happiness.)

Morgan changes the size of her collage papers from time to time, to keep things fresh for herself. I like how this big brush practice gets the body involved.

I hope this is helpful for you, whoever you are and whatever you do, in hanging out with the questions in your life — even if it’s not clear what your questions are, even if you are just wanting a little playtime for self-care. These were all visual art, but you could do this with singing, movement, writing, acting characters you’d like to connect with… If you play in other media, please share your ideas.

* Somehow it was easier today to pin images and then link to them in my pinterest, than to figure out how to link directly to the images on artists’ websites. It’s an extra step for you, but you can click on the image in this blog, then click again in pinterest and it will direct you to the artist’s website.