Odette Barr’s recently published memoir, Teaching at the Top of the World (Pottersfield Press, 2020), resulted from her second-place finish in the 2019 Pottersfield Prize for Creative Nonfiction. This memoir relates her decade long experience of living in Canada’s eastern Arctic, teaching Inuit students across three remote communities. Eventually, she became school principal in North America’s most northern community, Grise Fiord, Nunavut.
Odette is also co-author and illustrator for a children’s adventure series: Follow the Goose Butt, Camelia Airheart! (2016), Take Off to Tantramar (winner of the 2017 Alice Kitts Memorial Award for Excellence in Children’s Writing) and Follow the Goose Butt to Nova Scotia (2018), published by Chocolate River Publishing, NB.
Odette earned an honours degree in wildlife biology from the University of Guelph (ON) before working for several years as an interpretive naturalist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, Parks Canada and various nature centres. She also wrote, designed and provided artwork for a number of indoor and outdoor environmental exhibits, as well as nature-themed publications, including both the Beach Guide and the Forest Guide for Fundy National Park. After earning her education degree at Mount Allison University (NB), she turned to teaching in the classroom and later earned her Master of Education degree in Educational Leadership at UPEI.
When not working on her own writing and art projects, Odette is an online teacher for the New Brunswick Department of Education. She writes, develops and facilitates high school level science courses for grade 11 and 12 students across the province.
In terms of a post-Covid world, do you see these sorts of trips to that area changing in the 5 years after COVID?
I’ve been very closely watching the news for anything happening in Nunavut, especially in relation to Covid. The communities are all isolated places so they are very well cushioned from Covid, but having said that, when Covid does get into a community, it could quite easily spread to everyone. Community life involves a lot of joint activities and daily visits among households. Some houses are homes to eight or more people, spanning three or more generations. If Covid takes hold, it is a very scary situation.
All the communities in which I lived in Nunavut are fly-in communities. They are all remote and isolated. Very few have daily flights. Grise Fiord, for example, had only one flight weekly (I believe there are 2 weekly flights now). There is not a lot of movement of people in and out of these small hamlets. I don’t know if that will change much, Covid or not. But the few flights that are scheduled into and out of these isolated communities still need to occur, obviously, for the essentials such as food, clothing, building supplies, medical evacuations, and so on. If (or should I say when) future pandemics occur, communities will likely be restricted to the movement of essentials faster, perhaps, than they were this time.
It is a blessing that the northern, remote communities are receiving Covid vaccines early.
When it came to your book Teaching at the Top of the World, can you talk about your publication timeline for that?
I’ve been writing this book in my head for the last 20 years, although much of my first draft resulted from my Master of Education thesis at UPEI in 2001. I didn’t really get into the nuts and bolts of the more personal aspects of the writing until two or three years ago. I had travelled to the Word on the Street festival, in Halifax, to launch a recently published children’s book. While there, I participated in the Pitch the Publisher event. Fortunately for me, all three publishers on the panel expressed interest in my story. From there I had the confidence to go ahead with my writing and I wrote as much as I could. I finished off what I thought was a fairly decent manuscript, and then entered the Pottersfield Press Creative Nonfiction competition the following March. A month later, I learned that I had placed second! So that’s when the publishing contract came. My memoir was released a couple of months later than it was slated to, due to Covid, but it did hit the shelves in June of 2020.
At the point of your life when you decided to go to the North, were there any people that were hesitant about your choice to do that?
I don’t think so, no. My partner and I were 29 and 33 years of age at that time. We had already shown our families and friends that we had adventurous spirits. We had worked together in Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick and each of us had worked in many other parts of Canada as well. We had traveled together to East Africa, on safari, for close to half a year, not that many years prior to going North. So I don’t think it was a big surprise to anyone.
We had read an ad in The Globe and Mail. The ad asked, Are you looking for adventure? Well, yes, we thought. That sounds like us! So, off we went to the Baffin Divisional Board of Education.
In the timeline of your life, when did you first start to understand culture as a concept in both society and education?
I think I was aware of the concept of “culture” from early on in my life. I, myself, was born in Scotland and spent a lot of my younger years moving around with my family. We moved from Scotland to England, back to Scotland, and then we emigrated to Canada. So, I’ve always had that kind of feeling that I’m from somewhere else, compared to many others around me.
In terms of my having a deeper understanding of what culture means, it probably wasn’t until after I finished high school and went off to study at university. Compared to my small homogenous southern Ontario community, the university community seemed quite diverse and worldly. This is when I really came to appreciate the many different people and cultures around me. My roommate was from Hong Kong and my friends were from all over the world—China, Lebanon, Ethiopia.
After I graduated from Guelph, I backpacked for 6 months through Britain and Western Europe. I soaked up the constantly changing cultures and languages as I wound my way across the continent. The bottom line is, I truly enjoy meeting people—especially those with a different background to my own.
Why do you think some educators wouldn’t be open to learning the culture in an area that they’re teaching in?
While most teachers working in a cross-cultural environment are open to learning about the culture of their students, I admit that some are not. Although I do not agree with this minority, there may be a few reasons for it, I think.
Teaching is difficult. Contrary to popular belief, it is not an easy profession. We “practice” teach while studying to be teachers at university, but the practice of teaching continues throughout our entire career…and then we retire! I suppose teachers are like doctors in that they maintain a practice (seeking to improve over time) and try to do no harm. All that to say, I believe that teachers, especially early career teachers, have a lot on their plates and simply want to have some control over the way in which their daily lessons unfold within their classrooms. To some, learning the details of local culture is just one more thing to add to their already overflowing list of things to do.
Many people, not just teachers, travel the world to experience new places and meet new people but they don’t want to necessarily leave any of their beliefs, values and attitudes behind—people bring these worldviews with them. It is harder to let go of them, or at least put them aside temporarily, than you might think. Our parents teach us certain ways of being, and of doing, and they just become an integral part of us. But it is so important to be able to see the way things are from a different perspective, through someone else’s eyes, because they believe that their way, their worldview, is the best one. Sometimes it is difficult to be open to new ways of seeing the world, but I know from experience, once you do it once, it’s easier the second time, then the third. The more you open yourself up to learning about other cultures, the easier and more exciting it becomes.
In the world of teaching, I absolutely believe it is necessary to enter into the lives of your students and their rich culture in meaningful and significant ways. If you make the commitment to teach students of a different culture, language and lifestyle to your own, then you should be willing to learn as much about them, in authentic ways, as you can.
Immersing yourself in another culture is like being a cultural chameleon. You can still have your own set of values and beliefs, but you have to be open to others as well. Be willing to try new things out, do things in a different way. You may learn that your way isn’t the best way after all.
Have you noticed anything that’s problematic in other publications that talk about that area, or trips of that sort?
It seems to me that the media, in general, presents the Arctic and its people in a simplistic way. Most southerners quickly learn that the Arctic is a magnificent landscape with fascinating wildlife, inhabited by Indigenous people who have learned to survive the harsh environment. Besides that, many articles and television scenes seem to linger on run down, untidy parts of communities and on countless children, with seemingly little to do, aimlessly wandering the snow-covered gravel streets. For a reader, or viewer, who lives in a well-served urban area in southern Canada, it is easy to interpret these images as the sad picture of life in an Arctic community. Unfortunately, superficial knowledge often breeds ignorance and then people pass judgment far too quickly.
Needless to say, you have to travel to these places and stay a while—meet the people who live there and observe the day-to-day before developing an informed opinion of what it is like to live in these remote communities.
Knowing that I have travelled north, sometimes people comment to me: I’ve seen pictures, you know, of dead animals laying around, of knives and skulls…the poor seals and whales are being shot, how can you live there? How can you stand seeing those kinds of things? When I hear comments like these, my first reaction is to ignore them, or to blow them off, but then I want to stand up and defend exactly what it is that they think they are seeing. When you only look through your own lens, your own experience, you don’t see the whole story. Yes, there are skins, disembodied walrus heads and seal carcasses; there are blood-soaked plastic sheets and cardboard pieces in and around people’s homes; there are polar bear furs stretched out on drying frames beside houses. This is simply the way of life in an Inuit community—a vibrant, healthy and respectful-to-nature life. In all of the years that I lived in the Eastern Arctic, within three different communities, I can honestly say I have no memory of any Inuk hunting or trapping an animal for any other reason than for food, and I remember no part of any animal being wasted. Everything—the skin, the fur, the bones, the ivory, the meat—is used.
I think a lot of writing about the North and Inuit going about their lives can be biased at times. The tone seems to say, “oh, look how beautiful the land is, but you wouldn’t want to live there”. I wrote Teaching at the Top of the World because it was a life changing experience for me and my partner, and I wanted people that had never been to the North to know a little more about what it is like to actually live there—not just what they see on a 30-minute television special. I wanted to write this book from my perspective as a teacher, with great respect for Inuit people, their culture and language. I point to some of the challenges of teaching in the North, but for the most part, my book is a love story that expresses great respect for Inuit people and their culture, as well as that stunning landscape.
In the book, you describe yourself as a visitor, despite having lived there a long time. Why is that?
I mean, I’m not Inuk. I am a visitor. Nunavut is the land of the Inuit. They and their ancestors have inhabited this place for thousands of years. As much as I loved being in the North, and could easily have stayed there longer, I would never ever try to assume or state to anyone that I’m from there. I’m not. I show my respect to Inuit by celebrating their culture, learning a little of their beautiful language and by not imposing my worldview onto their own.
Everything that I have written in Teaching at the Top of the World comes from my own perspective, from my lived experience while teaching in the Arctic over a 10-year period.
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