KUUJJUAQ, Que. – Her globally televised seal-eating episode may have been a distraction initially, but the Governor General says in the end it will help promote better understanding of the North.
“My motto is breaking down solitudes. What happened in this journey up north is quite amazing,” Michaelle Jean said in an interview wrapping up her Arctic tour.
The visit captured world headlines a week ago with video images of Jean eating raw seal at an Inuit celebration in Rankin Inlet.
The episode threatened to drown out her message about the needs and aspirations of northern communities – but in the end, she says, it help bridge north and south.
“I’m very happy I was able to raise a lot of awareness about the North, about pressing social issues, about a way of life, about a culture,” she said.
The seal incident “provoked, I think, a big discussion in the country. And I think that is part of some new awareness. … I hope it is.”
Jean met local elders in this northern community Monday, and the seal incident again dominated much of the discussion.
“Just because you eat raw meat does not mean you are a savage,” said Anthony Ittoshat.
“We are not savages. . . . We need to find a way to survive in this cold place,” he said.
“You went and you united a lot of Canadians. … We need more exposure. We need to educate the people down south.”
Another agreed that the south needs to understand – and then to leave well enough alone.
“Our life is hunting and fishing – our wildlife is our lifeline,” said Bobby Snowball, head of elders’ association in Kuujjuaq.
“It’s very important that the public understand this. … We don’t bother you. please don’t bother us – let us live our life.”
One woman at a roundtable discussion Monday said city-dwelling Canadians know more about Inukshuks (stone figures) than they know about the people who make them.
But leaders throughout the Arctic are also hoping to leverage all the attention to their real needs: housing and transportation.
An estimated 950 houses are required in this northern Quebec community, for example, with a population of 2,200.
There’s also an urgent need for roads to connect with the highways of the south, in order to ship the minerals, fish and others goods that could help make communities self-sustaining.
Preliminary talks are underway for a highway from Manitoba to Rankin Inlet though even if it gets a green light the project would cost $1.2 billion and take a quarter century to complete.
Jean has also been pressing the federal government to create a university of the Arctic, an unusual foray by the vice-regal into policy-making.
She kept insisting on such an institution of higher learning even after the government said it was cool to the idea, saying she must be a sounding board for people to express their aspirations.
On Sunday night, Inuit singer Sylvia Cloutier serenaded the vice-regal over a caribou supper in Kuujjuaq.
The song was about a child hunting, killing, and skinning his first seal – and about his gratitude for the bounty of the land.