Kedra Kimiksana gets her first taste of a cherry.

Sr. Tromblay tries to bridge Tuktoyaktuk’s rich-poor divide

  • August 10, 2011

TUKTOYAKTUK, N.W.T. - Kedra and Destiny Kimiksana got to try cherries for the first time at the Catholic mission house in Tuktoyaktuk with Sr. Fay Tromblay. Once they had been warned about the pits, I tried teaching them “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor...” Of course the seven- and eight-year-old girls didn’t know what a tinker or a tailor was. In fact, beggar man and thief were also new vocabulary.

After a couple of tentative bites and discovery of the first pit, both girls decided cherries were pretty good. They also got to try a bit of avocado, which Tromblay added to their salad. Salad is something they only eat at Sister’s house.

They liked the avocado, but found it difficult to pronounce.

Kids in Tuktoyaktuk are familiar with traditional Inuvialuit foods. They love tingmiaq (goose), pipsi (dried fish) and muktuk (skin and blubber of a whale). They eat a lot of imiraq (soup made from caribou, goose or fish).

But the Inuvialuit of Tuktoyaktuk no longer live exclusively off the land. They live in town and shop at the Northern Store or Stanton’s. In Stanton’s avocados sell for $17.49 per kilogram. Pineapples are $8.49 each. The Northern Store has four litres of milk on sale for $12.89, regularly $15.19.

Without any experience of a southern diet, and prices that favour packaged, prepared foods with long shelf-lives (everything from potato chips to frozen dinners), diabetes and related health concerns have become issues for Tuk families.

In Stanton’s signs are posted warning they will not sell energy drinks to anyone under 16. The Northern Store has been approached about moving some of the fruit to displays up near the cash register to compete with the chocolate bars and gum. They’ve agreed.

Kids and food have become core concerns for Tromblay’s ministry. Six days a week (she tries to take Monday’s for herself) her house is full of kids. She will prepare lunch or dinner for them. That’s also a little different for the kids, who aren’t quite used to the idea of meal times.

At home, a pot of soup sits lukewarm on the stove all day and whoever is hungry, whenever they are hungry, will have some.

Tromblay makes a game of meal-time as she passes plates, cutlery and food through the window between the kitchen and dining area. The kids pretend it’s a store, passing pretend money to her in exchange for napkins, ketchup, cups, etc.

There’s a visible line between rich and poor in Tuk. There are new houses surrounded by boats, snow machines and tool sheds. There are old houses that lean in the unrelenting wind with broken toys, parts of outboard motors and dismembered snowmobiles lying around.

In a seaside village of 1,000 there are only so many jobs. But there’s more to the rich-poor divide than jobs. There are also bootleggers who get $250 for a 40 oz. bottle of rye whiskey.

The poor kids come from homes and families that don’t quite function, and some of that has to do with alcohol.

After six hours of entertaining children on a Sunday, Tromblay thought it might be time to send them home for an hour or two. That would allow her to finish cooking a couple of geese for supper. She told them they could all come back for supper at 7:30 p.m.

For Dominic Kimiksana this was tragic news. The boy cried inconsolably when asked to return home to his foster parents. Whatever he was afraid of, he wasn’t going to tell me. I could only stand there with a hand on his shoulder telling him “don’t cry.” Tromblay relented, letting him return to the house for another half hour. In the end Dominic was only out of her house about 45 minutes that day.

The Church once took the blame for the silence in Arctic villages.

“It was very silent when the children were taken away,” Ana Kasudlak told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada at a four-day national event in Inuvik. Mothers were left home crying because they couldn’t get the baby bonus cheque unless they gave up their children.

Among the many hardships residential school survivors remember, strange, bad and insufficient food are always near the top of the list for the Inuvialuit and Inuit.

The boat that once took children away to school now sits in Tromblay’s front yard as a kind of historical tourist attraction. The kids go to school at Mangilaluk School in Tuk, named after the last of the traditional leaders (umialiq) in the area. Instead of shipping kids away, Tromblay has turned her house over to them for play. She teaches them prayers and asks them the Inuvialuit names for things.

Tromblay isn’t trying to make up for the mistakes of missionaries past. Many of them were good men who loved the people and did the best they could. But she is making a new future. The Kimiksana children will not grow up with memories of harsh treatment or spartan, sparse and strange food from the hands of the Church.

Go to tor the other series of articles in this weekend feature.

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