“People of the North” is a series of interviews created in partnership with Arctic in Context and Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities. Every six weeks, Kesserwan Arteau founders, Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan will publish an interview with leaders, innovators, and community members in an effort to highlight the Arctic’s diversity from the perspective of those who live there.
By Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan
We met with Beatrice Deer in Montreal at the Avataq Cultural Institute, the Inuit cultural organization of Nunavik (Northern Quebec), where she works as a program officer. We sat down to talk about the many projects she is working on and her experiences growing up in the North.
Kesserwan Arteau: What do you call your North?
Beatrice Deer: Home. I have been away for nine years, but my home remains Quaqtaq. It is a growing community of 400 people, between the Northern villages of Kangiqsujuaq and Kangirsuk, where the Hudson Strait and Ungava Bay meet. It is a nice, close, neat community—not without its problems, but well managed.
Culture is very prominent there. Our Inuit identity is very precious to us and we take a lot of pride in that. Hunting, fishing, making clothing, preparing food, speaking our language: This is who we are. Each community also has its own little subculture, ways of doing things, and beliefs.
KA: What is the most beautiful thing about your home?
BD: Our value system based on family and respect.
For example, we are taught to never fight back. If someone attacks you, you just don’t retaliate. If we practiced that, there would be fewer problems. If you teach your kid not to fight back, they can still defend themselves, but don’t make it into an ugly war.
Inuit are also very helpful and generous; we share everything. Elders taught us in school that during the famine, if they caught one ptarmigan (a small bird of the grouse family, roughly a size of a pigeon), the whole clan would have a bite. They didn’t just selfishly eat it in their igloo.
Things are different here (in Montreal). We like visiting and spending a lot of time with family and friends. Here, you have to plan and need permission from your own brother if you want to visit. And you need to say for how long.
Beatrice wearing the traditional caribou skin amauti she made with Julie Grenier Di Ciero, commissioned by the Museum of Man in Paris. September 2015.
KA: You speak three languages: Inuktitut, English, and French. Is this common where you come from?
BD: Inuktitut is integrated into our education. We study in Inuktitut until grade three and then we get to learn a second language. More people choose to learn English than French, but I was always told that learning French (Quebec’s official language) would give me more opportunities.
A lot of people, especially the ones who aren’t originally from Nunavik, move when their children start school to give them a better education. Our school system is still new and we are still learning about how to improve it.
In my case, when I graduated high school, I was 16. I was a smart kid. I started kindergarten at four and skipped grade seven. Once I realized I didn’t want to be a school secretary my whole life, I decided to go back to school and move to Montreal.
KA: Was this a difficult transition?
BD: My father is Mohawk and his mother is Québécoise. He met my mom when she was in business college in Montreal. We used to come to Montreal for summer vacation and Christmas. So the culture shock for me wasn’t as big as for other Inuit students who don’t come here regularly. However, it was still a culture shock.
We never did projects or had assignments in high school. I had no idea what an essay was. I had two children: My daughter was seven and my son was five at the time. At 23, I was more mature than most college students. My daughter found it hard adjusting to school as well.
KA: When did you start singing?
BD: I always loved signing. I started playing with people in Quaqtaq. My husband at the time was playing guitar. Having more music opportunities was another reason to move here. I’ve been singing since age 15, but more seriously for the past six years. I formed my current band six years ago.
In 2005, I got financial assistance to record a CD in a studio in Kuujuaq. (Note: She released her debut album, Just Bea, in 2005, and won a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award for Best Inuit/Cultural Album the same year.)
KA: How would you describe your music?
BD: That’s a difficult question. I would say Indie-pop-rock-traditional Inuit throat singing.
KA: Where do you perform?
BD: At festivals, Inuit related events, Christmas parties … I do cultural presentations. This also allows me to travel abroad. For example, I went to Norway with Evie Mark to perform throat singing at the Forde Traditional & World Music Festival.
I love performing. But I can’t sustain a family this way. As a single mom, I don’t think that performing more than I do now, about twice a month, would be worth my time and energy away from my kids.
KA: Tell us about your work at Avataq.
BD: I am a program officer at Aumaaggiivik, the Nunavik Arts Secretariat. I support artists with funding and projects to get them more exposure and become more professional in their work. We have different projects to help develop the arts in Nunavik. For example, right now we are working on the France-Nunavik artistic residency exchange. Two French visual art students came for three weeks in Aupaluk to attend the Nunavik Art Workshops with their teacher, and four Nunavik visual artists will go to Paris in January.
I really like my job. Artists in Nunavik have so much potential, but they need to develop their skills more and get more opportunities. There aren’t a lot of tools available. We give them more ideas. They are not project-oriented, which is one of the symptoms of our education system.
KA: Tell us about how you became a spokesperson on the topic of suicide.
BD: I didn’t plan to become a spokesperson. There are too many suicides in our communities.
It is a social issue that has to be dealt with and not just within a community or family. It is deeper than that.
I felt like people in positions of power weren’t doing anything. They said they were talking about it in their meetings. I knew that if I addressed this topic on social media, it would get attention.
Beatrice Deer created this graphic and shared it through her social media accounts in May 2016 after finding out there had been 10 suicides in four of Nunavik’s 15 communities since January.
KA: What do you think is the solution?
BD: The problem is so deep that it is going to take a lot of resources. For me, personally, going through counseling, therapy, and healing is taking many years. So it will take people a lot of time. The problem is that there are no therapists or counselors in Nunavik. There need to be more resources.
The problem is generational. There have been different tragedies through colonization. So many things in our history: residential schools, dog slaughters. Kids were taken away from their families, stripped of their identity, told that their culture is wrong and disgusting, and physically, psychologically, and sexually abused. All you would learn is that you are worthless, disgusting and then you were brought back to your family and your own people would treat you differently. All you know is anger, resentment, and injustice, and when you have your own kids, your kids grow angry too.
There needs to be accountability. What happened happened. What are you going to do about it? People have to say “I’m not going to let this control me any more.” Take responsibility.
KA: Where do you see Nunavik in 10 years?
BD: Hopefully in a better state. There are a lot of social problems: alcoholism, children being placed in foster homes. It’s dark and it is getting darker. We are lucky that there are strong leaders. The educational system is improving; the arts are improving. More and more people talk about sobriety, healing, and self-improvement. One person who grasps the opportunity to recognize the problem and finds a way to fix it can inspire others.
KA: What would you like the world to know about Nunavik?
BD: That we are just like everyone else. We have our social problems, like everybody else. We also have successes. We are active people. We are not just sitting and waiting for others to come in our region and take advantage of what we have.
Don’t force your beliefs on us. I find Inuit more than willing to defend their culture and their rights.
KA: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
BD: So many have visions for me and see me in different places. I don’t really think too far ahead. Whatever comes my way in my path, I hope I will have enough experience and wisdom to make the best of it. I just want what is better for my fellow Inuit. I always was involved in trying to help people, sitting on different committees. I know I want to be involved in my community.
Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq.
Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years.
[Photos by Robert Frechette, Robert Frechette, and Niore Iqalukjuak]