Photo by Simon Marcouiller
“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 perspectives of those who live there.
By Karina Kesserwan
Katie Gagnon has worked in civil society, women’s issues, and the environment (as part of UNESCO) for nearly 15 years. She is now with the Groupe Femmes, Politique, et Démocratie (Women, Politics, and Democracy Group), an educational organization that seeks to sustain greater participation of women in politics and promote general knowledge on democracy. Gagnon is a political scientist, project manager, and educator on Québec’s political system. In addition, she is a documentary filmmaker, co-directing D’Ailleurs, je suis aussi d’ici (From elsewhere, I am also from here)—a documentary about immigrant stories in Québec—and École Francophone des candidates, which consisted of three documentaries on female politicians in Senegal, Mauritius, and Québec. Her first solo short documentary, La Run (about a paperboy who has been delivering papers in his neighborhood for 28 years), won an Audience Award. We talked with Gagnon about her travels, her vision of the Arctic, and the role of her documentary project in building bridges between North and South.
Kesserwan Arteau: What does the North represent for you?
Katie Gagnon: For me there is not a single North, but multiple. I am most familiar with the Norths of Russia and Québec. I have learned to discover those Norths by walking over their tundras and traversing their mountains. The taiga is stunning, but there are so many things that I have not encountered yet, both in Québec and elsewhere. The North is something to discover and learn from.
KA: How did you become involved with Russia?
KG: I was born in Québec City, in a typical French-speaking, Québec family.
I first discovered Russia in 1990-1991, living there for a full year as part of an exchange program during my last year of high school. It was during the time of perestroika. I arrived in Leningrad and departed from Saint Petersburg. My host family, with whom I have kept close contact for more than 25 years, was extraordinary: patient, open, generous, and with so much love of life to share.
I didn’t speak any Russian and the students in my class only had a basic understanding of English. I had to learn their language quickly, while also adapting myself to the culture.
I have spent a great deal of time in Russia since then. First, I returned to carry out my undergraduate and graduate studies. Then, I went back to work with the Gazette Française de Moscou (Moscow French Gazette) and the UNESCO regional office as world heritage specialist in Moscow.
KA: How did you discover northern parts of Russia?
KG: The Nenets Autonomous Okrug is one of the northernmost territories of Russia. This region has approximately 40,000 inhabitants: Russians, Nenets, and Komi. It is a considerable population, given the northern latitude. This polar region attracted me. I wanted to meet its people and understand the issues they face.
My partner, Simon Marcouiller, and I arrived at the Russian polar circle in March 2012. My first visit there allowed me to create my first contacts. I went back for two months, in the fall of 2014, to prepare a documentary. These stays gave me access to a surprising universe. I discovered varied experiences, numerous realities of the North, characters with multiple stories, and a territory that had just as much to tell!
In this vast, remote area in the North, there are many ways to live. Reindeer herders, who have lived in the area for millennia, are one of the great indigenous peoples of the North. The Russians have also settled there for centuries. It is home to the first Russian Arctic village, built in 1499. The current capital of the district, Narian-Mar, founded in 1935 during the oil boom, is itself a phenomenon, with its 25,000 inhabitants at the 67th parallel.
Nenets Autonomous Okrug: Bolcheezemelskaya tundra (Большеземельская тундра). (Katie Gagnon)
KA: How did your experience of Russia influence your relationship with northern Québec?
KG: In a way, my experiences in Russia have guided my reflections about Québec. It is like a mirror. Discovering Russian’s North provided me with the tools to think about Québec’s North. As residents of a Nordic country, we share a number of realities with Russia, including a northern situation.
Like many Quebecers, I was familiar with the exploitation of natural resources through news, history, literature, and cinema. I wanted to discover Northern regions of Québec—Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Côte-Nord, Eeyou Istchee James Bay Territory—through my own experiences. I wanted to spend some time there.
Over the past decade, I have discovered more intimately and more intensely the North of Québec—the “Middle North,” specifically, which describes the region just south of the Far North. I fell in love with both the territory and its inhabitants.
KA: What do you find so special about the North?
KG: The North is a way of living. Louis-Edmond Hamelin, a must-read author on the subject of Québec’s North, said that the region exists as both a physical and an intellectual construct. He worked on ways to define the degree of “northerness.” He created a “Nordicity” index that I find very evocative. It takes into account natural phenomena (latitude, types of ice, precipitation) as well as human activity (accessibility by land, sea, or air; population; and level of economic activity). This definition considers the North as an experience, as a way of life.
I think it is important to discover northern lifestyles. There’s a very close connection between the territory and people in the North. For example, in northern Russia, if you ask a group of people how many of them went mushroom hunting this year, they would consider the question absurd. All of them go mushroom hunting! They know the plants and live in greater harmony with the cycles of the seasons.
This attachment to the territory allows for a very special understanding among people. For example, my partner works in forestry. When he came to Russia with me, he didn’t speak the language. Nonetheless, he was able to easily establish contacts. It is as if, through his understanding of the territory, he could share a common language.
Northern people embrace winter. It is about accepting the cold and the pride of surviving and innovating. For example, I met one northern woman who created a greenhouse and grows cucumber, tomatoes, and coriander in her backyard.
What I want to do with my documentary project is share the experiences of the people who live in the territory. I am tired of reports on the coldest city or the largest mine. I want us to stop thinking of the North within a context of a utilitarian relationship with the South. The North has its own way of life and I want to let its inhabitants tell us why they love their North.
KA: Tell us about the people you met.
KG: I encountered a North inhabited by populations of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, who face challenges that reveal both the difficulties and the fragility of life, as well as the attachment, resilience, and innovation required to live there.
Those I have met in the North are very generous. I felt very welcome, and people were eager to share and help. The support I got from the NAO administration was exceptional.
I have met people from many backgrounds: reindeer breeders with a semi-nomadic lifestyle, fishing and agricultural cooperatives, and people working in the oil industry. Some of the people were born in the region and others moved there for jobs in the resource-extraction sector. One man I met, Fiodor, moved to work in the gas sector, but also created a company that helps people learn to hunt, recognize animal tracks, or survive in the tundra, with the aim of allowing them to reclaim their knowledge of the territory.
I found in North people who raise cows and grow crops all year round. The main source of meat for the inhabitants of Nenets Autonomous Okrug is local, provided by nomadic Native people. We ought to learn from this creativity.
Nenets’ camp (Simon Marcouiller)
KA: What is the importance of international relations around the North?
KG: The Nordic countries are putting more emphasis on their North. We, in Canada, should not be an exception. For several years, the Nordic countries have increasingly exchanged views through circumpolar conferences, exploratory missions, and the creation of Nordic centers and research chairs. The people of the North seek to share their knowledge and make it known beyond their borders. We gain a better understanding, a better grasp of the territory we live in, by creating circumpolar links. We share something that we should be able to rally around: Nordicity.
KA: Is there a connection between your work on Northern issues and your work on women’s issues?
KG: I participated as a speaker at an international conference on women’s roles in sustainable development of the Arctic in Naryan-Mar in November 2013. While I was working on my documentary project about the lives of people in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, I met some very strong women. While a lot of trades in the Northern economy are considered traditionally male—such as exploration, oil extraction, and forestry—women are always present and play an integral role in ensuring the proper functioning of society. In Russia, too, there are more women who are working in these fields. It is important to present the contributions of women of all walks of life in Northern societies.
KA: What would you like the world to know about the North?
KG: I would like to make the North known from another angle. Many have already addressed substance abuse, poverty, violence, tensions between indigenous and non-indigenous populations, the disappearance of traditional culture, and climate change. I am tired of seeing the North presented so frequently in such a depressing way, with an emphasis on its problems. I do not deny that these issues exist, but there are also a lot of positive views of the North that can be presented. It is an active environment, the source of innovative initiatives, where people take charge of their own futures.
I would like to inspire the desire to create, to give hope, to nourish the imagination.
I would also like to respond to those who tell us there is nothing to do in the North, in this “world of winter and ice,” a territory that is almost uninhabitable”. The North is often painted as a dull place, where no one would dream of living. I strongly disagree! I would like to share the vision of the polar circle as a territory of abundance.
Katie in action, in Québec. (Isabelle Duval)
This interview was translated from French by Karina Kesserwan.