Inuits at the Water Slides
It sounds like the setup to a bad joke: it’s 33° and I’m driving a bus full of sweaty Inuit teens in their bathing suits to a water park in a place called, of all things, Pointe-Calumet.
The day had not started well. I drove up to the address on my paperwork in the leafy West Island suburb of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue to find out that the street was closed. After some pretty awesome driving that nobody got to witness, I finally made my way to my pick up location where a dozen bored Inuits just stared at me.
–C’est vous la gang pour les glissades d’eau? I asked.
–English!, some obnoxious fat eskimo girl barked back.
-Français!, I answered.
I tell you kids these days. English please, maybe?
I was fuming. I was ready to fight the battle of Oka all over again. I was making plans to get on a plane to Kuujuuak right that day and just spend the day walking around yelling Français! every time someone addressed me in Inuktitut.
Driving down highway 40 all the way to the other side of Montreal to pick up the other half of my group at the Cégep Marie-Victorin it occurred to me that my chances of someone addressing a white boy like me in Inuktitut, even in the North, were probably quite slim. I was tired and cranky. Maybe my usually cheerful AngryFrenchDisposition had not come across well.
I blame the Jews. Two of them: Jon and Benji who had me out drinking until way passed my bedtime the night before.
So anyway, by the time we reach the East End, I’m considerably less pumped. Another dozen Inuits come on the bus but this time no one speaks to me in the world’s great order-giving language.
It turns out these kids had literally just landed in Montréal and were spending their first few days away from home. They were all from Nunavik, a series of Inuit villages that line the northern shores of Québec, from Hudson’s Bay to the very tip of the province and back down to Labrador.
Québec’s Inuit villages, contrary to popular belief, are not reservations and the Inuits who live there pay taxes even though they receive precious few government services. One of the many services they don’t get is higher education. The kids on the bus were in Montréal to go to Cégep. Half of them we’re studying in English at John-Abbott College in the West, the other half were going to school in French at le Collège Marie-Victorin.
Language politics are obviously completely different in the North—where, at least until further notice, the first language of most people is neither French nor English—but it still struck me how the French and English Inuits reproduced so many of the south’s social behaviour.
Anglo and Franco-Inuits kept apart, with one group occupying the back of the bus, the other the front. If the Anglo-Inuits spoke or understood any French, they weren’t using it. On the other hand, the French-Inuits all seemed to be able to speak English. Indeed, they often used English when addressing the Anglo Inuits. The Anglo-Inuits were (as the morning’s experience illustrated) loud and testy. The Franco Inuits ate poutine for lunch and their women were hotter.
The Franco Inuits also had their token white boy who was able to speak (what seemed to me) fluent Inuktitut, which is pretty cool.
As the sun came down and the humidex level fell, my white guilt shot up. I had had negative feelings about native kids. Micheal Ignatieff would so hate me.
I needed to redeem myself from the morning’s tense encounter with the first group and to demonstrate what a culturally sensitive person that I really am. I asked the big and beautiful First Nation lady who had yelled to me in English if she could teach me how to say Hello in Inuktitut so I could impress the other kids as they came on the bus. Apparently unaware that we had been fighting, she was glad to teach me.
It turns out that Hello in Inuktitut is Ai, which, with a gringo accent, sounds exactly like English Hi, which left the kids absolutely unimpressed with my linguistic skills.
There is even one of the Franco Inuits who replied with a very dry Bonjour, as if she was annoyed that I assumed she spoke English because she was an Inuit.