In The News: The most tasteful of gestures (06.05.09)

The most tasteful of gestures

Nunavut hails its very own Braveheart


She came to celebrate Nunavut's 10th birthday, but on the day she left, it was Nunavut that celebrated her.

On an eight-day tour that ended June 1, Michaëlle Jean, Canada's 27th Governor General, created life-long memories for the people of Rankin Inlet, Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, Resolute Bay, Pond Inlet, Clyde River, Iqaluit, and Pangnirtung.

Wherever she touched down she listened, laughed, danced and embraced the young. She shook every hand she could reach and pinned medals on the chests of heroes.

And she feasted, first in Rankin Inlet, where on May 25 she knelt on the floor of the local arena to eat the raw heart of a seal.

A digital video shot by Canadian Press reporter Alex Panetta on a Sony Handycam swept round the globe. After just a few hours, Jean and the morsel of food she ate that day made her an instant defender of Inuit culture and an arch-pariah in the eyes of the animal rights movement. 

She told reporters this past May 30 that for her it was just a simple act of "diplomacy on a human scale." And though the ensuing media spat surprised her, she makes no apologies. "I keep saying that every gesture, every action, every word is important. That was a gesture. It resonated," Jean said.

On the evening of May 29, where she appeared as a warm-up speaker for Siila
Watt-Cloutier's LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture in Iqaluit, that gesture still resonated.

"When the time comes to share a meal, it should come as no surprise they should share the heart," she said in her speech. Several hundred Iqaluit residents then rose to their feet to give her a long, loud standing ovation.
Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak later told reporters she doesn't understand what all the fuss was about.

"To us it's an everyday thing. That's what we do," Aariak said. At the same time, Aariak praised Jean for "enlightening herself" about Inuit culture.

"What her excellency has shown in Rankin Inlet is the utmost respect," Aariak said.

Jean paid special attention to children and youth on her tour, hosting discussions with groups of young people in most communities.

At Iqaluit's cadet hall, scores of teenagers gorged on pizza, danced to hip hop music, then took part in a discussion about art, culture and youth led by Sylvia Watt-Cloutier.

And to give something for youth to aspire to, Jean used her tour to promote the idea of a Nunavut university.

"It's important to dare to dream big," Jean said.

Right now, Nunavut residents may enroll in a few university-backed programs at Arctic College, especially in nursing and teaching.

There's also the University of the Arctic, a little-known institution formed by a network of universities, colleges and research centres in Scandinavia, Canada, Greenland, Russia and Alaska.

Created about 10 years ago through the eight-nation Arctic Council, the University of the Arctic has attracted only a tiny handful of Nunavut residents.

But Jean said these existing relationships could be used to develop a larger institution of higher learning in Nunavut.

Aariak said she wholeheartedly supports Jean in this endeavour, and said she will continue to work with her on it in the future.

"If we don't start thinking about and talking about it now, we won't see it for many years. So we have to start talking and thinking and discussing the idea  of higher education," Aariak said.

Late on May 31, Jean flew into Kuujjuaq, where she was to have attended a closed-door dinner at Auberge Kuujjuaq put on by the Makivik Corp.

On June 1, Jean took part in open discussions with youth and  community leaders.

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