Despite the rate of teen suicide being 10 times the national average in Nunavut, Canada’s Inuit youth are finding ways to blow off steam
Ninety per cent of Canadians live within 100 miles of the US border. That’s the driving distance between Belfast and Dublin; London and Birmingham; or New York and Philadelphia. Canada is such a vast country, and the majority of it is never explored or inhabited. Nunavut often draws a blank for foreigners, Canada’s last territory to officially be recognised in 1999. The bulk of Nunavut’s residents – which total around 35,000 – are Inuit.
Growing up just over an hour north of Idaho, Nunavut still continues to be arcane. Liking the Facebook page of CBC Nunavut, a localized group for Nunavut-focused news that has just over 33,000 likes, was one of the best things I’ve done. Between stories posted by the CBC (Canada’s BBC), there are incredible video clips of throat singing, hunters skidoo-ing across the melting tundra and interviews with elders in Inuktitut, their native tongue. The best part is the comments, which distinctly speak to experiences of locals, from whom you’d otherwise never hear.
One night, I came across a 30-minute documentary posted to the page. It was directed by Kitra Cahana and Ed Ou and called Dancing Toward The Light. I was glued to my computer screen. Filmed in Arviat, a hamlet on Hudson Bay, the documentary follows a group of Inuit teens who attend weekly dance competitions, gearing up for an annual throwdown where they are awarded the top prize of gloating for a whole year about being number one. More than a dance rally, these competitions act as a major deterrent for teen suicide.
The suicide rate in Nunavut is at 10 times the national average. For Inuit boys aged 15 to 19, the suicide rate is 40 times higher than boys the same age in the rest of the country. In 2015, residents were urging for the government to declare the situation a “public health emergency”. As the communties are so remote, there isn’t a whole lot the government is able to do to help. Allowing these teens to dance off their stresses, problems and worries to the sounds of 90s DJ Gigi D’Agostino (an inexplicable go-to for the kids), though not necessarily the answer, is providing a much-needed respite for some. These competitions, where Inuit teens can do the robot in front of a crowd of family and friends, are saving lives. Cahana, 29, and Ou, 30, camped out in Arviat for months, getting to know these teens in order to accurately tell the very rarest of stories. The result is stunning – a brutally honest look at young lives in the vein of Martin Bell’s 1984 film Streetwise. Cahana and Ou reveal how they got their young subjects to open up, and how dance brings everyone together in such wild isolation.
What initially drew you to the community of Arviat?
Kitra Cahana: Over the last few years Ed and I have been working together in Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic, making repeat trips back to an Inuit hamlet called Arviat. We’ve been working towards a feature film about the community, looking at hunting rights, the way polar bears are intersecting with the town due to climate change, as well as the traumatic legacy that colonialism has left on Inuit people.
Ed Ou: It feels like growing up in southern Canada, Canadians learn more about other parts of the world or the US, rather than parts of our own country. Yet southern Canadians appropriate the romance and symbols of the ‘North’ as part of our own national identity and narrative, with little regard to people who have inhabited that land for thousands of years.
How did you first hear about these young teens?
Kitra Cahana: The weekly “Teen Dance” in Arviat is impossible to miss. Every Friday night Arviat’s town hall, The John Ollie Complex, gets converted into a dance party. It’s a lot of fun. Most of Arviat’s teens and young adults make it out to the weekly event, but many adults and elders attend as well and often join the youth on the dance floor. Ever since we started working in Arviat, Ed and I have enjoyed going to the teen dances. Sometimes we go to meet our subjects, and sometimes we go there just to dance ourselves. There are some really outstanding dancers in Arviat who are very skilled in all kinds of dance styles, so it’s a lot of fun to just watch as well. After the dance everyone spills out onto the streets, which is always a sight to behold.
“Canadians present (themselves) as multicultural and inclusive […] but our outward projection of our own moral superiority has made it very uncomfortable to recognise that there are massive social issues and a really tragic history of colonial trauma” – Ed Ou
How did you ingratiate yourself with them in order to have them open up to you?
Kitra Cahana: The way we approach any story is to embed ourselves in a community and build trust and develop relationships. Because it is so expensive to work up in Nunavut, a lot of journalists are only able to parachute in for a few days and leave before building any lasting relationships. We try to avoid that as much as we can, staying in people’s homes, and trying to understand the community.
People in Nunavut are incredibly hospitable – it is rare that doors are ever locked, and knocking before you go inside someone’s house would be met with puzzlement as to why you didn’t just come in. If you spend the time with open ears and an open heart, people are very quick to open up and share their stories.
That said, we feel a great responsibility on our part, and of many outsiders not to take advantage of this openness, because the lasting implications of what people tell or show us might not be so evident. It is always a very fine line to walk, and we try to be as careful as we can to make sure aren’t exploiting our access.
Why do you think the problems these young kids face – a heightened suicide rate, depression, early pregnancies – are often ignored by society at large?
Ed Ou: It is difficult for Canadians to confront the traumatic effects of their own colonial history, because it is very inconvenient for our national narrative. Internationally, we Canadians present ourselves as tolerant, multicultural, and inclusive. I feel like we are doing better than a lot of places, but our outward projection of our own moral superiority has made it very uncomfortable to recognise that there are massive social issues, racism, marginalisation, and a really tragic history of colonial trauma that we need to address in our own country. Many Canadians as whole don’t know about residential schools, or the Sixties Scoop, the Indian Act, or many historical injustices that have created the all these problems we see today. The government of Canada only formally apologised for residential schools in 2008. If we are so late to even recognising the trauma of our own very contemporary history, then it is no surprise that these modern day issues that affect indigenous communities are ignored by our national conscience at large.
What most struck you when you were in the midst of filming?
Kitra Cahana: It’s not easy to showcase your pain and suffering on national television, but our subjects were willing to share so much of themselves in our interviews. I was deeply struck by the courage that that takes. They are all people who think and feel deeply about their place in this world.
“The kids dance to an incredibly specific style of European club music, specifically this Italian DJ who had his heydey in the 90s named Gigi D’Agostino […] One of the dancers told us that his beats sound like drum dancing, and his lyrics sound like Inuktitut” – Ed Ou
Some of the subjects opened up about thoughts of wanting to take their own lives. How did that affect you?
Kitra Cahana: As filmmakers you always have to be prepared to hold whatever kind of emotional space your subject asks of you. You’ve entered into their world, and by doing so you must be ready to handle the emotional landscape of that person. It’s no easy task, and requires a lot of trust on both sides. But I’ve always felt comfortable in the role of the listener.
Ed Ou: I have always noticed people’s eagerness to open up to us with a lot of their pain. It feels like for many youth in Nunavut, there are very few people they feel they can talk to. It speaks volumes about the lack of social services in many remote indigenous communities when the few people who are there to be present and listen, are journalists like ourselves. We are not trained counsellors, and we never claim to be. But by virtue of embedding ourselves in people’s lives and spending a lot of time in someone’s space, people inevitably open up to us. We are receptive in listening, but it has always struck me as unfair and upsetting that there is no one else here to fill that role.
How did the dance competitions start up? Why are these teens drawn to the music of Gigi D’Agostino?
Ed Ou: Arviat is an interesting case study in the blending of cultures. On one hand, there are a lot of very vibrant Inuit traditions, like drum dancing and throat singing. Hunting is still a major part of life, and people feel the most at peace when they are out on the land. The Inuktitut language is firmly a part of everyday life. On the other hand, the internet and television does exist just like everywhere else, so southern pop culture and fads seep into the community. And now with social media, the people of Arviat, especially the youth are engaging with the outside world, and other communities in ways that had never been possible before. This has created an interesting fusion of the traditional practises of the past, with a very contemporary twist. At these teen dances, the kids dance to an incredibly specific style of European club music, specifically this Italian DJ who had his heydey in the 90s named Gigi D’Agostino. Everyone loves his brand of music, and one of the dancers we follow told us that his beats sound like drum dancing, and his lyrics sound like Inuktitut. So the isolation of Arviat, combined with the flattening of the world due to the internet and social media has set the stage for a fascinating alchemy of cultures, tradition, and contemporary histories colliding.
Do you see this documentary as more sad or empowering?
Kitra Cahana: I see our film as empowering. That’s why we gave the film, Dancing Towards the Light, its title, because I truly believe that the dancers are finding and spreading their light through dance. In the film, Andy tells us that he dedicates each dance to someone he has lost to suicide. When he dances he feels their presence within him. I can’t imagine anything more beautiful and honouring than just that. Through his words and through his dance I believe he’s inviting others to find their light and their healing as well.
What was the reaction when you first showed some of the teens?
Kitra Cahana: All of our subjects have been really excited about the film. Andy changed his Facebook banner to a shot from the film, and Ian changed his profile photo as well. We chat with them frequently and we’ve all discussed the idea of collaborating again soon. I think the film gains its power from the openness and honesty of our subjects. It’s their voices that makes the film what it is – hopefully a tool to help combat the suicide epidemic in northern communities. Our hope is to screen the film in communities all across the North. It would be a dream if it could travel to Greenland, Siberia and Alaska, where high suicide rates are affecting Inuit and Native youth there as well.