You can leave the North but the North never leaves you. It remains in the memory bank, dormant but ready for the prompts urging it to come front and center once more. The memories I have from all over Canada’s Northern lands come to life each time I see a photo, read a story or listen to news from way up there. Up there in a land that makes Canada, in my mind, the nation it is. Up in the land most of us from the south don’t ever know in the first place in order to forget.
But me, I’ve had the chance to visit these far away lands filled with vastness of landscape. Land both inviting and intimidating all at once. My memory bank is filled with the hundreds of smiles I’ve met and most certainly will not forget. Yes, going back to the North feels good and right every time I accept an invitation. Invitations that leave me feeling like one of the luckiest people on earth. Visits that lead to experiences offered and shared that never leave me. Smiles and laughter, especially up in the Inuit span of the North, that remind me of the great capacity of the human spirit. It’s been and is tested again and again, but never destroyed.
We have much to learn from our Northern neighbors and the coming days spent in Kangiqsualuujjuaq, Nunavik, Quebec I ventured into today are a something to be savored. Because I did sport for much of my life I received this, the second invite, to this remote village, two flights away but a world apart. The inviter is a good friend named Joe Juneau. I am but a fleeting compliment to the hard work he’s done for a good number of years up in Nunavik. Work that uses his past sporting life as an NHL superstar, Olympic silver medal winner and most impressive to me, rocket scientist, to keep kids in school getting good grades onto the ice as local hockey stars. I’m talking about the Nunavik Youth Hockey Developement Program (NYHDP).
There is no quest here to own any podium but yet, these kids, they thrive and succeed all the same. They love to compete and thrive when challenged. Leadership is fostered through the game everyone loves and accountability learned through the commitment to getting good grades to earn the reward of playing hockey. They love to play just like kids I meet all over the world. Problem is, many kids don’t ever get the chance. Kudos to Joe for making these outlets possible for so many.
This year the visit is a little different. Joe, me, Gaetan Boucher and Benoit Lamarche are heading north and then east on Ungava Bay to spend some time with the two teenage girls chosen this year to come south for a journey on bikes. The past few years the hockey programs have added another challenge for two lucky and brave teenage boys: to ride the Grand Defie Pierre Lavoie, a 1000km bike relay from Chicoutimi to Montreal over three days. This year it was decided that two girls would be given the chance. And so, I’m the lucky one, because they wanted a female mentor along for the ride.
I met Andrea Brazeau upon arrival in Kangiqsualujjuaq back in 2010. She gave me a ride into town on her families dogsled. I’d never been on a dogsled before but after a few minutes, wish Andrea’s coaching, I was jumping on and off the sled with her, mushing the dogs along. We ran alongside the sled on the uphills and got back on as the dogs accelerated over the rolling tundra hills. Yes, it goes without saying, this was the best airport pickup ever.
Julia St Aubin I never did meet, but did watch her play hockey. I spent time with Julia’s Grandfather, Jean-Guy, and wasn’t surprised when I saw her skill and tenacity on the ice. Jean-Guy is one of those tough guys you’d want to be with if ever out of the land. He knows every flake of snow in Nunavik let alone the lay of the land. Julia played beyond her years and displayed athleticism and desire that reminded me of the Olympic athletes I was surrounded by; the Olympic athlete I was. Both girls reminded me of this.
And now, three years later, they are all grown up. Now they are the young teenagers, hockey stars, youth leaders and outstanding students. Two awesome kids with all the potential in the world they are just beginning to realize. Two of the members of the girls hockey team in Joe’s programs that came home with the big trophy from winning a Bantam Tournament down south. An incredible feat considering the team was made of of girls from all across Nunavik, and that they had only played together for a week or so.
They came home to heroes welcomes in their respective villages. I can hardly wait to see their medals and share in the pride they deserve to have after such a big win.
Which brings me to the power of sport and the potential of the youth in the North. Canada has this rich history of people from across our northern landscape who are more bad assed in their ancestry than most southerns could every comprehend. These kids come from a lineage of people who survived harsh winters living out on the land, on the tundra in the barrens, hunting and surviving often by the skin of their teeth. These kids are natural athletes and can do anything, if given the chance and the outlet.
Going back to the north lets me see once again this potential. That I have the chance to nurture and encourage it in Andrea and Julia, and all the kids I will meet, is a gift I don’t take lightly.
Already on the plane ride up, the memories have flooded back in. The smiles, laughter, warmth and friendliness are but a few of the things that leave me feeling rich and loved for being let in to this world once again.