Saturday, August 15, 2009

Having faith

Two boys lie in fetal positions on the concrete. The sun is fierce, forcing one of the boys to find shade between a garbage can and a wall. Both have toques on, perhaps because arctic summers can still be cold, or because it's their way of shutting the world out.

The Globe and Mail ran an article about the reactions that cropped up upon the release of a photo of two young boys sleeping outside the local grocery store in Iqaluit. "Outrage" seems to be the universal reaction. Some northerners are outraged that their communities have been depicted in such a negative light, outraged that the photo and the ensuing controversy highlight already ubiquitous and harmful stereotypes. Others are outraged that the government hasn't and isn't doing enough to address the social problems in the North.

The question seems to be whether such bleak depictions merely perpetuate historical prejudices and stereotypes of aboriginal peoples and communities, particularly northern ones, or whether these serve as wake up calls for everyone to take notice and do something. What that something is, no one seems to know.

Cathleen With, a dear writer friend of mine who taught up in Inuvik with me, has written a novel in which the narrator is a troubled northern youth. It is a story of one young girl's struggles, of her challenges and hopes, of her journey to find a self that she can accept and love. That her story is set in the north is not merely extraneous. Readers may ask why someone would choose to write about the north from such a bleak perspective; however, as a teacher who had taught for five years in Inuvik, I must say that even though not all of my students were troubled youth, I had encountered enough heartbreak in my interactions with my students, and theirs were the stories that kept me up at night, that tore me apart, that made me feel helpless. While I shed tears and tossed and turned in vain, Cathleen did something about it: She was compelled to write a fictional account of one girl's shattered life. In no way is young Trista representative of all northern youth, but it is someone's story, someone's truth. And, sadly, there are more someones than there ever should be in the North. (And yes, I realize that there are troubled urban youth living in southern cities as well, and that everything just seems magnified in the North because of its close-knit communities; however, to say that does nothing to assuage the problems.)

So, is the story sad? Definitely so. But is it "too sad to read"? Decidedly not. If reading the book makes you cry, then great. If it draws you into a world of harsh juxtaposition, where the beauty of land and culture clashes with despair and helplessness, then you've learned a bit of what it feels like to live in the north, to be confronted by such a mesh of emotions. Having Faith is a journey, and perhaps it's a start of that something. Faith is about believing in something that cannot be proven. The resilience of youth, of culture, and of traditions is absolutely worth having faith about.

* Visit Cathleen's website, read a review of her book, or buy Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison. Cathleen is donating part of the proceeds to the Inuvik Youth Centre.


  1. Sounds like a good read! Will put it on my TBR list.

  2. I'd like to read this book as well! Let's see if it's available at my local library. Can't wait to read about your new adventures in Edmonton!