Post Arctic Reflection by Ushpreet Mehta (Arctic 2016)

The overwhelming culture and beauty of the Arctic is hard to describe. This past summer, I had the opportunity to experience and discover the North as a participant of the Students on Ice 2016 Arctic Expedition. We were a group of 120 students and 80 educators from around the world. This educational expedition was led by scientists, researchers, explorers, journalists, Inuit leaders and traditional Inuit artists.

At every turn and moment, we were surrounded by fresh waterfalls, beautiful icebergs crafted by mother nature, glistening glaciers, and vast sheets of ice. The journey began in Ottawa where we flew into Iqaluit, Nunavut. We then sailed through the Davis Strait, just before crossing international waters enroute to Greenland. On the first day of our voyage, we shared the Arctic space with the kings and queens of the Arctic (aka the majestic polar bears)! Within the span of 90 minutes we saw 9 of these magnificent creatures!

In the middle of all this beauty were rich Inuit traditions, culture and history that I had the privilege to experience for the next two weeks. I can’t fully describe the experience; however, it is easy to say that the expedition was truly something special. There are three main things I wanted to share that I’ve gained from the 2 weeks I spent in the Arctic.

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  1. I learned a TON about the effects of climate change
  2. I am more aware of the issues people in the North are facing
  3. I created a community of students and educators that are now considered family    

The effects of climate change: 

When people talk about climate change, they say our planet is at stake. However, that isn’t the right way to think about it. Over the past decade, we’ve begun rapidly disrupting the climate that our food system and infrastructures are built upon. The simple truth about climate change isn’t about saving the planet. It is our vulnerability to a level of climate disruption, that humans need to start being aware of – and fast.

With the educators that joined our expedition, we participated in many workshops. One of the many workshop that changed my perspective of climate change was a session on the effects it has on mental health. It’s quite obvious that climate change exists, however, its effects are more prevalent at the poles.

The Inuit are indigenous communities from the Arctic regions who identify themselves by their land. “We are part of the land and the land is part of us. It’s so much a part of our identity – if it changes then we either lose something or we change our identity.” The changing climate has increased depression amongst the Inuit population very quickly. It has forced locals (especially elders) to spend their days involved in other activities – tasks that they haven’t been accustomed to in the past, which sometimes involves doing nothing. Additionally, as shocking as it may sound, many locals are facing depression and anxiety from the lack of ability to hunt – a crucial part of their culture and identity. Many northern students and staff members on board the expedition shared how their hearts throbbed with happiness when being on the land and water. Now as the temperature rises and sea ice melts, animals are changing their usual habits and making it even more difficult for hunters to carry out this tradition. David Serkoak, an Inuit leader, hunter, and teacher shared that due to their inability to properly predict ice conditions, more and more experienced hunters are getting severely injured or dying during hunting expeditions. A major concern is the lack of accessible and available resources such as psychiatrists and walk-in clinics for those experiencing depression. As well, unfortunately a huge stigma exists for mental health causing the entire community to believe it’s not acceptable to feel this way.

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Northern Difficulties:

The purpose of the expedition was not only to see the magnificence of Arctic landscapes, but also to reconnect with the northern communities who have undergone harsh times of cultural loss and forceful relocations.

One of the destinations in the Torngat Mountains was an old Inuit Village on the East Coast of Labrador: Hebron. In 1959, there were 250 people living there, when the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador declared the community economically unviable and forcefully relocated every man, woman and child. During our time at Hebron, we gathered into an old church and reflected on the hardships and injustice each family faced when they were relocated by the government. A portion of the ceremony was a lesson of resilience and reconciliation with celebrations of the future – the release of the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy, with regards to the rising suicide rates amongst Inuit youth. The ceremony was a mélange of traditional Inuit songs by elders, traditional drum dancing and throat singing performances – all cultural practices that were once forbidden.

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As mentioned above, I am so inspired to have met so many great people, one of whom was my roommate from Kugluktuk, Nunavut, Canada. The same day we returned back to the ship from Hebron, my roommate shared her concern for the lack of value her community emphasizes on education. She shared that more than 50% of the Inuit population is of youth. The reason this statistic is alarming is because of the increase in teenage pregnancies and the lack of interest in higher education.

I asked her what she believes is the best method to find a solution to this problem. She replied with “It all begins with parents. They need to start teaching their kids with puzzles and books at a young age. Perhaps there needs to be parenting workshops available where parents can learn the proper steps to take to ensure their children take interest in school and find value in education.” It was one of the best conversations I had on the ship. We brainstormed back and forth different workshop ideas and activities that could be implemented for parents and students in her community.

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The SOI Family: 

There were students from China, India, France, Malaysia, USA and all over Canada. It wasn’t just the places where they came from that were cool, but the initiatives they were all leading in their communities. One afternoon, around 15 students including myself shared the projects we were all working on back home. I remember sitting on the couch listening to everyone with goosebumps running up my arm. It was so inspiring to know I was in a room full of people that all wanted to create change, even in the smallest ways. Even during meals in the dining room, the educators and staff members were always looking for new people to sit with so as to meet, get to know, and learn from everyone. My expedition would not have been the same without those who I was able to create a lifetime of memories and have such engaging conversations with.

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As the trip continued, we often used the phrase ‘greatest classroom in the world’ because the places all touched our hearts in unique ways.  On one of the last few days of expedition, we arrived in Ilulissat, Greenland. This place is considered to be the iceberg factory of the world as the icebergs range for miles and miles, to the point where you can’t see where it begins and ends. Within an hour of being there, we were shaken to learn that these same icebergs would all disappear within the next 30 years.

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Through a mix of group activities on deck – throwing a bottle with a message to track changing ocean currents, concerts on zodiacs a kilometer away from three humpback whales, polar-dipping in the arctic waters, kayaking with traditional hand-crafted Inuit kayaks, 90’s dance parties, educational programs of lectures known as ‘Arctic Hours,’ interactive workshops, discussions and hands-on scientific research – I was able to experience the Arctic like no other.

It is definitely not an overstatement to say that I was completely blown away by the entire SOI experience. Experiences like these are truly once in a lifetime and as a student, it was the best classroom in the world! However, even though the actual expedition is over, the conversation isn’t. As privileged as we all are, it’s just as important to raise awareness for these issues that are affecting our neighbours. They simply aren’t being discussed enough, which is why it is so crucial to share these issues and have these conversations with policy makers and government officials.

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I wanted to end off on something a little off topic. Would I have been able to do this expedition without the individuals, businesses and organizations that helped me fundraise? Absolutely not. Students on Ice offers many different scholarships however, I was unsuccessful in attaining one. If in any way my blog inspired someone out there to participate in this expedition or get started on something they’ve always wanted to do, don’t let anything stop you – especially not funds. 

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I followed the expedition for three continuous years and finally decided to fundraise in order to participate – the total cost was $12K. I was absolutely terrified and kept doubting myself but it was the people around me who kept me going. First and foremost, my family, who deserves everything in the world for pushing me the entire summer to keep going after this dream. In the minutes before I would pitch the expedition to organizations in my community, I was so nervous and believed that no one would help. To my surprise, my community helped me more than I could have ever imagined. Friends that I haven’t spoken to in forever were willing to help. Municipal officials and MPP’s were offering their support to broadcast my expedition to their own network. Radio stations allowed me to share my story completely last minute. Complete strangers would contact me from my newspaper feature asking questions and wanting to help me fundraise. Businesses approached me and offered to contribute just because they’ve never heard of something like this before. That was it – little by little people from all over my community were helping and it was slowly becoming a reality. The power of having a community is so essential because I had zero success for sponsorships from large organizations and corporations. The people who helped me raise funds didn’t contribute because of their concern for climate change, they helped me achieve my goal because they believed in me and what I wanted to do. Perhaps the scholarship rejections were a blessing in disguise because the success and support that I received was incomparable.

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I’ll be sharing what I hope to do about the expedition in a another blog!

Until next time..

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Ushpreet Mehta

Students on Ice is proudly supported by bv02.

This website was made possible by a generous contribution from the Leacross Foundation.