The Arctic village of Salluit is a harsh, isolating place to live – particularly for a teenager – and the youth suicide rate is desperately high.
The air in the Arctic village of Salluit was crisp and fresh, the purest, sharpest she had ever breathed, Maggie MacDonnell remembers thinking as she stepped off the plane six years ago. But as she took in the stunning snow-covered panorama, an infinity of white, her mind was full of a much darker reality – Salluit’s horrifyingly high teenage suicide rate, which had reached epidemic proportions.
Maggie had travelled to the Inuit village in northern Quebec – population 1,400, inaccessible by road – to teach in its secondary school. Term had already started, but the problems of Salluit are so tough that finding teachers was – and remains – extremely difficult. Maggie had responded to an SOS call from her sister Claire, who had been working as a social worker in Salluit for two years.
Maggie was working with refugees in Africa, and although the geography could not have been more different, the issues – despairing teenagers from traumatic backgrounds – sounded eerily familiar. She caught the first flight she could – ‘I went from pineapples to polar bears’ – leaving her husband behind, and arrived determined to make a difference.
Today Maggie, now in her late 30s, is in London as a guest of the Varkey Foundation, which sponsors the award that has become known as the Nobel prize of teaching – the Global Teacher Prize, worth $1 million and given to an ‘exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession’. Last year it went to Maggie in recognition of her extraordinary work in Salluit, where she has turned around the lives of scores of young people.
The teen suicides in Salluit, says Maggie, are the legacy of decades of heavy-handed and insensitive treatment of Inuits (the indigenous Arctic community), which saw a nomadic people forced to settle in villages that were never properly resourced in order to help set up the oil and mineral industries.
Even today, some homes are occupied by several generations of one family because of a chronic housing shortage. For decades from the late 19th century, Inuit children were removed from their homes from as young as six (the practice has since been ended, hence the secondary school in Salluit) and sent to residential schools in other parts of Canada, where they were sometimes maltreated. What that meant, says Maggie, was that childrearing skills became neglected as parents were separated from their offspring during crucial years.
The harshness of the climate, in an area where temperatures regularly plummet to minus 40 degrees, food shortages – Salluit means ‘the thin ones’ in Inuktitut, the local language – and the housing crisis have combined to create a society where opportunities and hope are in scant supply.
The fallout is anguished young people, many of whom end up taking their lives. ‘It’s desperate,’ says Maggie. ‘Attending my students’ funerals is the saddest thing I’ve ever done. Then we go back to class the next day and there’s the empty desk. And you know that each child who takes their own life is making it more likely that others will follow.’
Maggie is a no-nonsense Canadian raised in rural Nova Scotia. There were indigenous people in the community where she grew up and she understood their issues from a young age. ‘I realised that there’s quite a lot of injustice and my mum was very people-orientated and encouraged us to care for others,’ she says.
Her experience in African refugee camps, where she worked for five years before going to Salluit, meant she was used to troubled children. And in the snow-carpeted Arctic she put the same philosophy into action that had worked under the hot sun of Tanzania.
‘Even in a refugee camp, children need to play. And though no one tends to think of sport as a priority in those circumstances, it can transform the lives of young people. In the camps where I worked, children often didn’t have parents and many were severely traumatised by what they’d witnessed in conflicts. A common response to that situation is to not eat, not exercise, not care about your body. But sport can lift your mood. I would bring in a football or basketball coach, and suddenly these kids would have a healthy adult to connect with.
‘If you exercise your body and relax it, you relax your mind, too – and that’s what they really needed. I’m not saying sport can address the root causes, but it can certainly improve an individual’s ability to start dealing with difficulties.’
There are 200 students in the high school in Salluit, aged between 11 and 18. One year, says Maggie, there were ten suicides. ‘After that I stopped counting – it was too sad.’ She believes the Inuit children carry the pain of their forebears, as well as the exhausting difficulties of living somewhere so bitterly cold and relentlessly tough. ‘As a teacher I think, what do these children really need? Is it fractions and Shakespeare, or is it building resilience and preparing them for the realities of their lives?’ She decided to introduce a project-based curriculum, starting from where the children were rather than what the education system might prescribe.
The first thing, she quickly realised, was simply to acknowledge the effort it took for children to come to school. Truancy is high, many students have dropped out in the past and others are at risk of doing so in the future. ‘The first thing I do when they do come in is say: “I’m so glad you’re here today. I respect that you had your reasons for not coming into school yesterday, and I understand the courage it took for you to be here now.”’
The essential ingredients for turning round life in Salluit, Maggie realised, were injecting joy into her pupils’ lives and improving their self-esteem. Her lessons focus on art and practical skills alongside traditional schoolwork. ‘We’re as likely to study cooking and childcare as we are geography and history. I love finding ways for the pupils to help others in the community – making meals for the elderly, for example. It’s fantastic for how they perceive themselves: overnight they go from being a troublemaker who throws bricks at windows to a hero who makes lunch for senior citizens.’
When Maggie first arrived in Salluit, some of the Inuit people were suspicious of her. ‘They were hesitant – they had seen a lot of outsiders come and go,’ she says. She moved into a house owned by the schoolboard and pitched into community life from the start. ‘I remember asking an Inuit woman, “What does it mean to be beautiful in your culture?” And she said, “It’s not to do with how you look, it’s to do with what you can do” and that resonated with me.’
A brisk, ‘non-girlie’ type, Maggie found it easy to make the transition to a place where clothes had to be about function more than fashion. ‘You have to dress warm the whole time,’ she says. ‘Animal fur is essential. I don’t wear much make-up, but that’s a good thing. If you put moisturiser on your face in the Arctic, it freezes.’ All the same, the girls among her students persuaded her to embrace nail art. ‘They love it and they got me into it,’ she says.
Social media is only just beginning to have an influence in Salluit and Maggie is cautious about how it might change things for her pupils. ‘The internet is incredibly slow here, but the technology will improve. I would rather see students connect with nature and people than with machines, but sometimes it is useful for those in an isolated community to connect with a broader world.’ And Salluit is certainly cut off: no cheap airlines fly there – the fare to Montreal can cost £2,200.
Maggie immersed herself in village life from the start and learned about the problems of the community over many generations. The Inuits are traditionally hunter-gatherers, but today unemployment among them is around 50 per cent, although some still work in the age-old industries of hunting seals, walruses and beluga whales. Others are employed at a nickel mine in the area.
The couple got to know one another when he volunteered to run sessions for children in one of the refugee camps where Maggie was working. He has a natural affinity with children: ‘The kids at the camp in Tanzania fell in love with him,’ Maggie says. ‘He was so brilliant with them: there were language barriers and so on, but you get a ball and begin a game and suddenly people connect.’
In Salluit, Abdullah has been closely involved in the fitness centre Maggie established in an under-used community building. The children can play basketball, volleyball and football, and there’s also a running club. ‘We go out running together and I tell them: “On your own you can go fast, but with others you can go far.” Before there were very few places in the village where the kids could be together – there’s no cinema and not enough recreational space. It can feel very lonely being healthy in the Arctic – 65 per cent of 11-year-olds in the region smoke – but at the fitness centre they meet others who aren’t smoking or drinking too much. The fitness centre is like a second home to them, somewhere with positive peers and positive adults.’
Maggie addressed the toughest issue in Salluit head-on by organising suicide prevention workshops. ‘Young people are the frontline workers in teenage mental health, because who do adolescents talk to apart from one another? In the workshops they learn what to do if someone is talking about suicide. People might be saying things like, “I just want to give up.” And we teach them to name it. You have to ask, “Are you having suicidal thoughts?” Find out if they have a plan, because if they do it’s a crisis and you need to get help fast.’
And for Maggie, support doesn’t end when her pupils leave school. ‘If they go on to college or they find a job outside the village, I remain engaged in their lives,’ she says. This ongoing care helps them with the struggles their life inevitably brings once school is over. Maggie stays in touch with her students through Facebook or email, and continues to do her best to help them find work or the right college course.
Life in Salluit has been gruelling for Maggie, but unlike many teachers who can’t hack it for more than a few months, she has stayed for six years. ‘Turnover of staff is high here,’ she says. ‘I help by mentoring new teachers when they first come in. That can make a difference.’
There is currently a lot of excitement in the community because Maggie and Abdullah are expecting their first baby. ‘So many people have said, “I want to babysit for you” or, “I hope you’re going to raise your child here,”’ she says. Although the couple are moving back to Nova Scotia for the baby’s birth, Maggie says they hope to return.
In the meantime, she’s planning to use part of the prize money from the Varkey Foundation to reintroduce kayaking to Salluit. ‘The Inuits invented kayaking and when I’ve taken students out on the water they’ve loved it. One of them said to me recently, “When I’m on the water, I leave all my problems on the shore.” Another girl said, “It makes me feel like I’m with my ancestors.”’
It’s the recognition that she’s making such a crucial difference to the young people’s lives that keeps her going, even on the harshest of days.
‘I’ve had youngsters come up to me and say, “There was a time when I was going to end my life, but you talked to me, I joined the running club and things got better.” Other kids say, “I can’t believe I made it to my 18th birthday.” During the tough times in the Arctic, on the days when the sweat freezes on your face and your eyelashes turn to ice, that helps me carry on.’
By Joanna Moorhead