Category Archives: Churchill, MB

Iaith fyw

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Getting to Wales is no easy task. Despite being neatly nestled in England’s bosom, it took us no less than four trains to get there. Mists became heavier, and place names wildly more exotic, as we approached the legendary birthplace of Merlin. Upon boarding the last train we were greeted by this:

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Now, many an Englishperson had told us that Welsh was basically a dead language. But as we passed signs bidding us ‘Croeso’ to places such as Lladundon and Gwynydd, it became clear that we were in a very bilingual country…more bilingual, even, than Canada!

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This comparison between Welsh and Canadian bilingualism got me thinking. It’s not a fair comparison, because Canada’s two languages are both colonial, whereas Welsh is a native (in the most general meaning of the word) language that survives despite the presence of English. A more appropriate comparison would be between English (or French, in Quebec) and the multitude of First Nations languages that have been present for thousands of years.

What has allowed Welsh to survive while less than 1% of Canadians still claim a First Nations language as their mother tongue? And what can Canada learn from the Welsh success? As Canada tries to recover from centuries of colonization, these are definitely things worth addressing (though this applies to the nation as a whole, I will speak only to my own experience, which is in Manitoba).

The obvious answer to this question is financial support. The UK government pours significant amounts of money every year into keeping Welsh alive. All official signage and documentation are in both Welsh and English, with Welsh usually being more prominent. The majority of schools in Wales are taught in Welsh, and basic Welsh is mandatory throughout all grades even in English-language schools.

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Meanwhile in Manitoba, public text does not include First Nations languages until the 58th parallel (which is basically Churchhill and that’s it), and schools must design their own curricula and materials if they want to teach a First Nations language.

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The most common objection to the use of First Nations languages in public institutions (including schools) is that there are simply too many of them. In some respects this is valid: it would be impossible to choose a single language to represent the diversity of a land this massive. But considering that 30 Waleses could fit into Manitoba alone, it is not unreasonable to propose that the Wales-sized plot of land around Winnipeg could include Anishinabe in its public texts while the Wales-sized plot of land stretching from The Pas to Gillam could include Cree, etc.

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The next anticipated objection is that a country cannot function when divided into so many linguistic groups. To counter this, we jump ahead in our voyage to Switzerland. Quite possibly the most stable country in all of history, it is split into four distinct language districts. Street signs, schools, and even food labels switch languages entirely within the same country. In fact, while visiting the Italian-speaking canton, our Swiss German cousin had to speak to the gas attendant in English to be understood. Yet the Swiss are undoubtedly Swiss, and have been for 800 years.

It’s sometimes tempting to believe that language extinction is just a Darwinian fact of life, and that any attempt to fight natural selection is just prolonging the inevitable. In the case of Latin, for example, this is very true. In the case of First Nations languages, however, their pending extinction is entirely unnatural. The systematic destruction of these languages was never inevitable, but rather was artificially imposed in the relatively recent past. This suggests that it is entirely possible to reverse the disappearance of these languages if we support their use in public institutions. Obviously this would not entirely resolve the centuries of distrust between Canada and First Nations communities, but it would be a significant step, and would ensure that the unique perspectives offered by those languages are not lost.

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Spaceships and Sled-Dogs

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Ahh, Gypsy’s Bakery. Three weeks ago I’d picked up a brochure in Thompson, stating that this magical culinary outpost, lovechild of a Portugese man and an Azorean woman who for some unknown reason wound up here on the sunny banks of Hudson Bay, was the last stop on Manitoba’s Cinnamon Bun Trail (as sought after as the Northwest Passage!). It was right.
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Reid is in heaven.
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…and so am I. And not just because we haven’t eaten in 15 hours (though that definitely doesn’t hurt their reputation here!)
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Well-energized for the second half of our tour, we boarded Mr. Inglebritzen’s bus once again. He drove us south, back to the tree line, to some of Churchill’s off-season attractions.

After gunning through some impressive snowbanks, we arrived at the Miss Piggy, a plane that crashed here almost 40 years ago. Fortunately there were no casualties (from the crash, nor from our crawling around inside the completely unbarricaded wreckage).
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Next was the polar bear jail. Though currently empty, this is where overly aggressive polar bears are kept during migration season, until they can be released out onto the bay to join their families. Of course, our friendly guide doesn’t believe in aggressive polar bears. He only believes in stupid people wandering alone in the dead of night carrying meat in their backpacks. Still gotta research this tidbit.
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A bear trap. Not a smart place to stand for too long.
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Polar bear tracks. We were assured that they were old, due to how wind-swept they are, but we jumped back on the bus pretty fast after this.
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A brief viewing of the old rocket tower, where Canada shot unmanned satellites into space in the ’70s to research the Northern Lights.
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As we approached the end of Churchill’s enclosed network of roads, we came across a beautiful husky. Then another. Then another. These are the Dog Fields, where purebred Inuit sled dogs are being re-bred after being nearly becoming extinct during the worst of Canada’s assimilation attempts. The males are on long chains, and the females are left free to wander around and mate with whomever they choose (I suppose females are better judges of pedigree). Fortunately they had just been fed massive bricks of caribou meat, so they were in very good moods.
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As I took this picture (no zoom), I was grateful for the bus door separating me from this potentially vicious wild animal. Of course, Mr. Inglebritzen decided that was a good time to swing the door open, leaving me no choice but to face my fear…
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…which turned out to be ridiculously friendly, and luxuriously soft to pet.
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We howled at each other for a bit, and then she ran back for some more caribou.
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En route back to Churchill, I pondered what it must be like to be the last tree.
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Having finished our tour of the Greater Churchill Area, we hit the main drag on foot. What really struck me was that, although Churchill is the pride and joy of Manitoban tourism, it clearly identifies more with Nunavut. Many of the signs are in Inuktitut (which, sadly, is only distantly related to Cree), they sell Nunavut postcards (which kind of seemed like cheating, but I bought one anyway), and the following clipping from the Nunavut News was posted in the museum:
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Gotta love the North. And don’t forget the Nunavut Health Board’s food guide, reminding you to get your protein from sources such as beluga and seals, among others.
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Just off the main drag is the community centre which, for the purpose of keeping people from having to go outside on a -60 day, combines the rec centre, hospital, and school all under one roof. Sara and I could actually work in the same building one day!
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(Fun fact, during October, the admin carry rifles at recess to ward off polar bears. My career aspirations were heightened upon hearing this.)

The Arctic Trading Company is filled with incredible hand-made art and tools…and husky puppies (Noah, this was for you).
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And Mr. Donnelly, I thought as a former box factory employee you might appreciate this. Could be a business merger in the works?
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A blissfully exhausted supper at, you guessed it, Gypsy’s Bakery.
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A huge thank-you to Julie for sharing your ‘bail-out guy’, Mr. Inglebritzen for the incredible tour, Hélène for driving us to and from the train station at the most ridiculous hours, and all my Gillam friends for sharing this unforgettable day!

Good night, Churchill!
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(approximately 3:15 pm 🙂 )

No!…Sleep!…til Churchill!

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…was our chant as we boarded the train at 11:30 pm on a Friday night.

The night train to Churchill is a rite of passage for Gillamites, kind of like going shopping in Fargo for Winnipeggers, only ten thousand times awesomer. So even if polar bear season is long over, it’s something you have to do.

It works like this: you get on the train at approximately 11pm in Gillam, arrive in Churchill at 8 am, ‘do’ Churchill hard as long as your blown mind and frozen fingers can take, warm up with a gargantuan meal from Gypsy’s bakery, check out the plethora of shops and museums along the main drag, enjoy another gargantuan meal from Gypsy’s bakery, then wait in satisfied bliss for the train to take you away at 7:30 pm, arriving back in Gillam at 4:30 am on Sunday.

Reid and I started making this plan over a week ago, along with our friends Sitara and Katherine. It wasn’t until two days before leaving, however, that Julie, our CT, asked if we wanted a ‘contact’ in Churchill.

“Okay,” I said, remembering some of the amazing people Sara and I met in Argentina as a result of our incredibly random connections.

“His name is Mark Inglebritzen (sp?)” she said, and proceeded to give me his phone number.

“Who is he?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s great. He’s my bail-out guy.”

“Your…bail-out guy?”

“Yeah. Y’know, whenever I’m in trouble in Churchill, like if I have twenty students in the train station and it’s -60 outside, he’ll show up with a school bus and bail me out.”

Not a situation I’ve ever found myself in, but it sounded like it was worth a phone call.

Two hours before catching the train, I found the number on a post-it note. I called, hoping he could maybe give me a different number for the car rental company, since I’d been having trouble getting ahold of them. A gruff-but-kind voice answered. A 30-second conversation ensued, ending with him saying, “We’ve got a tour for tomorrow! See you at the train station at 8:30…don’t bother describing yourself, I’ll recognize you.”

Neat!

And so, after watching the sun rise over the frozen muskeg and ever-shrinking evergreen trees (Churchill is 5 miles north of the tree line), we arrived at the end of the ViaRail line. I felt the familiar ‘blind date’ butterflies as I wondered what this Inglebritzen fellow would be like, and we stepped off the train and onto the tundra.

Turns out Mr. Inglebritzen is a super swell guy with a lifetime’s worth of experiences in Churchill. He has an incredible knowledge of history and a deep respect for the nature and original inhabitants of the area.
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Also, when asked about how he knew Julie (since she had never actually given me a straight answer) he responded, “Oh, her family owned the grocery store in Lynn Lake for years.” As they say, Northern Manitoba is a very small town.

…and to top it all off, he has (as promised) a small school bus.
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We set out down a completely snowed-over road that runs alongside Hudson Bay, where several shacks sat uninhabited, but still awfully handy for ice-fishers in need of shelter.
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(I enjoy that they had to clarify that the last resident was a ‘naturalist’. I assume that doesn’t mean ‘nudist’, as it does in some parts of the world.)

One of those breathtaking scenes that can never quite be captured in pixels: Hudson Bay, under 8 feet of ice.
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This picture was taken for Grandpa Abe, who has long espoused the benefits of boiling lichen to make soup in a pinch. The various shades of red show different types of lichen growing on the same rock, which is really rare (apparently…I’m no expert 🙂 )
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A surprisingly fearless fox who came right up to the side of the road to investigate us.
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Sunrise over the Port of Churchill
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And how could I forget: in true traveller fashion, we befriended a rather lost Québécois fellow who was about to start a stint with Hydro in Gillam but was first continuing on to Churchill with no plans nor people that he knew (and not a ton of English either!). Gaetan fit right in with out crew, and here he is getting up from a nap on the train tracks.
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A progress report on this goal might be more comforting…
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Well, Mr. Inglebritzen said it was okay
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My travelling companions are an eclectic bunch: Reid, farm boy from Roblin, Katherine, born and raised Gillamite, Sitara, moved from Bangladesh to Toronto to Gillam, and myself, the only native Winnipegger I’ve yet met.
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By this point, the fact that we had neither eaten nor slept for over 15 hours was beginning to catch up with us, so we took a brief intermission at the legendary Gypsy’s Bakery…