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People of the North: Introduction

“People of the North” is a series of interviews created in partnership with Arctic in Context and Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities. Every six weeks, Kesserwan Arteau founders, Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan will publish an interview with leaders, innovators, and community members in an effort to highlight the Arctic’s diversity from the perspective of those who live there. 

By Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan

We at Kesserwan Arteau do not consider ourselves Arctic experts in any way, but we have had the unique privilege of meeting the real experts of the Arctic. Every day we talk with the strong, intelligent, passionate, and inspiring people who live in this region. They share their incredible experiences and stories, as well as their bold and ambitious goals. They teach us not only about their past and their present reality, but also about our planet and our common responsibility toward it. In many ways, they are a powerful representation of what the past has to teach us, what the present is about, and what the future will hold.  

We thought you would like to meet them, too. This is why we had the idea to create the “People of the North” series and introduce you to the people who make the Arctic what it is through regular interviews with community leaders, artists, innovators, teachers, and dreamers who live in the Arctic. We hope to be able to organize a “People of the North” conference to share their stories and to present what the Arctic is about from the perspective of those who live there.

For our first installment in the series, we were asked by Arctic in Context to interview each other. 

We first met during the Katimajiit conference in March 2009. Katimajit, which means “together,” was a meeting between Inuit and Quebec political leaders, part of a vast operation seeking to ensure the socioeconomic development of Nunavik. Topics such as youth protection, housing, education, and the high cost of living were discussed. Jean François was one of the organizers of the event. He was the executive advisor to the president of Makivik, the economic branch and birthright organization of Quebec. Karina was a political advisor to the Quebec Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. When the president and the minister agreed that “my people will call your people,” we were the people, and we did call each other—many, many times.

During the next few years we had occasion to work together on various issues, including the sled dog slaughter, housing, economic development, and the “Plan Nord” (Northern Plan), which is Quebec’s plan for the economic and social development of the Northern parts of the province. The Inuit were quick to reply that they had their own Southern Plan, or Nunavik Plan. 

Then, we parted ways for a short while. Karina left for Sudbury, Ontario, and then started a law firm in Montreal. Jean François tried to integrate himself into a major Canadian law firm, which only lasted three days, and then went on to establish a career in government.

A few years later, we met up once again at a coffee shop in Old Montreal, Quebec, and decided to form the firm Kesserwan Arteau. 

Karina Kesserwan: What was your first experience with the North?

Jean François Arteau: I was working with the Quebec municipalities’ federation and I wanted to make a change and do something totally new professionally. I was going up North to discover myself through new and different eyes. I saw a job posting located in Kuujjuaq, with the Kativik Regional Government, but I had no idea where Kuujjuaq was. I had heard about the North from my uncle, who used to work in Kuujjuarapik, but I hadn’t realized how far these two  villages in Northern Quebec were from one another (405 miles). I applied for the legal advisor job and was hired and in 1998 relocated to Nunavik with my wife and our young daughter. At first it was a total culture shock! But after a few years I settled into my new home and ended up staying for seven years in Kuujuaq and have now been working for the Inuit for 16 years.

KK: Did your academic background and work experience prepare you for your new position? 

JFA: With an academic background in law I quickly began to understand the legal system in the North. However, my graduate studies in philosophy of law made me realize how the legal system put in place by “Southerners” was not in tune with local values and traditions. There is a complex and complete disconnect between our legal system and the Inuit.

KK: How did you learn Inuktitut?

JFA: I took informal classes from an Inuit woman, once a week, on Tuesday nights. Most people who move up North for work try to learn the language as you quickly realize that this is the main language there: in the grocery store, in the street, on community radio, even at work.

The Inuit usually correct you when you make mistakes. Most are happy that you are learning the language, but can get a little impatient that you don’t speak it better already. However, some are not very keen on white people learning their language, as they feel it invades their private conversations. 

For example, I learned that I had a nickname: Aartao. It is close to my actual name and it means “big belly” in Inuktitut. It’s not something people would call me to my face, but that’s how they referred to me among themselves.

KK: What is the one thing that you miss most about the North? 

JFA: I miss the people. When you live in a Northern village, you live in a close-knit community. Personal relationships become very important. In a way, your very survival depends on them. I always say the North is about the people. If the work that you are doing isn’t for the people of the North, then it's simply not worth doing.

What about you, what was your first experience with the North?

KK: I was born up North. Not in the Arctic, but in northwest Russia—north of the 59th parallel. I grew up in a city called Cherepovetz. It is a metallurgical town that has a Northern, industrial feel, which I felt once again when I lived in Sudbury, Ontario. I think there’s something about Northern cities that gives them a rough, tough exterior and very resilient people. You can perceive that through the writings of their poets, like Patrice Desbiens, for example.

JFA: I too believe that the North makes people stronger. One phrase I always think about is “Rappelle-toi, petit, la mort n'arrive jamais. Dans la toundra. C'est déjà là,” or, “Death never comes. In the Tundra, it is already there,” from Richard Desjardins’ song “Akinisi.” Richard Desjardins had taught in Nunavik for a few years in the Northern village of Puvirnituq, and I think he understood the place pretty well. There’s something about the cold North that makes people feel closer to the possibility of death. To live with death every day gives you a sense of life and its importance, like nothing else. 

KK: No matter how we try to talk about the North, we always get back to the people. 

***

Even though we are quite different from one another, we see and understand the North in the same way and we see it as part of our job to help non-Arctic people better understand what our North is made of.  We each have our own experience with the North that makes us believe that we can present an in-depth picture of the Arctic. 

This is precisely what we will try to do over the coming months, in presenting to you some prominent and less well-known people from the North. We will have them tell us, and you, about what their North is, where their North is, and what is in their North. We hope you will accept this rendezvous and embark with us on this great journey to explore the People of the North.

*****

*****

Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq. He has worn many different hats throughout his career, including lawyer, executive advisor, vice president of a major governmental organization, radio host, author, and dad.

Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years, and has juggled the titles of lawyer, professor, and political and strategic advisor.

[Image courtesy of Patrick Kelley]

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