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A Northern Light (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday February 12, 2008 9:45AM; Updated: Tuesday February 12, 2008 9:45AM
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Juneau is a coach and mentor to 180 children, many of whom enter his program only able to skate while pushing a chair.
Juneau is a coach and mentor to 180 children, many of whom enter his program only able to skate while pushing a chair.
Simon Bruty/SI

After thinking about it, the answer is obvious to me. When I look towards town, I see where the Inuit now have to live. And when I look at the wide open [spaces] around the village, I see where they really belong, what they love, and what the adults need to be happy in their life. . . . The kids are growing up pretty much like kids from the South [of Canada]. They have 100 channels on TV, the Internet, computer games. None of that was here 10 years ago. The pace that the people are asked to adjust at might be too fast. The reality is 50 years ago, some of the Inuit were still being born in igloos.

This is the big gap that is represented as we look out my window: the land and the village, the nomad and the sedentary, the Inuit culture and the white culture, the past and the present, the physical survival (finding food and shelter at -50 Celsius [-58 Fahrenheit]) and now the mental survival (learning how they fit in this new world while at the same time fighting to keep their culture intact). . . .

This is indeed a chasm, like the one that sometimes exists between being merely an elite athlete and being a complete human being.

In the hockey fraternity, Juneau was always considered a freak. He played drums and read books and pondered the environment at a time when going green in the NHL meant a trip to Hartford to play the Whalers. The son of a forest ranger, he had a love of space that went beyond the 200-by-85-foot parameters of the rink and some of the narrow thinking that envelops the game. "I'm not saying Jo's weird," says Montreal defenseman Patrice Brisebois, a friend and former teammate, "but he always liked doing things that were different." Juneau took the road less traveled. Now he works at the 58th parallel, in a place where there are no roads other than the streets of Kuujjuaq. Except one. Curling past the Forum atop the hill, this road snakes by the occasional home, curls past a dump filled with rusting Ski-Doos and other detritus of northern life, meanders near patches of tamaracks and then, after 15 miles, dead-ends. Just like that. The locals refer to it as The Road to Nowhere, which is where a life here can end if you are not careful.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in Nunavik. According to Statistics Canada, 22% of the people who died there between 2000 and 2002 did so at their own hands. That galling figure helps explain why, while the average life span for a Canadian man or woman is 79.5, for an Inuit it is 66.9. An April 2007 provincial report on youth-protection services in Nunavik concluded that alcohol, drug addiction and suicide "have become problems of alarming proportions in all age groups. Poverty adds to the difficulty of the situation, and children are often the first victims. Many children live in conditions that are quite simply unsuited to their need for protection and security. A large number of children are physically, psychologically and sexually mistreated."

Juneau first visited Nunavik on a caribou-hunting trip in the summer of 2004. On a return trip in the spring of '06 he saw that a tin-roofed rink in Kangiqsualujjuaq, northeast of Kuujjuaq, was virtually deserted while Inuit children played in the street without supervision. Within weeks Juneau had presented a plan for his hockey program to the Inuit-run Makivik Corporation, part of the latticework of agencies that make one of the least-populated areas in North America one of the most heavily regulated. The program set forth 10 objectives, which included educational tie-ins, crime prevention, the development of local coaches who could meet standards set by the Quebec Ice Hockey Federation, nutritional instruction and community volunteerism.

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