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.
"We took him up on it right away," Makivik Corporation president Pita Aatami says. "We'd talked about it ourselves, had hired people, but it was never very well run, very well structured, until we hired Jo�. We had an arena, but the kids weren't playing hockey. We want our kids to have a healthier lifestyle. There is much more alcohol and different drugs coming to the north. What he designed wasn't a hockey program but really a social program."
With an initial budget of $1 million from the Makivik Corporation and the Kativik Regional Government, Juneau began work in the fall of 2006. He would spend one or two weeks a month in Nunavik, usually staying in Kuujjuaq but also hopscotching by plane among the villages. The program began to blossom in the rocky soil—the 180 participants represent a third of the eligible children in Kuujjuaq—but the now 40-year-old Juneau was not satisfied. "Every time I left here and went home, I found myself the next morning wishing I was here to continue this," he says. "There's so much to be done. You disconnect for two or three weeks, you lose the continuity. I had a decision. Either I could keep doing it this way and hope for the best, or I could take the next step: moving here."
Elsa Moreau, who has lived with Juneau as his partner for 10 years, made the decision easy. "If he were here to open a business or something, I would have said no. But he's investing in a mission, something bigger than himself. This is a grand projet humain," she says in French, at the kitchen table in the home she and Juneau share. The house had been used by policemen who rotate through the region until it was renovated for Juneau's family. Oph�lie, 7, and H�lo�se, 6, each have their own small bedroom. Another has been turned into an arts-and-crafts room for the girls, who are homeschooled in the mornings and attend French immersion classes at the local grammar school in the afternoon. Their father runs them to school and hockey practices in a black Jeep supplied by the Kuujjuaq recreation department. He is paid $4,000 a week for spending 36 weeks in Nunavik. If the salary, about one quarter of the current program budget, seems substantial, consider that the cost of living in Kuujjuaq is almost 60% higher than in the southern part of the province. The salary is also a fourteenth of what he earned in his final NHL season.
"We all find it unusual that he's here," says Mary Aitchison, 55, assistant director general of the Kativik School Board and one of the village elders. Her son Kyle, 12, is in the hockey program. "The children know he played for the Montreal Canadiens, and that makes a real difference. The modeling is what's working here. I don't know anything about hockey, but I support this because I see its effect on my little boy. The condition for playing is he has to do well at school, so it's giving him that focus and extra energy."
There are, in fact, three conditions for children who want to stay in the program, wear the uniforms and maybe make the travel team that will play in the international peewee tournament that begins this week in Quebec City. They are not judged on schoolwork, per se, but on attendance, behavior and effort. On Friday afternoon, teachers at the grammar and high school fill out forms assessing each student in these three categories. Juneau tabulates and monitors. (He is often on the ice three hours a day—organizing drills that are sometimes as elementary as having younger children skate to center ice and belly flop, acclimating them to falling—but he seems to spend triple that time in meetings and doing paperwork.) Early in the season Juneau barred nine children for a week. The following week all had improved their comportment enough to be reinstated. Says Dallacy Suppa, whose 12-year-old son, Collin, is in the program, "[Collin's] effort has been great since [the program started]. He helps me a lot at home with cleaning, and with his little brother and sisters. He never complains about homework anymore. I'm glad this program came up north."
Apparently a hockey stick can be a wonderful carrot.
IF JUNEAU is teaching Nunavik about hockey, the north is teaching Juneau to pick his battles. He might be able to take on the vending machine supplier at the Kuujjuaq Forum—the junk food has been removed—but he takes on Mother Nature at his peril. In early September he flew to Kangiqsujuaq to supervise the hockey program for a week that turned out to be, in his word, a "disaster." For the villagers of Kangiqsujuaq, the Canada and snow geese that were flying out on their autumnal migration were of far more interest than Juneau's flying in to run his hockey program. According to Statistics Canada, 98% of Inuit households in Nunavik hunt and fish for sustenance. For the Inuit, going out to shoot geese is like going to the A&P.
Juneau was sitting in Pita Aatami's office at Makivik Corporation last autumn when Aatami received a phone call that the migrating George River caribou herd was passing through the Manitou Gorge, about 50 miles upriver from the village. In an instant Aatami's mood changed, from official to almost giddy. He canceled a meeting for that evening with village mayors who had flown in to Kuujjuaq.
For the freezers, the uncommonly late migration of the herd was a belated blessing. For the hockey program, it was a reminder that sports are not really life and death. (The day after Juneau's meeting with Aatami, on a whiteboard at the high school that lists absentees and their excuses, the word "hunting" was written next to the name of one child.)