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Discipline, Action, Responsibility, Excellence

Paving a Future – the Ice Road to Tuk

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Mangilaluk School, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT

In January 2015, DAREarts was invited to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, by Julie Donahue, teacher at the Mangilaluk School, and the Beaufort Delta Education Council.

DAREarts artist Cathy Elliott and Lead Teacher Laura MacKinnon guided 30 students from grades 4 to 12 through a whirlwind week of writing, storytelling, puppet-making, soundscape creation, movement and photography.

With the support of local Elders and community members, this creative work culminated in a shadow puppet theatre show and feast, to the delight and awe of over 80 community members in attendance.  The students told four original stories about love and caring, celebrating their culture and heritage and showing their immense talent, energy, and inner leadership.

Paving a Future – the Ice Road to Tuk

Tuk Invite online

From the desk of Cathy Elliott, DAREarts First Roots Program Associate

Tuktoyaktuk means “resembling a caribou” and is the first place in Canada to revert to its original name. The Hamlet is a mix of Dene, Inuvialuit and Non-Aboriginal people, which was used as a vanguard against Communist Russian invasion in the 40’s to the late 70’s. It had seen a large swath of its population wiped out by influenza. Previous generations were submitted to “day schools,” an attempt by government to assimilate them into Canadian society. Today, they all work very hard to process the changes to their community and pave the way to a good future for future generations.


The cab to Tuk

Laura MacKinnon and I had never been to a Hamlet before, never been north of the Arctic Circle and never spoken Inuvilauik. All the same, the minute we landed in Inuvik and drove up to Tuk, we had a familiar feeling. The warmth of welcoming hugs and oh, that cold Northern air!

The first thing we did after leaving the Inuvik airport was to buy a pizza for the road. We hadn’t eaten for hours, and knew that it would be another two and a half hours on the ice road to Tuk before we could find food. You’d think we were in the Tundra or something. Wait, we were in the Tundra! That’s not such a long time on Highway 400 from Toronto to Barrie, but in the North West Territories, it’s a big deal. As a matter of fact, our cab driver, Hester, insisted that we have snacks in the car “Just in case.” She gave us a quick tour of town and then, on to a road that dipped down onto the river, and off we went. We were taking a cab to Tuktoyaktuk.

DAREarts First Roots in Tuk 1

Laura MacKinnon and Cathy Elliott on the Tuk Ice Road.

We followed the ice road down the Mackenzie River Delta as the light began to fade. It took a little while to realize that those hills on either side of the road were actually the banks of the river. When Hester said, “…you want to step out for a picture? It’s going to get dark soon.” We got out and gingerly walked on the slippery black ice a few feet from the van. It wasn’t necessary to be so careful. The ice is stories thick. But we were acutely aware that this was no ordinary selfie. Imagine our amazement, filtered through days of sleep deprivation, delayed flights, disorientation from lack of light, as we realized that we were standing on the Beaufort Sea.

The light disappeared and the road became a blue ribbon in the darkness. We saw, in the drifting snow, the hazard lights of a vehicle in the distance. Hester slowed down to see if there was need of help. We approached the truck and saw that the snow that was being kicked up behind it was the result of a log on a chain. Firewood. All good, wave and pass and take note for later reference. Just in case.

Hester told us that just recently, two men had been driving too quickly. The road is full of crevasses, pressure cracks and seeping water. Sometimes, walls of ice rise up from the sea and become frozen pylons which can tear out the bottom of your truck. Those guys barely survived after their truck flipped and ejected them out into the frigid -45C environment. I had almost forgotten how brutal this part of the world can be. I’d spent a bit of time in the Yukon and heard many stories of ordinary circumstances turning deadly in an instant.

Imagine living this way all the time.

I guess you get used to it. But.


During the time of our visit, there were only around two hours of dusk. We’d been enjoying low oil prices in Southern Ontario, but it’s still very dear up North. Over half of a family’s salary goes to keeping the home warm and lit. In winter, the lights are on all the time.

Skin freezes very quickly. The youth don’t let vanity tell them that a pair of jeans and light jacket is okay for outer wear. They travel by ski-doo to school. They wear parkas and ski-pants. They survive.

Laura and I walked the short distance from our Bed and Breakfast to the school across the open field. That was bad enough. A walk to the store was an adventure. I looked at the little sleds in the store and wished I had one to carry my guitar case and other heavy equipment. But, like a silly tourist I dragged everything in a wheelie suitcase over hardened skidoo tracks.


The Elders came to us in a meeting on our first day together, introduced themselves and during the week, at every opportunity, they spoke to the children about their life experiences, the lessons they learned from their Elders, and I wish Laura and I had more time to actually visit with them. They brought their guitars and stories and watched the kids work and play, and it was so good to have them there, because their guidance helped the students focus and decide what they wanted to say about their community.

GE DIGITAL CAMERAThe kids in the Arctic are like kids everywhere. Curious, bored, energetic, friendly, angry… they need ways to explore who they are. There are sports. But they don’t have much in the way of regular arts in their school. So many resources are being spent on other things, like heat and light. So, no art classes, no theatre arts, no culinary arts, no music class.

They took to the theatre and singing games and warm-ups like fish to water. They worked hard on the stories and the sound effects. They listened to us with respect. When they spoke, it was with conviction. When the Drum Group appeared one day to practice the Drum Dance, we understood why the kids were so eager to jump in and participate. A kind of intensity filled the room as they moved. They lit up and started dancing, their hands telling stories as they moved, their eyes shining. What a wonderful thing to witness, the older teens and nine year olds dancing together. It was like a button had been pushed. They took a great delight in showing Laura and me how to tell stories with our hands. It was a strange echo of Maori or Hawaiian dancing, gentle, waving, with a little pulse of energy. A gift.


Loon calls accompany the Drumming Singers

GE DIGITAL CAMERACaring became the theme of their play. Four stories about things they cared about and for. Tradition. The land. Their families. Their futures. All of these words came spilling out of them onto paper, and into the stories.

Story #1: “Shaman.” A Shaman was transformed from being a “bad” man to a man with a job as an RCMP officer.

Story #2: “Seal” A Seal does his part to preserve the Circle of Life by letting the Bear eat him in order to save the fish.

Story #3 “Caribou Man and the Hunter” A Hunter realizes that what motivates the Caribou Man to act out in anger is caused by one thing – hunger.

Story #4 “Mangilaluk” After many years of a mysterious Sickness, Chief Mangilaluk prays for the Dance to return, in order to heal his community.

IMG_7047The day of the show arrived so quickly. The puppets were rehearsed; the screen was mounted thanks to the gym teacher, who gave us volley ball net stands. The kids saw their photographs projected on the screen for the first time, and by the time the audience arrived; the Elders had pulled out their fiddle and guitar. Then, the music the kids had created with nothing but their voices began and the play began.

Living Shadows – Stories and voices bring characters to lifeIMG_7053

IMG_7033The students did their best to remember what they had rehearsed. Five days to create a play from scratch and then perform it in front of family and friends is no small task. But they did it. They improvised when they ran into technical difficulties, stepped up and directed when someone forgot what was next, and filled in when a character needed a human hand.


Then, following Mangilaluk’s prayer for the Drum to come back to dispel the sickeness that had befallen the community, the children went in front of the screen and danced. They sang, and the audience responded with thunderous applause. It was a truly moving moment. Here were generations of artists who had worked together to make this happen.

The Ice Road will be paved. Then what?

IMG_7048In a couple of years, there will be a huge impact when the road from Inuvik to Tuk is completed, opening up the hamlet to outside influences on a much broader scale. There will be more tourists, more opportunities to open businesses and stay home while making a living. But the cars and trucks that only come in the winter now will also be here in the summer. Some of them will be bringing in drugs, alcohol and other bad influences. How will these kids deal with these impacts? How will they take advantage of the opportunities that will come their way?

Our single week with the kids is still on my mind as I sit in Southern Ontario, relishing the -17C blowing snow and sunshine. I wonder how much of what we all created together will remain in their IMG_7059memories. I know they and their Elders taught Laura and me a lot, and we’re the richer for knowing them.

DAREarts First Roots Tuktoyaktuk thanks our Lead Sponsors, Northbridge Insurance and Noront Resources as well as Tuktoyaktuk DEA, Government of NWT, and the Beaufort Delta Education Council. We also thank Julie Donohue for entrusting DAREarts with this project partnership.

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