Difference Maker

Bringing circus – and new hope – to a remote Arctic village

Guillaume Saladin left his career as a professional acrobat to help young Inuits in northern Canada form Artcirq, their own performing troupe.

By , Correspondent

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    Guillaume Saladin (l.) practices a juggling routine with Terry Uyarak in Iqaluit, Nunavut, a Canadian federal territory. Mr. Saladin stayed in Nunavut as a child, with his anthropologist father.
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Four years ago, acrobat Guillaume Saladin had an enviable job as a circus performer. He was a member of the acclaimed Cirque Éloize, an innovative Montreal-based troupe combining circus arts with music, dance, and theater. Specializing in gravity-defying hand-to-hand routines – a cross between handstands and dance – Mr. Saladin toured the world, visiting Europe, China, and the Middle East.

But when it was time to renew his circus contract, Saladin found himself wavering. The one place he couldn’t get out of his mind was a remote Inuit community called Igloolik, 200 miles above the Arctic Circle in Canada.

The son of two anthropologists, Saladin spent his summers there as a child, accompanying his father, who did fieldwork on shamanism. He had made friends, learned the Inuktitut language, and come to love the tundra landscape he traversed as they visited traditional hunting camps. He was even honored with an Inuit name – Ittukssarjuat – bestowed on him by a matriarch after her father, a respected leader.

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But now he was at a crossroads. “Do I tour the world with the same show,” he thought, “or [go] to Igloolik?”

He chose Igloolik, arriving on Halloween 2005 with his suitcases and juggling pins. He knew immediately he’d made the right choice. “Everyone was costumed and masked and playing around ... craziness everywhere around town,” says Saladin, whose accented English reveals his French Canadian heritage. “Very similar to circus.”

Then he turned his attention to Artcirq, the Arctic circus he’d helped launch seven years earlier. Artcirq is a unique artistic hybrid, a collective of young performers who blend techniques of modern circus with elements of Inuit culture, such as throat singing, music, drum dancing, and juggling. In a short time it’s gone from amateurs balancing shakily on homemade teeterboards to proficient jugglers and acrobats who balance atop each other’s shoulders, perform aggressive back flips, and somersault while leaping through hoops.

An Olympic appearance

In February, six members of Artcirq will represent Nunavut at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, part of a 14-member ensemble of Canadian Arctic performers.

The circus is credited with bringing hope and pride to many dispirited young people.

“My life got brighter when I joined the circus because I had stuff to do,” says Reena Qulittalik, an Igloolik high school student. “Before that, I didn’t know what to do.”

It’s an odd juxtaposition – the circus and the Arctic. But Saladin recognized the potential to change young lives in this 2,000-person hamlet, which he describes as “very poor, and at the same time very rich – for the culture, for the land, for the 24-hour sun, and for the energy coming from out of the houses.”
Igloolik is one of the most traditional of the 26 communities in Nunavut, Canada’s largest federal territory. Men hunt seal and caribou much as their ancestors did. Women hand-stitch clothing from the skins.

Igloolik has an abundance of social problems – poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, a housing shortage, few jobs, and a high dropout rate from schools. Nunavut’s suicide rate is 10 to 12 times higher than that of the rest of Canada.

Much of this stems from the trauma caused by the federal government’s “resettlement” policies, acknowledged two years ago in a major class action settlement. Canadian authorities coerced the Inuit off the land and into communities in the 1950s and ’60s and sent their children away to boarding schools, forbidding them to speak their native language, Inuktitut. Many were physically and sexually abused.

Listlessness and despair are common: In 1998, the first time Saladin came to Igloolik as an adult, two of his friends committed suicide.

“That was a big blast of pain for each of us and for the whole community,” says Saladin, a lanky man with a sculpted physique, shaved head, and an affinity for muscle shirts. “I started to believe that getting together and doing something positive was the best thing to do. If it’s just go and bury the person and then heal your pain alone, like nothing happened, it is very sad because [it is] just like a ... bomb that will reexplode again with more power.”

Igloolik had no youth center or community hall offering activities. So Saladin began working with a group of young people to develop a video and drama group – with the support of Igloolik Isuma Productions, a film production company. The next summer he returned with some circus friends. He continued to bring performers with him after he joined Cirque Éloize, which helped out with money and equipment.

It was an unusual cultural exchange, “sharing through our universal language, that is, circus arts,” he says. The young Inuit took the acrobats on hunting trips. The performers taught the Inuit acrobatics. Together they presented shows in Igloolik.

To France, Mexico, and Mali

Artcirq was born. Igloolik kids went south to take circus courses. Back in Igloolik, they choreographed their own shows, worked with schoolchildren, and created videos. Artcirq has even released its own music CD.

In 2005 Saladin moved full time to Igloolik, thinking he’d try it for six months or a year. Four years later, he’s still ensconced in his tiny house, which finally got indoor plumbing just last year.

“The circus,” he says proudly, “has been rising very fast.” They’ve taken the show to France, Mexico, and Mali, and on a week-long snowmobile expedition through mountains and glaciers that brought the show to two other Inuit communities.

Yet keeping Artcirq going is a challenge. Finding funds is always a struggle. Members rehearse in a small room next to the hockey rink that’s so cold they can see their breath. There is only one costume – a real polar bear skin, the product of a near-death encounter with a bear on one of Saladin’s hunting trips with the Inuit.

But there are the rewards, too, like this note he’s tacked to a wall of his house.

“My role model is Guillaume,” a child in Igloolik wrote. “He is nice, and he gets so many people to make [circus]. When I grow up, I want to be like Guillaume.”

Freelance reporter Linda Matchan visited Nunavut in November on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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