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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.”