The eldest of 12 children, award-winning author and storyteller Michael Kusugak was born in a sod hut near Repulse Bay, Nunavut, and lived his early years in the nomadic Inuit tradition. In 1954, at the tender age of six, he was sent to a residential school in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, 400 km from home. The children were not allowed to speak in their own language (Inuktitut), and as Michael says, “The only thing I remember about that year is that I sat in the back of the class and cried the whole time.”
After returning to Repulse Bay for the summer, Michael was determined to stay put, and when the plane came back in the fall, he recalls, “I ran away and hid in the hills until I saw it fly away, then I went home. I played hooky for an entire year.”
After that episode, there were more years in residential schools before Michael went to high school in Saskatoon, where he lived with Robert Williamson, an anthropologist and friend of the Kusugak family from years spent doing research in the Arctic. The late professor became Michael’s foster father and described teenage Michael as a “very bright, very charming, very lively minded young fellow.”
Weaving fantasy and reality together, Michael aims to help preserve and explain a culture that is under siege. “We (the Inuit), have lost so much … everything seems to come from Hollywood these days,” he says. “I want to put back a little something so that the culture is not completely lost.” His booksinclude T Is for Territories: A Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut Alphabet, as well as Baseball Bats for Christmas and My Arctic 1, 2, 3. Michael’s best-known book is A Promise Is a Promise, which was co-written with Robert Munsch, published by Annick Press and remains a Canadian children’s classic more than 20 years after it was first published.
Michael’s books have been published in English, French, Korean, Japanese, Serbian, Inuktitut, Mi’kmaq and Braille. These days, he lives in Sooke, British Columbia, and spends most summers in his cabin in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
Here, we’re revisiting our interview with him from our Fall 2018 issue, where he shared what it was like growing up in a small town in Northern Canada.
Arvaarluk. This is what Inuit know me as. Everywhere else, people call me Michael Kusugak.
Home (or adopted) town?
Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. But when I think of home, I think of Naujaat, Nunavut, at the north end of Hudson Bay.
Population (if you know it)?
The population of Rankin Inlet has fluctuated since we moved there in 1960. It was 640 in the mining days, I think. My brother, Jose, and I moved there from Chesterfield Inlet, where we were going to residential school. My mom and my other siblings flew down from Repulse Bay. (That was what English-speaking people called the place, but there is nothing repulsive about it. It is a beautiful place.) My dad came down by dog team with all our stuff, which did not amount to much. It was the usual stuff that nomadic people carry with them: plenty of furs for bedding, aqulliq(soapstone seal-oil lamp), some hunting equipment and various assorted stuff. There was no furniture, of course. We did not use furniture in our tents and igloos. I don’t think there was a single chair in the lot.
That was in 1960. The mine, North Rankin Nickel Mine, closed in 1961 or ’62. The population went down to about 250. The whole population of Rankin Inlet was supposed to drop back to zero when we went back to where we came from. But where do nomads go back to? Some went to work in other mines across the North: Yellowknife, Nanisivik, Flin Flon [Manitoba] and others. We stayed. The settlement of Rankin Inlet started around 1955, when the mine began. Today, the population is around 3,000.
Years in residence?
I have called Rankin Inlet home since 1960, when I was 12 years old. Aside from going away to various residential schools, I have lived there.
Where do you live now?
Now we live in Sooke, British Columbia. We have lived on Vancouver Island since 2010.
Local school attended?
I went to residential school in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, from 1954, when I was six, until I was 12, in 1960. I spent 2 years in school in Rankin Inlet. The school in Rankin Inlet was a federal day school. It only went as high as Grade 5. I took correspondence for Grade 6. It was so difficult, I decided to go off to another residential school, Yellowknife, in 1963 for grades 7 and 9. (I skipped Grade 8.) I took Grade 10 at another residential school, in Churchill, Manitoba, and graduated from high school in Saskatoon.
Class of 19–?
1968, Nutana Collegiate, Saskatoon. I spent a year at the university there and went off to learn how to fly airplanes and helicopters.
Local jobs you held?
Mess boy at the North Rankin Nickel Mine when I was 12, earning $20 a day. That was big bucks in 1960. Expediting with a local expediting company, pottery and the civil service — DIAND [Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development] and Government of the NWT — for too many years.
Your pastimes there?
Camping, hunting, fishing and photography.
The great outdoors (the Diana River, Qingaugalik and many others).
Best French fries?
I am not fond of French fries.
Favourite nature walk?
All over Marble Island, 30 miles east of Rankin Inlet, and anywhere around my cabin, 10 miles west of Rankin Inlet, listening to the breezes telling me stories of the ancient Inuit who have called it home since long before its history was written.
Best date spot?
The Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver.
Favourite sports team?
The Toronto Maple Leafs, since I first watched them in 1963 at Akaitcho Hall in Yellowknife. We did not have TV before that. Johnny Bower was my hero.
Best swimming hole?
The west end of P.E.I.
The rink in Rankin Inlet, where I coached many kids and played old-timers’ hockey with my best friends ever.
Nicest road for a hike/bike/drive?
The Trans-Canada Highway.
Your town’s claim to fame (before you)?
Unofficial/suggested town slogan?
“Home of Jordin Tootoo, No. 22.” Jordin Tootoo is the first Inuk NHL hockey player. He played with the Nashville Predators, the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks.
What part of this place do you wish you could bring with you on the road?
My place is the circumpolar world of the Inuit, from Siberia to Greenland. The part I bring with me on the road are the traditional stories that taught us about who we are; where we come from; how to be humble; how to care for the disadvantaged, the old, the young, the orphans; and the morals by which to live our lives.
Last time you were home?
Two summers ago (too long ago).
Your local mentor, if any?
My uncle, Leo Ussak, took over my life after my father died in 1973. He taught me how to be patient, how to read the land for the tracks of the Inuit who were there long before us, and the songs of our people.
How has this place contributed to your career?
When I had only three boys, I told them a story about my boyhood days and my encounter with the scary Qallupilluit. They said, “Dad, why don’t you write it down?” I did, and it became a book called A Promise Is a Promise, whichI wrote with a friend of mine, Robert Munsch. It was published in 1988, 30 years ago. I have had 16 more published since, along with newspaper stories, magazine stories, letters to Morningside, and many others.
Why do/did you like living there? Or what do you like about this small town compared with other places you have lived?
It is home. Most of my brothers and sisters live there. We are on Hudson Bay, where we have lived since I was born. (We spent more than half our lives living in igloos on the sea ice.)
What else do you want people to know about this place?
Rankin Inlet, which we call Kangiq&iniq, started as a mining town, shortly after 1955. The mine recruited many Inuit and taught them prospecting, drilling, blasting, mucking and all kinds of related mining jobs. Inuit from all around the North came to work there. The language is a mixture of Inuktitut dialects from the area, the Netsilik of the Arctic islands, the Naujaarmiut (us) from the northern Hudson Bay region, Southampton Island and as far away as northern Quebec. The hamlet is the second largest in the Nunavut territory and is on Hudson Bay, the second-largest bay in the world.
As you get older, the knowledge of who you are gets clearer and clearer. To live in relative comfort in one of the coldest places in the world, we have had to adapt to our climate. We have invented some of the most ingenious structures, the igloo being, perhaps, the most recognizable. When you begin to delve into the wonders of this humble dwelling, you begin to see how brilliant our ancestors were. The igloo is built in the shape of a dome, a design that is most conducive to the retention of heat, much like a downdraft kiln. We were using heat from the ground long before heat pumps were invented. And we have always known the insulation value of snow. Imagine being inside, comfortable at plus three or four in caribou skins with a temperature outside of –50, a difference of 54 degrees, and between you and that –50 temperature is a six- to eight-inch wall of snow. That, I think, is pretty remarkable.