A stark lesson in SURVIVAL
The Arctic village of Salluit is a harsh, isolating place to live – particularly for a teenager – and the youth suicide rate is desperately high. It is amid these tough conditions that MAGGIE MACDONNELL has won a global teaching award for her inspirationa
The air in the Arctic village of Salluit was crisp and fresh, the purest, sharpest she had ever breathed, Maggie MacDonnell remembers thinking as she stepped off the plane six years ago. But as she took in the stunning snow-covered panorama, an infinity of white, her mind was full of a much darker reality – Salluit’s horrifyingly high teenage suicide rate, which had reached epidemic proportions.
Maggie had travelled to the Inuit village in northern Quebec – population 1,400, inaccessible by road – to teach in its secondary school. Term had already started, but the problems of Salluit are so tough that finding teachers was – and remains – extremely difficult. Maggie had responded to an SOS call from her sister Claire, who had been working as a social worker in Salluit for two years. Maggie was working with refugees in Africa, and although the geography could not have been more different, the issues – despairing teenagers from traumatic backgrounds – sounded eerily familiar. She caught the first flight she could – ‘I went from pineapples to polar bears’ – leaving her husband behind, and arrived determined to make a difference.
Today Maggie, now in her late 30s, is in London as a guest of the Varkey Foundation, which sponsors the award that has become known as the Nobel prize of teaching – the Global Teacher Prize, worth $1 million and given to an ‘exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession’. Last year it went to Maggie in recognition of her extraordinary work in Salluit, where she has turned around the lives of scores of young people.
The teen suicides in Salluit, says Maggie, are the legacy of decades of heavy-handed and insensitive treatment of Inuits (the indigenous Arctic community), which saw a nomadic people forced to settle in villages that were never properly resourced in order to help set up the oil and mineral industries. Even today, some homes are occupied by several generations of one family because of a chronic housing shortage. For decades from the late 19th century, Inuit children were removed from their homes from as young as six (the practice has since been ended, hence the secondary school in Salluit) and sent to residential schools in other parts of Canada, where they were sometimes maltreated. What that meant, says Maggie, was that childrearing skills became neglected as parents were separated from their offspring during crucial years. The harshness of the
“ATTENDING MY STUDENTS’ FUNERALS IS THE SADDEST THING I HAVE EVER DONE”