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 Mail on Sunday - You - - Real Lives - RE­PORT JOANNA MOORHEAD

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”

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