Uliut Iksiktaaryuk has lived a life of learning.
The Grade 5 teacher at Rachel Arngnamaktiq Elementary is closing in on 50 years of experience as an educator. She has taught generations of Baker Lake students, championed the Inuktitut language and she’s still going strong.
“It’s been my life,” she said. “The only way I was able to last this long is I work with a lot of good supportive teachers.”
Coming up through an education system that originally intended to suppress her Inuit culture and language, Iksiktaaryuk has had a tremendous impact on her students and the community.
“I was the last one in my family to be born in an igloo out on the land,” she said. “I have no recollection of ever living in an igloo or a tent because I was brought into the community at the age of six when my parents were told I had to attend school, so I started attending federal day school.
“But I do remember starting our life in Baker Lake in a shack, which was not heated,” she added.
Her career in education began in 1974 when her principal asked whether she’d like to train as a classroom assistant instead of going to high school.
“I didn’t want to be the only one left behind from my peers but he told me I had to listen to my parents so I was sad about that but that’s when my life as an educator started,” she said.
She was only 16 years old.
The decision meant she could avoid attending a residential school in Yellowknife, Inuvik or Iqaluit, she said, which was probably a fortunate thing, though she didn’t know it at the time.
“Being a teenager, I didn’t know what the reasoning was for my parents to not send me out,” said Iksiktaaryuk. “I had seen my brother being taken away from us when I was just a toddler to attend school and I remember one time in the middle of winter we were rushing to come back to Baker Lake from the land and it turned out my brother had walked from the community to maybe 30 or 40 miles to our camp all by himself, walking to run away from the school,” she said.
“I guess he was being mistreated and he wanted to see us but my parents were afraid they’d get into trouble because my brother ran away from school, so I remember rushing him back with a dog team,” she continued “I was a toddler but I remember bits and pieces.”
After many years working as a classroom assistant, Iksiktaaryuk received her standard teaching certificate in 1993.
Then in 1997 she was offered the chance to become a school administrator.
“At first I didn’t want to but then I thought, ‘Well I’ve gone this far, why not try something else?’ So I agreed,” she said.
After taking a three-year course, she worked for a year as an acting school principal with an eye toward eventually becoming a superintendent. “But by then my mom’s health was deteriorating so I finished off my acting principal year and went back to teaching.”
Things have changed quite a lot over her career, she said.
“Back then when I first started, the kids that were coming into the school spoke Inuktitut very well but they didn’t understand a word of English,” she said.
That’s why perhaps the most important part of her career was the 13 years she worked as a language consultant helping to incorporate Inuktitut into the curriculum — a remarkable achievement considering she herself was shamed for speaking the language when she was a student.
“I was forced to not to use the language when I first started school,” she said. “I used to get punished for that, so I try to encourage any student that I see that comes through my doors at the school. I try and speak to them in Inuktitut and explain to them what I’m saying.
“At first they were shy because it’s no longer their first language so I try my best to make sure we keep the language alive,” she continued.
Right now she’s in the middle of trying to conduct parent teacher interviews over the telephone and dealing with report cards.
“Most of my day is spent worrying about classes and then going home, it’s just home and school life right now,” she said. “Especially with covid going on. Every once in a while, I see my grandchildren. We’re in the same community but because of covid it’s really hard to plan gatherings and stuff like that with family.”
And at 63 years of age, Iksiktaaryuk has no plans to retire just yet.
“I keep trying to retire but something else keeps coming up,” she said. “My teaching certificate has been extended again so we’ll see what happens.”