As classes resume at Kiilinik High School in Cambridge Bay, something is different.
Patti Bligh, a pillar of the Kitikmeot education community for more than two decades, is no longer there. She has retired from the profession, taking a job in Yellowknife on a one-year term as Northern studies and social studies co-ordinator with the Government of the Northwest Territories. She said it will allow her to embrace her “history geek” side and spend more time with her daughter, who lives in the NWT capital.
Bligh and her husband, Gordon, came to Cambridge Bay in July 1998, after Gordon accepted a position with the Royal Bank. The plan was to stay for 18 months.
Patti, who hails from Saskatchewan, was preparing to start her first full-time teaching gig back then, but the high school burned down that summer.
A scramble ensued to offer classes from the new Nunavut Arctic College community learning centre, among other buildings.
“You learned very quickly to be flexible,” she recalled, adding that the emphasis was on making the entire community the school, including the outdoors. “It was exciting and interesting and challenging.
“It changes how you teach … I would have said that’s probably the richest way to teach in the North, is the community is the campus,” she said.
A combination of creeping “southern legalities” over the years and, particularly, the emergence of Covid-19 since 2020 has put much greater limitations on how lessons are taught. Many classes have moved online and use more technology.
“It is a learning curve for me,” she admitted. “It’s time for me to not be teaching.”
She added that she yearns to see more continuity among educators, less turnover. For that reason, she fought to get the Nunavut Teacher Education Program back in Cambridge Bay.
She also encourages more parental support for their children’s education.
“We need to move that up a notch,” she said. “The kids’ success at school comes from the teachers but is driven by the parents.”
Patti said she has no regrets about staying in Cambridge Bay, which she has found “very welcoming,” and her three children went through the school system there, getting a quality education. She also acted as a foster parent to close to 40 children over the years.
“Cambridge Bay is home for us. We’re not leaving just because I’m done teaching,” she said.
It quickly became clear that the admiration for her dedication was widespread as word of her pending retirement spread prior to Christmas and words of praise spilled over social media.
“I have been overwhelmed by how kind people are. I am very confident that there are people who are not saying anything (negative), and I appreciate that too,” she said, laughing. “If everybody loves you, I don’t think you’re a good teacher. You’re somebody that created a world that was having them live in false illusions.”
Students know her for her penchant for poetry and her love of history, which saw her chaperone six school trips overseas to Second World War battlegrounds where Canadian soldiers fought.
Mia Otokiak was one of Patti’s students, and the relationship has grown far beyond teacher and pupil as Otokiak reached adulthood.
“I met Patti because her daughter (Siobhan) and I are the same age and we met in Grade 1. Since then Patti has been a second mother to me. Even my mother calls her my second mom,” said Otokiak. “She has done so much for me, from teaching me my manners, to getting me into so many amazing programs all over Canada; to not only helping me realize how important school is, but helping me get through and graduate high school.”
Patti was also involved in many extra-curricular activities such as curling and Beavers. Otokiak referred to her as a “non-stop volunteer.”
“I could write a whole book about how much Patti has amazingly influenced my life,” she said. “I’d just like to add that Patti is an amazing teacher, mother and friend. I love her so much and truly can’t thank her enough for all she’s done for me.”