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‘It’s all about empowering people’

Last week a group of a dozen women from Rankin Inlet gathered at a cabin by the ocean in the blistering heat to dry some fish.

The scene would have been ordinary enough, if it wasn't for the fact that they were not making pipsi the way it's normally done. Rather, they were being instructed on how to build homemade smokers by Moriah Sallafie, an Upik traditional skills instructor from Alaska.

Moriah Sallafie shows the women from Niqitsialiuq how to make a smoker to hang dry fish. Sallafie, an Upik traditional skills instructor from Alaska, was invited to teach the cooking program different ways of preparing fish. Cody Punter/NNSL photo

Niqitsialiuq, which is run by Ilitaqsiniq (Nunavut Literary Council) is a community-based cooking course which teaches practical skills through hands on experience rooted in Inuit culture.

The program intermixes teaching standards for industrial food preparation that would be required in a standard kitchen, while also offering instruction from elders who teach about traditional harvesting and food preparation.

“It's all about empowering people,” said Adriana Kusugak, co-manager of Ilitaqsiniq in Rankin Inlet.

Monica Kaludjak, whose daughter graduated from the inaugural program in 2016, is extremely grateful to have been asked to participate.

“I was so excited when I got accepted, even in my heart I was crying on the inside,” she said.

The ages of participants range from the early 20s to their early 60s. Kaludjak is one of three workers from local day cares who have been given permission to pursue the course, which runs every day from May until September. The hope is that the women will be able to return to their jobs and prepare better meals for the community's youth. Halfway through the course Kaludjak said she has already learned a great deal, especially about baking.

“My family cooks a lot so I'm used to it but this is different. It's not the way our parents used to cook,” she said.

The small size of the group – just 12 women – ensures that everyone is able to learn from one another while giving each participant room to grow.

“We're helping them build up the skills they need to be more confident,” said Kusugak.

“It's always been with them but it's up to them to figure it out for themselves.”

Thirty-one-year-old Marcelline Kallaserk-Aupilardjuk said she had never made dry fish her self until last week, despite watching her family make it growing up. Not only has the program taught her new skills, it has also helped her stay sober.

“It's comforting being a part of something,” she said.

In addition to learning cooking, the women also learn about basic business skills and entrepreneurship both in the classroom and through fun challenges. One of the weekly highlights for the women is running lunchtime soup kitchen for 100 plus people on Thursday afternoons.

“It's training but it also gives us a way to give back to the community and show off their skills,” said Kusugak.

Ever since the literary councils had their funding cut under Stephen Harper, it has been difficult to support programs like the cooking course. It was first offered in 2016 but went on a one year hiatus because Kusugak had to spend all her time tracking down money to run it.

The program is now funded through the Department of Family Services, with additional support coming from the Departments of Health's Wellness Fund and Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd.

Kusugak said the success of the previous program speaks for itself. All 12 graduates are either working or continuing their education. Two women are currently working as apprentice chefs for Agnico Eagle, while another has gone on to study culinary arts at Holland College in PEI.

“Not everyone will go into the food industry,” said Kusugak. “We just want to support them wherever they end up.”