Kangirsujuaqgaze, photo courtesy of Rebecca Leonard

The state of Canada’s Indigenous communities, which make up vastly diverse peoples across the country, represent some of the most tragic and devastating parts of Canadian history. The government of Canada was responsible for the mass relocation of Indigenous populations, and the infamy of the residential schools — whose implementation is considered by most, a cultural genocide. This treatment has devastated many communities and left them with a history of immense trauma, stranded in remote locations, often without clean water, access to electricity, or proper housing.

Rebecca Leonard is a social circus practitioner who was one of two circus artists working to help initiate the Cirquiniq program in Nunavut, funded by the Nunavut government. She talks quite elegantly about this history, especially as it has impacted the Inuit people and the nomadic cultures.

“Inuit cultures have shifted a lot in the last century. They went from a hunter gatherer nomadic society to being relocated in villages. They experienced the residential school system and were disconnected from their culture and are only now reclaiming it.”

Stitched Panorama

‘Stitched Panorama’, photo courtesy of Rebecca Leonard

Originally part of Cirque du Soleil’s Cirque du Monde program, Cirquiniq was piloted to help at-risk communities through the use of circus arts. The program was re-initiated by the Nunavut government in 2009.

In 2009 Rebecca travelled to Nunavut to scout out the communities. Of the fourteen communities, seven were chosen to begin the social circus program.

“We did a significant amount of statistical work before we began the project, choosing seven communities that would be the focus of our energy and attention for a period of five years. After that we began re-engaging with the other communities. The goal was to have all fourteen engaged in the project. And you could say that they are. Every year at the summer camp we have representatives from all fourteen communities.”

Selection of these communities is based on a number of variables, but most important is community and youth interest, which will aid in the sustainability of the program. “We want a circus program that is not just a parachute program for experts from the south. The goal is to train young, interested Inuit how to be social circus instructors so they continue teaching social circus after the senior instructors leave.”

Kangirsujuaqgaze, photo courtesy of Rebecca Leonard

Minnie Ningiuruvik, a junior instructor at these camps, began circus at age thirteen in 2009 in the first year of the program. She lives in Kangirsuk, one of the seven communities in Nunavut selected for the Cirquiniq program. As she explains somewhat shyly, her mother signed her up for circus because “I liked to climb things.”

She is incredibly courageous and athletic and the first woman ever to have raced in the Ivakkek, a long and demanding dog-sled race in Nunavut; she has completed the trek a total of three times with her father. Being the first female dog-sled racer in her community does make her feel somewhat out of place, but also proud and confident. She says the biggest problem with being a dog-sled racer is that people don’t like it when she walks her dogs in the town and they “get a lot of complaints.” Apparently, the Huskies she walks with her father can be very rowdy. In addition to dog-sled racing she is an avid camper and hunter, “I have got my first Caribou, first Canada goose, and Ptarmagin (a type of bird). And lots of fish.”

She considers herself primarily an aerialist, performing and teaching on everything but the rope, and has recently purchased a pair of lilac silks. Her community does not have regular access to circus equipment, which is brought by senior instructors. Of course, this makes it difficult to develop skills with consistent practice, so these silks signify an exciting new development for Minnie, which allows her to train outside specified workshop times.

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‘Balancing on the Edge’ photographer: Miklos Legrady

Minnie is incredibly passionate about aerial, but expresses some frustration with the limited resources available for her as a teacher and athlete. “The only problem is I want more work. The program doesn’t cover a lot of teaching for junior instructors. I don’t know if that bothers others, but in my case, I would like more teaching.”

Now she is waiting to hear back from Artcirque, where junior instructors submitted a two-minute video discussing a problem they have solved with circus work. It would give her the opportunity to travel to Igloolik and work with the Artcirque program, which she speaks about excitedly.

Rebecca was one of Minnie’s earliest instructors. Beyond having many years of training and performing as a circus artist, Rebecca grew up in rural northern communities in Canada. She spent her childhood in Whitehorse, Northern Saskatchewan and Northern Ontario, where her mother taught on reserves. With the exposure to these communities and their inherent problems she was an ideal candidate to work with Inuit in northern communities.

“Obviously I am a white person of privilege who was coming into these communities. I was more, bearing witness, but I also experienced it as well, because I was engaged in the school systems there. I got bullied a lot, for being different. But I also really enjoyed being a part of the culture.”

2011 Nuit Blanche-Flight Remounted, Created for Futurist Cabaret 2009

2011 Nuit Blanche, ‘Flight Remounted’, Created for Futurist Cabaret 2009

Perhaps one of the most important parts of this program, besides providing community support for at-risk youth, is to provide artistic outlets for the community and to help preserve Inuit cultures. The residential schools, which were an effort to eradicate all Indigenous culture as a way of integrating Indigenous populations into Western “civilization,” have caused incredible damage. This project attempts to help reestablish some of the connections with Inuit cultures, not through imposing circus, but by using it as a tool for cultural discovery.

Artcirque, another initiative in Nunavut to combine circus and Inuit art, sculpture and storytelling feels that there are innate connections between existing circus practice and Inuit culture. One of the initiatives of the project is to use “traditional Inuit culture (acrobatics, juggling, clown) to relate with the techniques of modern circus.”

The Inuit games represent another connection between circus practice and Inuit culture. Rebecca notes that, “it is a highly strenuous form of competition, and the images from the Inuit games are often used in creative ways in circus practice, and the strength and flexibility required for competition can be easily transferred to circus.”

“In the knuckle hop, competitors start in a pushup position on the knuckles and they hop across the floor. It looks like a walrus or a seal. There is also the Musk ox push. Athletes lock shoulders and the heads are tucked under, and each tries to push over the other. In addition, there is a two foot high kick where athletes leap off the ground and kick a furry seal in the air.”

Living in Inukshuk

Each year during their summer camp in July students, junior instructors, senior instructors and assistants work together to put on a show, usually based on an Inuit myth such as Sedna. Minnie, who was part of the show, described her role in the show.

“In Sedna we used the hoop. And I played a bird that was flying through the water, diving and splashing with the use of aerial tricks.”

Rebecca feels passionate, both about her students and the creative and cultural possibilities of the program and its ability to communicate through “the language of the body.”

“I think there is that question of colonialization sometimes. Are we just bringing and imposing our western views on this culture? But at the same time, who is curating the media? I think that it is just as valid to have a group of broad-minded, creative, open, vulnerable artistic people going up as social circus instructors and sharing other points of view with these youth. Just as valid as whatever they’re seeing on Facebook, or on Youtube. Because that’s a different type of colonialism, and that’s widespread mass media. I feel like we’re offering another alternative viewpoint; they can take it or leave it, just to broaden and deepen their influences.”

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