12/12/2012 12:22 EST | Updated 02/10/2013 05:12 EST

Building An Igloo? What Nunavut Children Learn in School

Eva Aariak had a problem. The young Inuk woman from Arctic Bay -- in what is now Nunavut -- had received a good education away from home, attending a hands-on vocational school in Churchill, Manitoba, and courses at Algonquin and Kemptville colleges in Ontario. She had learned bookkeeping and typing, and had even helped launch a weather rocket during an internship with the National Research Council.

But she was back home and with her newborn and she realized she needed an amautik -- the distinctive Inuit parka with a built-in baby pouch. Yet in all her schooling, no one had ever taught her to make one.

"All the time I was away from home left me not learning my own culture and my own language," Aariak says.

She tried to learn from elders but they used technical terms in Inuktitut to describe the different stitches essential in making the parka. Aariak couldn't understand -- she hadn't studied Inuktitut past elementary school. She had to ask her mother to make her amautik.

Today Aariak is both Premier and Education Minister for Nunavut, and she is building an education system that combines the skills young people need to work in the 21st Century with a solid grounding in their language, culture and the traditional skills that even today are necessary for life in Canada's far north.

We recently met Aariak to learn how education is changing in Nunavut.

Aariak was born in 1955 "out on the land" in the eastern part of the Northwest Territories that would become Nunavut in 1999. When she was four, her Inuit family moved to the isolated hamlet of Arctic Bay where an unused government building served as one-room schoolhouse. Aariak couldn't understand why other kids were allowed to go and not her. She marched down to the school, only to be gently turned back by the teacher and told "next year."

Next year came and Aariak, then five, was allowed to attend school -- for awhile. There was no high school in the Northwest Territories then. If Aariak wanted to continue her education, she had to leave her family behind to attend a residential school 2,000 kilometres away in Churchill.

Only in the past decade has K-12 education been available in all of Nunavut's 25 communities. The last community to get its Grade 10 to 12 program just saw their first class graduate in 2005.

But even with new school buildings, the curriculum taught lacked relevance to the history and needs of Nunavut. Much of it had been imported from Alberta.

In 2008, the Government of Nunavut passed a new Education Act, laying the foundation for a Made-in-Nunavut education system that brings traditional knowledge into the classroom. Under the Act, Inuit elders with expertise in traditional skills like igloo or sled building can be certified to teach these skills in schools.

And traditional knowledge is tied directly to 21st-Century learning. Students discover the science of Inuit innovations that have stood the tests of time.

"There is that much of a tie-in. Look at kayaks, at the shape of an igloo -- no scientist around the world can improve upon their architecture," boasts Aariak.

What grabs us most about the new northern curriculum is the powerful element of community engagement and global problem solving.

In Grade 10, students must find a younger student and work with them on a project that benefits both the young student and the community. Grade 12 students get a semester-long assignment -- much like a university thesis -- where they must identify a local or global problem, research and present a report on the issue, and engage in a real-world, hands-on project to address some aspect of the issue.

One female student studied how the local town council made decisions and wrote a report presenting arguments for youth representation on the council. She then appeared before her local council to push for the creation of an elected youth representative position. A male student studying water quality learned how to test water, and then went to every building in the community testing the water from taps.

The Nunavut education system still faces major challenges. Aariak says they desperately need 300 more Inuktitut language teachers, and many people still have a strong distrust of formal education -- a legacy of residential schools. Low attendance and drop-out rates are still a problem.

"We have still a long way to go yet, but we have accomplished so much," says Aariak.

This summer we visited the newly-renovated Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit. Inside, the front doors are flanked by two large traditional Inuit soapstone sculptures while overhead hangs a sealskin kayak. In the classrooms, instead of blackboards we found huge state-of-the-art computerized "smart boards."

It's a fitting symbol for how Nunavut is finding a place for old knowledge in new schools.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger