06/20/2016 06:08 EDT | Updated 06/20/2016 06:59 EDT

To Hudson Bay And Back: Inspiring Stories From Canada's North

Sgt Ronald Duchesne, Rideau Hall © OSGG, 2016

Happy National Aboriginal Day, Canada!

Fifteen years ago, what is now widely considered to be one of the greatest Canadian films of all time was released. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, was the first feature film ever to be written, directed and acted entirely in the Inuktitut language. The film recounts an Inuit legend of a warrior's courage and endurance in the face of an evil spirit afflicting his community. In one of the film's critical scenes, Atanarjuat,"'the fast runner," runs barefoot for miles across the ice fields of the eastern Arctic, fleeing the evil spirit that has plagued his community for years. Bravely, he lives to fight another day.

I was reminded of this memorable scene during a recent visit to Salluit, Nunavik, on the shores of Hudson Strait, where I met with members of the Salluit Running Club. Earlier this year, seven of them travelled to Hilo, Hawaii -- more than 7 500 kilometres away -- to participate in the Big Island International Half-Marathon. And guess what? There were some very "fast runners" among them, including Joanasie Genest Saviadjuk, 17, who finished in first place in the male 16-19 age group with an impressive half-marathon time of 1:48:49! Two other runners, Jason Alariaq and Lucasie Amaamatuak, also finished in the top five, and all seven participants have good reason to hold their heads high.

Why do I share this story on National Aboriginal Day? Because the Salluit Running Club is an example of something we don't hear enough of in southern Canada: a good news story from the North. And while it cannot and must not be forgotten that Salluit, like many northern communities, faces significant challenges -- including, most tragically, an alarmingly high number of youth suicides -- I encountered many reasons for hope during my visit to communities in northern Manitoba, Nunavut and Nunavik. Those fast runners from Salluit, who train so hard at the local Iqaliarsarvik Fitness Centre with the help of teacher and coach Maggie MacDonnell and numerous other coaches and mentors, were just one example.

Too often, Canadians think of the North solely in terms of challenges rather than opportunities.

Another good news story came out of Arviat, Nunavut, during my visit to John Arnalukjuak High School. It was there that I had the privilege of presenting the Governor General's Academic Medal to Shelby Angalik, a student who is achieving outstanding success in her studies and who I'm sure has a very bright future indeed. In addition to being a medal-winning wrestler and Arctic Winter Games flag bearer, Shelby founded a literacy program in Arviat that is helping children to read in both Inuktitut and English. And Shelby is just one of many students at the school who are making waves in the territory, not least through the school plays and videos they've produced in response to pressing social issues in their community. Look for a future great Canadian film to come out of Arviat!

I could go on and on about all the great initiatives I encountered during my visit, but I'll limit my enthusiasm to one more example, from Kuujjuaraapik, on the eastern shores of Hudson Bay. In that community, we visited the Centre for Northern Studies' Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuaraapik Research Complex to learn about its many research projects and to see how the centre shares knowledge with the local and scientific communities. Uniquely, Kuujjuaraapik is home to both Cree and Inuit populations, and researchers there are working closely with young people learn about biodiversity, climate change and other environmental issues, as well as how science and technology can lead to a better understanding of northern ecosystems.

What a wonderful story of Canada: Inuit, Cree and French- and English-speaking peoples working together for a better understanding of the environment, and a better future for all!

Too often, Canadians think of the North solely in terms of challenges rather than opportunities. But the communities I visited around Hudson Bay are home to thousands of smart, resilient and welcoming people, cutting-edge scientific research, and rich cultures and traditions. Not to mention some very fast runners! Today, as we mark the 20th anniversary of National Aboriginal Day, let's seek out and share inspiring stories from coast to coast to coast as we continue our efforts to build a better country for all.


His Excellency Governor General David Johnston and Her Excellency Sharon Johnston arrive in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Photo by Sgt Ronald Duchesne, Rideau Hall © OSGG, 2016.

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