An introduction: Montessori in Clyde River, Nunavut (way, way up North)

Montessori pedagogy
By Emilija

I’d like to offer a glimpse into one of the most moving and meaningful experiences I’ve had as an educator.

I landed in Clyde River, Nunavut with four suitcases and a carry-on, four days later than originally planned. Three and a half suitcases were filled with Montessori classroom materials generously donated by Montessori schools in Toronto, and the Greater Toronto Area. The plane landed on a runway covered in snow and ice, in a perfect location allowing landing no matter the wind direction, as long as visibility is adequate. The weather controls life up here - everyone will tell you that without hesitation. I got off the 8-seat plane - the remaining seating area was converted into cargo space - and walked into the airport terminal, no bigger than many of our living rooms. 

Greeted by their Montessori and Community Education staff, Aileen, Janet and Christine, we drove from the airport to the hotel. We packed the bags into the back of the pickup truck, and took the single road out of town, into town 4 minutes away. Clyde River has 1200 inhabitants, a few dozen kilometres of road, two hotels, and a single store, church, grade school, community center, gas stop, and cultural college.

Picture Clyde River as a blank canvas. Paint the upper three quarters of that canvas bright blue - almost cartoonish. At the horizon, add some rolling mountains, and at the base of those mountains, bottom right half, speckle some houses in a neat formation. To the left of those houses, paint an outline for a bay, frozen with three feet of sea ice floating on top, speckled with seals’ breathing holes, covered in skidoo tracks, snow drifts of varying sizes, and an RCMP truck stuck in one of the deeper ones. There are no trees, no tall buildings, nothing for you to gauge the height of the mountains in the background, or the distance to the mouth of the bay. I was quick to discover that what appeared to be a walkable distance for an afternoon stroll, was a deceiving 21km away. 

Their Montessori school is located in their community centre, Ilisaqsivik. It is a large, one room class with beautiful Montessori materials in both English and Inuktitut. Their three teachers embrace Montessori wholeheartedly, and have a beautiful rapport with the entire community. Parents and children alike receive the Primary lessons in hopes of inspiring learning to transfer into their homes with practical, and meaningful activities. Working with them to complete their classroom, and practice lessons was an honour, and I am incredibly humbled by the experience to work with such dedicated teachers doing their best to bring Montessori to the North.  

Montessori continually teaches, and reminds us of the intersectional and reciprocal relationships we are blessed with in our lives - between our peers, coworkers, families, and greater communities. Though the purpose of my trip was to support the knowledge and practice of Montessori, refreshing lessons, creating materials, guiding teaching and practice, and discussing theory, I left with an unexpected breadth of new knowledge. 

I am sure some readers are asking themselves why it would make sense to bring Montessori to such a remote place. Like many other Indigenous communities, the Inuit have their own traditional knowledge system known as IQ: Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit. IQ embraces traditional Inuit culture and an understanding that we learn through observation and experience, through our ability to listen intently, and absorb the environment we’re surrounded with, by experiencing nature and its consequences, and respecting those who are wealthy in knowledge and skill. 

If you were to ask me why Montessori? I would simply tell you because our goal isn’t just to create a good test-taker. Our goal is to help your child be a strong, contributing member of society - to become the best good person they can be. 

Often as Montessori educators, we use building a house as a metaphor for the three-year cycle in Primary. IQ uses the metaphor of building an igloo. At the end of its construction if properly executed, an igloo is strong enough to withstand the weight of a person standing on top. It is a symbol of adaptation in an ever-changing world, and gaining the skills necessary to succeed in today’s society. We believe that everything a child experiences in school should have a direct purpose, a practical application to their lived world, and that is exactly the fundamental similarity between Montessori’s vision, and IQ. 

In Nunavut, Montessori is supplemental to IQ, yet they seem to go together like raw narwhal and soy sauce, or peanut-butter and jelly. Inuit tradition is an extension of their Montessori Culture curriculum in the classroom. It is the addition of beading and preparing a seal skin to Practical Life; it is the addition of igloo patterns and structures in Sensorial; the importance of cultural tongues and non-verbal communication in Language, and the distribution of harvested animals after a hunt as a part of Math. And just as Montessori is beautifully malleable to complement its geographical location, Montessori is an addition to their bigger picture of IQ. 

Now, I sit here looking back, and reflecting again, why Montessori? Because Montessori is to IQ, as soy sauce is to narwal. From what I’ve learned, these processes together have the ability to guide “a child to become an inummarik, an able person who can act with wisdom” and become the best good person they can be (IQ Education Framework).

Emilija has a BA in Sociology from Queen’s University, and three Montessori MACTE teaching certifications from the Toronto Montessori Institute for children ages 2.5 through 12. Emilija completed an MA in International Studies in Education at the University of Birmingham, and an M.Ed in Educational Leadership, Organization and Entrepreneurship at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She also has her Primary Years International Baccalaureate teaching license from the IBO.

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