Part 2 of the journey to Antarctica – Buenos Aires

After a long flight and a disorienting many hours in an airplane, I finally made it to South America. We left Toronto very late Saturday night and made it to Santiago, Chile where we stopped to drop off passengers, refuel and refresh our flight crew. Waiting in line to board back onto our plane in Santiago, I was roasting. Too many winter layers still being worn from my departure in Ottawa that was accompanied by snow and about minus 5C. The heat and humidity of Santiago were a reminder of the mind-bend that modern travel brings – that we can be in a completely different part of the world and climate in less than 24 hours.

I have to admit that I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to my overnight in Buenos Aires. I’m not a city person. I grew up on the outskirts of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada but have spent a large part of my life in rural areas and cities just aren’t my thing anymore. So to come to a big city like Buenos Aires wasn’t the part I was looking forward to. Certainly not compared to seeing Antarctica. Having said that, I’ve been here a total of about 7 hours and have fallen in love with this city. The first thing I was struck by was the friendliness. I went to dinner at a restaurant nearby my hotel, recommended by the hotel. Fantastic! Definitely not a restaurant for vegetarians, but it was fantastic. BBQ’ed chicken, veggies, French fries (real homemade ones), a small bottle of Argentinian Malbec wine. Food heaven!  With me,  I had a little advert and map to to get to the restaurant, provided by my hotel so I could find my way to the restaurant. The waiter saw it, grabbed it from me and brought me a complimentary glass of champagne. And then another one. I have to admit that I both waddled and staggered home from far too much good food and good wine and champagne.

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I think the thing that struck me most about the things I’ve experienced in just several hours of being here, is the difference in the pace of life and the perspective of life. I think in North America, we are so focused on appearances – our houses, cars, cottages, boats, clothes, whatever. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just get the feeling that here, life is focused on things much different. One thing that struck me was the connection with family. I was concerned about walking back to my hotel alone after dark. The concierge said not to worry. He was right. Wandering back around 8:30 pm, downtown Buenos Aires was filled with families – young parents pushing strollers or having dinner with their young children. There are kids everywhere here. I love it! This place just seems to emanate a different set of priorities than what we have in North America and frankly, I would say better priorities. Buenos Aires reminds me of my trips to Costa Rica long ago – a country where family, friends, faith, and friendliness prevail. It’s easy to drive through cities in these countries and think wow, look at the dilapidated buildings. But is that really what life is about? Appearances? I think not. I think it is about connecting and the connection in this city and in this country are palpable. I think as North Americans, we have much to re-learn.

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The sense of connection here is also so appropriate to the mission I’m on – the Homeward Bound Women In Science Leadership Expedition to Antarctica. The expedition is about 76 women, with science backgrounds, connecting and collaborating with a sole mission in mind – to elevate and enhance women’s leader globally, so that more women are influencing decision-making and policy development,  globally, in the areas of sustainability and climate change. Ultimately, the mission is about bringing about change. About doing something concrete. About changing the world. Sure, some will say we are dreaming. That a mission of ‘changing the world’ is delusional. But collectively I think we can have an impact. It all comes down to connection. To collaboration. To mutual support in pursuit of a common goal.

I’m glad that I’m spending a night in Buenos Aires on the way to Ushuaia and on the way back, will spend 2 nights here. It’s a fantastic city. Lots more to discover and learn.

Homeward Bound Women In Science Leadership Expedition to Antarctica

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It’s here! It’s finally here! After nearly 2 years of waiting, hard work, connecting, planning, and anticipation, it’s here. Tomorrow I will be boarding an airplane bound for Buenos Aires and then Ushuaia, in Argentina. Ushuaia is where we – 76 women from around the world, all with science backgrounds – will board our ship (The Ushuaia) and head for the Antarctic Peninsula.

Homeward Bound isn’t a vacation. It’s a women in science leadership expedition. Our mission – to elevate the role of women in science, to enhance our leadership abilities, and to have an influence on decision making and policy development, globally, around sustainability and climate change. In a nutshell, it’s about creating a better future.  And we believe that women need to play a far, far greater role in shaping that future, than we have in the past.

Homeward Bound isn’t just a women’s leadership expedition. It’s the beginning of a movement. It’s the beginning of change, of a new era where women have an equal seat at the table, where gender ratios in all careers are far more balanced, but most especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Homeward Bound 2016 is the first. It’s a lot of firsts. It’s the first of 10 planned Homeward Bound expeditions, leading to 1,000 women having participated and being out there influencing the world. It’s the largest women’s Antarctic expedition. For many of us, it’s our first trip to Antarctica.

Over the course of this journey and adventure, I’ll be writing about my experiences. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to blog from the ship in Antarctica, but if I can, I will. If I can’t, then I’ll be posting my blog entries soon as I get back to Ushuaia on December 21st.

A big thank you to everyone who has supported me through this nearly 2 year process to get to this point. It’s been a long haul, but the support and encouragement has been overwhelming and for that, I am truly grateful. In my experience, nothing of true value was ever easy to attain. It takes effort and commitment, courage and trust. Who knows what the next month will bring, but I’m ready for this adventure…

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Trapped In A Human Zoo – an interview with France Rivet (part 3)

Today is the last instalment of my interview with France Rivet.  But there is still plenty to learn about this story. If you’d like to learn more, I’d encourage you to buy a copy of France’s book, In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab: The events of 1880-1881.

I found myself wondering what it would be like for France, after all of her research, to finally come face to face with the skeletons of Abraham and his colleagues. Would it be sad? Would it be a happy moment, after 3 years of searching? Here’s what France had to say….

“Honestly, I had no clue how I was going to react the moment I would be standing in front of the skeletons. On my first visit to the anthropological collections of the Natural History Museum in Paris, I started by asking to look at their archives, at the actual papers. Finding new information, new pieces of the puzzle, was a higher priority for me. But, obviously, the time came when the person responsible for the collection asked: “Would you like to see the skeletons, now?” I didn’t have the choice. I had to say, “Yes”. I dreaded that moment, but everything went well. In fact, it may sound heartless but I didn’t have any reaction. Maybe it was because the five skeletons stood among a collection of 2,000 who all looked alike! I did not recognize Abraham, Ulrike, Tigianniak, Tobias, nor Maria in the skeletons I was seeing. They could have shown me the wrong skeletons and I would not have known. The names engraved on their skulls, and the identification numbers matching those of the certificates and other archival documents, were what confirmed that they were indeed the right ones. I was a lot more impressed by a collection of 19th century busts made on living people. Those looked so real! Had I come face to face with the Labrador Inuit’s busts, I probably would have had an emotional reaction.

Here’s a link where you will see a photo of a selection of these busts: (http://www.theguardian.comartanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/oct/14/paris-musee-de-l-homme-museum-reopening)

I must also say that I found the remains in the very early stages of my research. Five years later, with thousands of hours spent researching, writing and telling their story, the bound is somewhat stronger. What I remember is that when I left the museum, as I was walking in the Jardin des Plantes, I told myself that these skeletons did not belong in reserves covered under plastic bags. It became clear that it was now my responsibility to do whatever I could to make their dream to return home a reality. These people had left Labrador in good faith. They tragically died, and scientists studied them as much as they could before, and even after their death. To me, they had given enough to science. I felt that it was time for them to come home and rest in peace.”

France’s writing of this final chapter of the story of Abraham and his companions was the culmination of 5 years of work. I asked France, what do you feel is your proudest moment or greatest accomplishment associated with this project?

She answered, “I guess my proudest moment is whenever someone from the Inuit community comes up to me to thank me for what I have accomplished. Whether it is a simply thank you, a hug, or a handshake, I know that all of my efforts were worth it. They are making a difference for them. They are allowing them to finally close the chapters on one of their sad stories.

The other moment that made me very proud is after we ended the filming of the re-enactment scenes for the documentary film. To see the pride in the eyes of the Inuit actors, and to see Charles, who plays Abraham, jump up and down because he was so proud of himself, was just priceless.

I can’t change the life of everybody, but knowing that I’ve had a positive impact on the life of at least one person, makes it all worthwhile.”

We look forward to knowing what happens next. Currently, the Nunatsiuvut government is discussing the repatriation of the remains of the Inuit, back to their home in Labrador. I hope that this does indeed happen. I think it needs to happen. Abraham had realized the mistake he had made by taking his family and colleagues to Europe. He wrote about looking forward o the day that they would go home. Abraham did not live long enough to have his wish fulfilled. But thanks to France and the governments of Nunatsiuvut, Canada and France, hopefully Abraham will finally come home.

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October 2014 when Johannes Lampe and myself visited with Sylvie Bédard and Pierre Guimond at Canada’s Embassy in Paris.

Why the “Trapped In A Human Zoo” story was so important to tell (part 2 of my interview with France Rivet

Today I continue my interview with France Rivet about her journey to uncover the fate of Abraham and his fellow Inuit travellers.

I asked France, “Why is it important to share the story of Abraham and the other Inuit with the world? What do you hope might be a result of sharing this story so widely?”

Here’s what France had to say: “Recently, I attended an event at the National Arts Center in Ottawa related to the truth and reconciliation commission. One of the ladies who spoke talked about how important it is for each society to tell the stories of its heroes. In my opinion, Abraham is one of the Labrador Inuit’s heroes. Inuit and non-Inuit all have something to learn from his resilience, his strength, the non-aggressivity he has shown despite the hardships he was going through, despite being lured and lied to. These are universal values for all human beings.

I also hope that sharing Abraham’s story with the world will contribute to raising awareness about Nunatsiavut. 99.9% of people I talk to have never heard the name. They have no clue where it is located on the map. Many know of Nunavut, of Nunavik, but I regularly get blank faces when I mention Nunatsiavut.

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Nain, the administrative centre of Nunatsiavut. That’s where the government offices are and the repatriation policy is being written

Finally, I hope that hearing about this story will show people that anything is possible. Six years ago, I would never have believed that an ordinary citizen such as me could accomplish what I have done. For example, in my mind, it was simply impossible for a regular citizen to visit the reserves of world-renowned museums, or have his/her actions result in a Prime Minister and a President signing an agreement! No way! That had to require weeks, if not months, of discussions among top political advisors. One thing this project has taught me is that when you trust life and give it the time it needs to set the stage properly, miracles do happen. It has now happened too often that the right people appear on my path at the perfect time, that something didn’t go as I had planned, but in the end, it was for the better. I keep moving forward, but I no longer fight when things don’t go as fast, or exactly as I would like them to. I know that there is a reason for it, and that eventually I’ll understand what that reason is. What has become most important for me is to let my “little internal voice” guide me. It always knows what is best for me. If things don’t feel right, if there is too much negativity, it is a clear sign that I’m not on the right path, and I am no longer afraid of letting go of them. I know that it is making room for the good things that are awaiting down the path. I have learned how important it is to persevere, and to collaborate with others! If my experience can benefit someone somewhere then it will be a step towards a better world.”

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Abraham, his family, and the young Inuk who accompanied them to Europe

I think France touched on some really important points about why it was so important to share this story with the world. I would also add that there is an expression that says, ‘history repeats itself’. I actually feel that our job is to make sure that history does NOT repeat itself, that the terrible things that have been part of human history do not happen again – that we learn from these tragic events and do all that we can to ensure something like them never happens again.

I also share France’s  philosophy, that things happen for a reason and that sometimes we are guided down a certain path in life, despite our thoughts that we might be veering off course. Sometimes the universe just has plans for us that are different from our own. But the lead us to where we need to be.

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Nunatsiavut Minister of Education and Economic Development, Patricia Kemuksigak, discussing with France Rivet after the world premiere of “Trapped in a Human Zoo”. Photo taken by Sophie Tremblay-Morissette/Nunatsiavut Tourism

Trapped In A Human Zoo – an interview with France Rivet (part 1)

I hope you were able to watch, “Trapped In A Human Zoo” on this week’s Nature of Things. What a story! It’s hard not to feel emotional about it. It’s a tragic tale, but sadly, not an uncommon one back in those days.

France is a very good friend of mine and it’s been fascinating to watch her on her journey, researching this story and getting to this point of telling the story very publicly, in a wonderful and fascinating documentary. And with the remains of Abraham, his family and the other Inuit likely to be repatriated back to Labrador, France is ensuring that the last chapter of this story is finally being written. Over a number of dinners over the past 4 years, France has shared with me, the things she was uncovering as she did her research.

France’s research (visit her Polar Horizon’s website for more information) for this project was self-funded. Funds raised through a crowd funding campaign as well as her own personal money, were what she used to uncover this mystery. Clearly she was driven by curiously, passion, and a desire to provide the Inuit of Labrador with a concluding chapter to this terrible story. She made a promise to two people, including an Inuit woman from Labrador, to find the answers about what happened to Abraham and the seven other Inuit. Finally, she is able to tell the story of their fate.

I interviewed France last week to ask her about her experience in uncovering the mystery of the fate of Abraham and the other Inuit. What follows is a multi-part blog post interview of France and her journey to write this final chapter.

I asked France, “How did you get involved in this project and what was the path that led you to the point where you are now?”

France: “I got involved in this research in 2009 following a promise I made to two people I met on a cruise along the Labrador Coast. The first person, Hans Blohm, is an Ottawa photographer of German origin. In 2005, Hans and his friend, German professor Hartmut Lutz, published a book entitled “The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab: Text and Context”, the English translation of the diary of a Labrador Inuit who had been taken to Europe in 1880, with his family and three other countrymen, to be exhibited in zoos. Since the ship was heading in the communities where these eight people came from, Hans highly recommended that I go to the ship’s library to read the book. That’s what I did.

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Hans Blohm and Zippie Nochasak on board the Lyubov Orlova, July 2009. They are the two people France made the promise to, to find out what happened to Abraham and the other Inuit that had been exhibited in the human zoo.

The story fascinated me, but there was a piece missing. The book said nothing about what happened to the Inuit when they were in Paris. Five of the Inuit died in Paris. On the ship with us was an Inuk lady whose family originates from Hebron, Abraham’s place of origin, and she has the same name as Nuggasak, the first of the eight Inuit to die in Europe. This lady had just learned about Abraham’s story and she was very upset by what had happened to her people. In the fall of 2009, the three of us met in Ottawa and Abraham came on the subject. By that time I had reread the diary and I had many unanswered questions, so I promised both Zippie and Hans, that since my mother tongue is French, whenever time allowed, I would try to see if I can find any information about what happened in Paris. One thing I was hoping to find out was where the Inuit had been buried.

It took me about a year to finally find a lead to a wealth of articles about the Inuit’s presence, and death, in Paris. But never had it crossed my mind that I would actually find the Inuit’s remains. Being told that they were still in Paris, patiently waiting in the reserves of a museum was a total shock to me. This discovery was THE turning point. I knew from reading Abraham’s diary how much he wanted to come home to Labrador. All of a sudden, my research was no longer a simply matter of finding facts, but a new dimension was being added: could the remains be brought home?

Within a few weeks, I was sitting in the office of Mr. Philippe Mennecier, the person in charge of the anthropological collections at the Natural History Museum in Paris. He’s the one who had taken the initiative to reveal to me that the skeletons were part of their collection. Mr. Philippe Mennecier confirmed that the Museum’s policy is not to oppose a repatriation request for remains that are identified. That is definitely the case of the Labrador Inuit. Knowing that, it became obvious to me, that life was giving me a mission. I would not have been able to simply walk away and ignore the fact that Abraham’s skeleton was there, and that he wanted to come home. The people in Labrador had to be told. They had to know the truth. The little voice inside me told me that I had to see this mission through. Life had picked me. Life must have known that I could do something about it. I had no clue how I was going to cross that mountain, but hey, I started walking! Slow but steady! Slow but steady!

 

Welcome to the BIOSPHERE Blog

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Shelley

Dr. Shelley Ball – biologist, educator, photographer and visual storyteller