Arctic Days: Teaching Canada’s Youth

A group of young students listening carefully to the teachings of an Arctic Expert. (Photo: Mieke Coppes)
- I've realized that what is happening in the Arctic today will affect the world for decades to come, and that these issues are the issues that my generation will have to tackle.

- I've realized that what is happening in the Arctic today will affect the world for decades to come, and that these issues are the issues that my generation will have to tackle, says Gerrit Wesselink, the Associate Executive Director of Youth Arctic Coalition.

- This is why today, participating in events like Arctic Days is giving me the opportunity to try and get other young people talking about the Arctic, and learning more about this incredible region, he adds.

Arctic Days is a three-day event that the Canadian Museum of Nature holds for students of varying ages to experience the life and environment of the Arctic. The programming includes a guest lecturer, discussions about the animals and plants in the North, a cultural showcase, and an overall sense of what it means to be a Northerner.  

The program caters to youth as young as Grade Three all the way through high school, which means that the itinerary needs to have both a level of sophistication and the ability to keep the attention of various ages.  Above all, as Mr. Stephen Fleming, a third grade teacher at Ottawa Christian School mentioned, this opportunity gives the kids a chance to learn in a different setting from people who have actually been to, and lived in, the Arctic.

What Are Arctic Days?

Arctic Days has been happening in Ottawa for the last three years at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Originally, it started as a month long cultural and science festival which has now been reduced to a more school-focused program. The idea behind the festival was to elaborate on the roots of museum's focus on the Arctic, which dates back more than 100 years to the first Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913. Arctic Days usually takes place in April, and for the first time this year it was set in February.  

According to Gilles Proulx, the Project Leader of Educational Programming, this was an attempt to teach youth about the Arctic during a time of the year when Ottawa feels most like the Arctic. However, due to a plethora of other events during the winter season, next year Arctic Days will once again take place in April.


What Do The Students Learn?

I participated in the Arctic Days with a Grade Three class from the Ottawa Christian School, which is the youngest group of participants in this event.  The breadth and depth of information that was presented to these students exceeded my expectations.  Often students are taught about polar bears and glaciers in the North, which was definitely covered during the approximately five hours that the students spent at the museum, but climate change, mining, and the realities of people currently living in the North were also present.  

The day started with a presentation from Gerrit Wesselink, the Associate Executive Director of
Youth Arctic Coalition, about his own experiences in the Arctic with Students on Ice.  His presentation set the tone for the rest of the day; directly dealing not only with polar bears and icebergs, but also people and culture, the importance of dogs and the realities of living in northern towns and traveling through the often ice-locked ocean.

One of the many presentations was about the life of polar bears, but mentioned the importance of the habitat, the impacts that mining has on the environment as well as cars and factories, and even dealt with the impacts of climate change on the natural habitat of animals.  

The Canadian Museum of Nature did not gloss over the troubles the North is dealing with, instead allowing children to see the wider picture of the successes and the problems being faced in the Canadian Arctic.  

Furthermore, in a second presentation about the Arctic plants, a scientist who had done fieldwork in the Arctic, explained the planning and realities of spending a summer up North.  Not only dealing with the importance of cataloguing and classifying flora, but also the reality of planning logistics, which includes everything from providing dehydrated food to managing expensive travel costs.

Showing children the real life

One of the most interesting parts was the lunch and cultural performance.  The lunch was an opportunity to show the school-children the real life in the north, the current life and the peoples that live there.  The lunch showcased a traditional meal with bison stew, bannock, and Arctic berry iced tea and included presentations from an Inuit elder, David Serkoak, and the young duo Twin Flames.  

What was special about this cultural performance, was that not only did the children get to experience stories from an elder about growing up in the north, as well as a traditional drum dance, but they also got to see modern Inuit/Metis peoples sharing life from the north.  

Often when people in the south learn about the north, it is either in a context of past Inuit lifestyle or with the complete dismissal of the peoples living there today.  But by inviting both an elder and a young duo, the Museum exposed children to both the past and the very real present of living in the Canadian North.

Inspiration Prize, education and blog 

The Canadian Museum of Nature does not end its educational outreach program with Arctic Days.  There is an online blog that the Museum updates focused specifically on the Arctic. An educational web site, Expedition Arctic which allows students, teachers, and anyone interested, to virtually follow a Students on Ice trip and learn about some of the natural history treasures of the Arctic, on a website.  

The Museum is also an ambassador for the Arctic Inspiration prize, allowing it to seek out and mentor potential nominees for the million dollar prize. A permanent new Arctic Gallery, which will open June 2017, will further the opportunity for people to learn about the Arctic through the Canadian Museum of Nature.

The exhibit will enforce the ideas that the Arctic is a diverse cultural and natural region, and is not just a land of ice and snow.  For a more comprehensive list of how the Museum is actively promoting and teaching peoples about the north check out
their website.

Overall, Arctic Days is a great way to allow students to actively learn from people who have been in the Arctic and who have lived there their whole lives.  These types of activities allow children to learn in new environments and expose them to new ways of thinking.  The Canadian Museum of Nature did a great job of creating a comprehensive curriculum which allowed Southern students to create a foundation of knowledge for a part of their own country that many of the them know little about.  The students I spoke to were enthusiastic about learning and assured me that they left the day with more knowledge than they started with.







Wintery view of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario. (Photo: Mieke Coppes)
Wintery view of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario. (Photo: Mieke Coppes)