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Spirit of the North

Submitted on Friday, February 16, 2018

Yvonne Earle, winner of  the FIAA Outstanding Alumni for 2017, looks back on her career in the arctic

When she moved back to St. John’s in her home province of Newfoundland, after three decades spent working in the arctic, Yvonne Earle noticed something about her leafy new neighbourhood. “The trees get in the way,” she says. Even when she climbs to the top of Signal Hill where the trees can’t block the view, the sky is very different from what she calls “the bigness of the arctic” where the light has a whole separate quality.

Earle’s affinity for the arctic began on a hiking vacation back in 1987. At the time, her long-term plans were to head to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific to visit a friend and possibly find work. Seeing Baffin Island changed her mind. “I just felt like I was home,” she says, adding that the scenery reminded her of Fogo Island where she had lived as a child. While Canadians close to the 49th parallel might shudder at the idea of an arctic winter, Earle fondly recalls the spectacular sunrise and sunsets that go on forever in the depths of winter.

Although she had more than a decade’s worth of experience as a professional librarian, a BLS from UBC, and an MLIS from U of T (1986), Earle decided to take a clerical position in Iqaluit. Not long after, a non-professional part-time community library position became available and she quickly applied. And shortly after that, the job of manager of the Baffin Regional Library opened up when a recently arrived librarian from down south decided the job wasn’t for him and returned home.

“I was based in Iqaluit, and had responsibility for whole Baffin region, both community libraries and borrowers by mail. I was getting out, travelling around, spreading the library word as much as possible,” recalls Earle. Unlike a librarian friend of her aunt’s who used to visit remote communities in Newfoundland by dory, Earle took small planes and then skidoos from the airports in all kinds of weather.

Her arrival in the arctic coincided with a period of transition. While there were still small communities that functioned completely in Inuktitut, TV was coming and video stores were catching on. “People often had more technology in their homes than they did in Toronto,” says Earle, who had lived for seven years in Toronto before moving north. “The hockey game would be taped and sent up on videotapes. Woe betide you if you revealed the outcome of the game.” Access to the outside world made English more prominent, but, at the same time, there was a drive to preserve the Inuit language in which Earle would later become very involved.

She also worked closely with literacy groups, another role that caused her to become well known in her territory but didn’t stop her position from being eliminated in a round of 1997 budget cuts. Although there were protests leading to a petition presented in the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories, Earle was left with no more job and headed south. To Antarctica.

A long time traveler used to extended journeys, she crossed Argentina en route to her final destination, a place she had long wanted to see. Then she returned home to what was now Nunavut, this time with a contract to help the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board set up a resource centre. Instead of living in government housing as she had before, Earle took up house sitting. “I had quite a good reputation for looking after places and animals including sled dogs,” she says. By the time her job evolved into a more permanent one as Manager, Library and Information Services, at newly created Nunavut’s Department of Sustainable Development, Earle had found a place in the territory’s only housing co-op.

Earle has been recognized for her role in creating records in Inuktitut syllabics, the symbol based written language

In 2003, Earle took on her final job and the one she calls “the cream of [her] career.” She became the Legislative Librarian for Nunavut. Although, she had never mastered Inuktitut, which is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn, Earle was instrumental in working out the logistics for creating records in Inuktitut syllabics, the symbol based written language. She and colleague Carol Rigby established, at the Nunavut Legislative Library, a multi-language, multi-script catalogue which now provides access in all the official languages of Nunavut.

“We made sure that in Nunavut everybody had the best possible access to government and legislative documents,” explains Earle, who has been widely recognized for this work including the 2009 CASLIS Award for Special Librarianship in Canada. “By the time I left our catalogue was amazingly quadrilingual. Links to documents could be downloaded in all four languages” – English, French, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun, which is a western Nunavut dialogue written in Roman orthography.

So, after having done all that work in syllabics, how did Earle feel about a 2015 recommendation that syllabics should be abandoned and the nine different written versions of Inuit and its two alphabets should be united under a single Roman-lettered language? “It’s a huge cultural and political decision,” she says noting that no matter what happens, written Inuktitut is thriving. “There was so little published in Inuktitut when I first arrived. And now there is so much coming out.”

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