The Canadian North: I’ve always been entranced by stories about the early explorers, ships trapped in the ice, men forced to survive through a harsh winter (and they often didn’t), as well as learning about the peoples who did live there year-round and did survive, for centuries until our present day. Odette Barr’s Teaching at the Top of The World (2020, Pottersfield Press) is a memoir of her time living and teaching in Canada’s Far North, specifically Grise Fiord, Nunavut, which, despite its low population, it is the largest community and only public community on Ellesmere Island. It is a unique memoir in that she as an educator played an important role in the development of not only the school’s curriculum (often altering it to suit the student body’s needs) but the development and maturing of the students under her care. After reading the book, I wanted to ask Ms. Barr some questions about the book and her experiences. She graciously agreed to an interview.
Miramichi Reader: Odette, please tell us about your background, education, employment, etc.
I never set out to be a writer. After high school, I had my sights set on being a great Canadian biologist. I imagined myself off in the wilds, conducting ecological field studies—perhaps counting deer droppings in the woods, and other exotic activities!
I graduated from the University of Guelph (ON) with an honours degree in Wildlife Biology. The following year, I was employed as a botanical illustrator and naturalist for the University’s Arboretum. I then worked for several years as an interpretive naturalist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, Parks Canada and various nature centres (where I did count many deer droppings!). I moved from Ontario, to Saskatchewan, to Newfoundland and New Brunswick. It was through nature interpretation that I discovered my love of helping people of all ages learn about the natural world. I have a passion for igniting that sense of wonder, awe and amazement in people with respect to the plants, animals and landscapes that surround us. Throughout those years, I also designed, wrote and provided artwork for a number of indoor and outdoor environmental exhibits and nature-themed publications, including both the Beach Guide and the Forest Guide for Fundy National Park.
After earning an education degree at Mount Allison University (NB), I turned to teaching in the classroom. I spent 10 years teaching Inuit students, eventually becoming a school principal in Nunavut. I later earned my Master of Education degree in Educational Leadership from UPEI.
When I am not writing and illustrating my own stories, I write, develop, and facilitate online science courses for senior high school students throughout the province of New Brunswick.
My writing and artwork are still inspired by the intricacies of the natural world near my home on the shore of New Brunswick’s beautiful Northumberland Strait.
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people that may have influenced you to become a writer.
I have always been an avid reader. As a child, growing up in Britain, I loved Enid Blyton adventure stories. I lost count how many times I read Tolkien. I loved Grimm’s fairy tales. My reading as an adult is quite eclectic. I still read adventure stories and mysteries. I read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series in my 40s! I love multi-volume epic tales: the likes of Diana Gabaldon and Jean Auel, for example. I try to read as many Atlantic Canadian authors as I can. I adore nonfiction reflections in natural history: Stephan Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, for example. The book I am reading at the moment is last year’s Giller Prize winner, Reproduction, by Ian Williams.
Honestly, there is no one author that I can name that has influenced my writing more than any other. But I think it is because of my wide taste in reading that I want to try many genres of writing as well.
MR: You’ve already mentioned a few authors you enjoy reading, but do you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?
I have two! But neither are probably they type of book you are expecting.
The first one is The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski (1973). It gives an interesting perspective on science and civilization. Bronowski believed that “the understanding of nature has as its goal the understanding of human nature, and of the human condition within nature.” This particular book was the one that “blew my mind” at university!
The second one is The Art of Glen Loates, by Paul Duval (1977). I remember pouring over each and every page of this large coffee table art book. It had been a Christmas gift from my parents in my late teens. Visiting friends were expected to gaze at the amazing art, and oooh and aah over each image. My friends were very polite. I still have this book and I still pour over the art and the author’s explanations of how Loates came to create each one.
MR: Let’s talk about your children’s chapbooks, Follow the Goose Butt series. How did that idea come about and what has been the response to them?
In the spring of 2014, I travelled to a children’s writing workshop in Saint John with two teacher friends, Colleen Landry and Beth Weatherbee. I had intended to gather information only concerning the things I needed to do in order to get work as an illustrator.
In the car, on the way to Saint John, we brainstormed ideas for children’s books. Before we arrived in the city, we had already developed the main character and storyline for what would eventually become Follow the Goose Butt, Camelia Airheart! We wanted a Canadian iconic character that could travel to all provinces and territories. We wanted to tell natural history stories as well as introduce young readers to the Canadian landscape. Camelia is a young Canada goose with a faulty GPS—goose positioning system—who is easily distracted and gets lost, a lot. The fact that Colleen, Beth and I got lost trying to find the public library in Saint John really made us laugh. The die was cast!
To make a long story short, the three of us committed to meeting regularly so that we would write the tale of our young, loveable, navigationally challenged goose. We were lucky to find a publisher so early. Kate Merlin (Chocolate River) had recently created her new publishing house to make New Brunswick stories more available to youth in the province. We published that first book in 2016, the second (a picture book) in 2017 and the most recent one in 2018.
Response to the books has been fantastic. We acted out as we read to hundreds of young children, in schools and at bookish events. We presented at literary conferences and even to teachers-in-training for 3 years running at St. Thomas University. We’ve loved every minute of Camelia’s journey. We are waiting for someone to come forward and offer to put her on the big screen. Now that would be fun J
MR: Your most recent book, Teaching at the Top of the World, is a memoir of sorts of your time spent living and teaching in the North, specifically in Grise Fiord, Canada’s most northern permanently inhabited community, on Ellesmere Island. After I read it, I told you that I found it would be a book primarily of interest to educators, but you have a different take on that. Can you explain why you wrote the book, and who you intended its audience to be?
My experience living and teaching in the Arctic was life changing. I wanted to document my time there and share as much of it as possible with anyone interested. Many people around the world only ever see images of snow and ice and polar bears in magazines or on television, but there is so much more to the Arctic than those fleeting images. Very few have the opportunity to visit, let alone move to the North, to meet the Inuit who actually live there. Yes, the landscape is spectacular—absolutely—but my Arctic centres on the people.
I wanted to give readers a glimpse into the everyday life in a remote northern hamlet, with special attention to culture and language, artistic expression, as well as the cycle of the seasons and community goings-on. The school is most often the hub of any small, isolated community, and since I am a teacher, Ilisaiji, my perspective is always from that viewpoint. I agree that educators will be keenly interested in my writing, but my book is for anyone interested in Inuit and Indigenous cultures as well. In today’s climate of truth and reconciliation, I truly believe that Canadians and others around the world are ready to open their eyes and their hearts to the real lives of Indigenous peoples.
I also want Inuit who read my book to understand that it is first and foremost, a love story that expresses my profound respect for their people, their culture, and their land. Inuit have so much to be proud of. A kind reader sent me a message saying, “The deep care for each student and their family rang through each page of the book. Love – something you do not name until near the end of the book – is evident everywhere.” That comment made me very happy.
Cathy Fynn, former executive director of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick says this of Teaching at the Top of the World:
“The reader has a unique opportunity. While Odette’s book focuses on education, it also explores and illuminates the Northern experience on all levels–the awe-inspiring landscape, the rich culture and society of which we know so little, and the challenges of living in a remote High Arctic community. This is wonderful storytelling–so many fascinating characters and adventures. I found myself rooting for Odette, her students and colleagues on their landmark journey …Whether you go North or not, you’ll be richer for having read this book. Thank you, Odette, for writing a beautiful story about how to live, not only in the High Arctic, but right here at home.”
MR: Wonderful! I too sensed the extreme and devoted interest you had into becoming a part of the community of Grise Fiord and of educating its young people. To change gears, if you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be?
Well, there are plenty of writers who could look after the stories about the rich and famous. I’d be more interested in the lesser known, hidden heroes—the everyday people who have amazing life stories. People like Larry Audlaluk.
In my book I mention that Grise Fiord is one of the High Arctic Exile communities, and I explain what that means only briefly. Many have asked why I didn’t go deeper into that particular issue. My response is always the same: That is not my story to tell. Inuit need to tell that one. I am happy to say that an Inuk has just done exactly that! Larry Audlakuk has written What I Remember, What I Know: The Life of a High Arctic Exile. (Inhabit Media Inc., 2020). I picked up my copy on the weekend and cannot wait to dive in. So I suppose there’s no need for me to write that biography just now!
MR: Odette, what are you working on now?
I have many ideas percolating in my head. Another nonfiction perhaps? I am toying with the idea of letters to myself across time and place exploring, amongst many things, my lesbian identity—teenage and 20s angst tempered with a present-day, mature voice. It’s all quite nebulous at the moment. There will be another Goose Butt children’s adventure, on Prince Edward Island next (no definite timeline yet). There will be many more children’s books that I hope to illustrate myself as well. And I’d like to write a novel one day.
For now though, promoting Teaching at the Top of the World during a pandemic, with limited readings, signings and festivals, takes up a fair amount of my time.
MR: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Going outside to enjoy nature! YoAnne, Tulu (our loveable standard poodle) and I spend as much time outdoors as possible. We live on 17 acres of pure heaven. At home, we have the option of heading out front to explore the beach or trekking out back into the woods. In winter we ski and snowshoe in those same places. When we feel the need to explore further afield, we hit the road camping in our VW van.
I try to spend equal time drawing and painting. My preferred medium is technical drawing pen and ink. I am still greatly inspired by the likes of Loates, Lansdowne and Bateman. My art studio at home is continually calling me!
Keep in mind, I am still a full-time teacher. There are not enough hours in the day!
MR: Finally, tell us a fun fact about yourself!
I am fiercely proud to have been born in Scotland. My family emigrated to Canada when I was 7 years old. I have returned to Scotland on several occasions since, and even considered doing a Master of Science degree at Stirling University. However, I met the love of my life prior to that and ended up backpacking in east Africa for 5 months instead…but that is another story! Perhaps a book?
MR: Thanks Odette, this has been a great interview, and I thank you for your time.
Thank you! I have really enjoyed answering your questions.
Odette Barr is a writer, an artist, a naturalist and an educator. Odette’s most recent release, Teaching at the Top of the World (Pottersfield Press, June 2020), is a personal account of teaching and living in remote Inuit communities in the eastern Arctic, centering mostly on Grise Fiord—Canada’s most northern permanently inhabited community, nestled on the south shore of Ellesmere Island. This story resulted from her placing second in the Pottersfield Prize for Creative Nonfiction, 2019. Odette describes her book as a love story of sorts that expresses great admiration and respect for Inuit people, their culture and the magnificent Arctic landscape.
Odette is also the illustrator and co-author of a children’s adventure series: Follow the Goose Butt, Camelia Airheart! (2016), Take Off to Tantramar (winner of the 2017 Alice Kitts Memorial Award for Children’s Literature) and Follow the Goose Butt to Nova Scotia (2018), all through Chocolate River Publishing, NB.