It's probably been a while since you watched those filmstrips and grainy movies from elementary school: how much do you know about Canada's north? And how Canadian are you, really, if you haven't ventured there?
CBC broadcaster and activist Shelagh Rogers invited Vancouver-based writer and cartoonist Sarah Leavitt and four other Canadian writers - Alissa York, Joseph Boyden, Rabindranath Maharaj and Noah Richler - to Torngat Mountains National Park in Northern Labrador, located between the Quebec border and the Labrador Sea. Their assignment? Create new works about Canada's north, using their experiences and the incredible scenery as inspiration.
The end product is Northwords, a documentary directed by Geoff Morrison that toured the film fest circuit and is now available for purchase as an HD digital download or on DVD (at filmcan.org)or on ebook (houseofanansi.com). The film features stunning vistas, some surprising revelations about the north country's distant and near past, and the reactions of our five writers as they write about their experiences, cramming for a "performance" at the end of the trip.
Leavitt, by all standards a fairly well-travelled Canadian, having lived in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Montreal and Vancouver, calls the short time she spent in the Torngats "a very powerful experience." She chatted with the Courier recently about icebergs, polar bears and conquering her fear of small boats.
Courier: What were your first impressions?
Leavitt: The landscape is so dramatic and gigantic -crazy jagged mountains rising up in the water, icebergs - with lots of it untouched. There are definite places that are Inuit homeland, but there were also places we flew over in the helicopter where no one has ever been.
Courier: An iceberg was your first piece of inspiration_
Leavitt: It was like nothing I had seen on books or in films_ They're turquoise and white, really huge. And when you get near them in the boat the air is colder. Amazing.
Courier: Do you feel it can only help your writing or your sense of patriotism now that you've travelled to the far north?
Leavitt: I definitely felt like it rooted me more in Canada and being Canadian. But it was more about having experiences that really push you, and saying yes to things that are really scary.
Courier: You wrote a memoir, Tangles: A Story About Alzheimers, My Mother and Me. Do you work better with deeply personal subject matter? Did you find being thrown into an alien landscape challenging?
Leavitt: It was challenging. But once I figured out I wanted to do these single illustrations with personal reflections, it was easier. And the things I wrote about my interactions with the landscape were still pretty personal.
Courier: There were polar bears roaming near the campsite: did you ever feel unsafe?
Leavitt: Not really. It was all about conquering my own fears: I said yes to Shelagh without thinking about it, then realized that I needed to go on small planes, small boats to get there.
Courier: Did you have any camping experience?
Leavitt: I grew up rurally, so I've camped. But this wasn't really hard times: in base camp we had a wooden floor, a wood stove. We were out in nature but we were always very well protected by people who know the land really well.
Courier: It's hard to imagine some of the men in Vancouver going up against bears_
Leavitt: I know, these guys are the most manly men ever! They talk about being caught in a blizzard for three days like it's a normal thing. If anything was going to threaten a guy's sense of masculinity_.
Courier: How's your throat singing?
Leavitt: Oh it's a major skill! [laughing]. Alissa [York] kicked everybody's butt.
Courier: Did you take photographs or did you prefer to sketch?
Leavitt: I did both. I took a lot of photos but my digital camera broke partway through, so I was using my phone. My picture of the polar bear, for example, was a white dot among the rocks, so thankfully there were pros there to document it_
Courier: Do you feel connected to the other writers on the journey the way summer camp friends do?
Leavitt: We do. Alissa and I shared a tent and I keep in touch with her. I do feel like we got to do something very intense_ that bond will always be there.
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