In Conversation with Chuck Commanda, Birchbark Canoe Builder

Mindy Willett and James Raffan on the ice of Great Slave Lake in pre-pandemic times. 

The Land is Our Story: Mindy Willett’s Quest to Enrich the NWT’s Cultural Curriculum

Over thirty years ago, fresh from her studies at Trent University, Mindy Willett headed north to teach, first in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut and then west to Kugluktuk where her students asked why nobody who looked like them ever showed up in their school books.  She searched high and low for resources that might get beyond a child in a parka, labelled “Inuk”—no names, no community activities, no details of life or lifestyle, and certainly no books in local languages and dialects.  So Mindy set out to change that in her own way.


Mindy Willet

At that time there were very few storybooks, non-fiction or fiction, written about, by, and for Indigenous People. The students in my class asked me “why we don’t have any beautiful books about us?” […] There were books from kids in Africa, in China, across Canada, non-Indigenous children – but very few with Indigenous children.

Where they were, they would be in a parka just standing there and it would say “Inuk in parka” – no name, no understanding that kids are playing soccer, playing hockey, or hanging out with their video games, and also going on the land!

In conjunction with her work in education, she teamed up with co-authors in each of the Northwest Territories’ nine language regions and has just completed the truly remarkable The Land is Our Story series for young adults.  In doing this work, Mindy lived and travelled with individuals and families in all seasons of the year.  And through the process of listening and learning from her coauthors and their communities, she has travelled a path very similar to the one the Canadian Canoe Museum has been on—one that strives to respect, honour and reflect the truths and beauties of Indigenous People with stories to tell.

Mindy Willett and her work is featured in the next episode of National Council in Conversation.  She spoke with me over Zoom from her home on Lois Lane in Yellowknife and, as we delved into some of the most poignant stories from her cross-cultural research and writing, I was truly struck by how much Mindy has learned about this kind of work and how much she has to teach those of us doing similar work.  Particularly moving is the story of a crooked knife given to her by Philip Zoe, by one of her coauthors, who has since passed.  That story and much more, including confirmation of the place that is the real “Canoe Capital of Canada” (pssssst, not Peterborough) can be found in my second-COVID-summer conversation with Mindy, found here:

James Raffan Director of External Relations

James Raffan

James has been a part of the museum since its inception, having held a number of roles including, most recently, the Director of Development and Director Emeritus. He served as the Executive Director from 2008 to 2014, the Curator in 2007, and worked on the first education program in 1999. This work stemmed from his volunteer involvement on the museum’s Education Advisory Committee in the 1990s, which he undertook as a professor at Queen’s University in the Faculty of Education. He held a number of positions with Queen’s from 1982 to 1999 and is also a graduate of the University. James holds a Doctor of Philosophy, Master of Education, Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Science. He is a celebrated author of numerous books including, Ice Walker: A Polar Bear’s Journey Through the Fragile Arctic, Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the invisible Arctic, and the national bestsellers Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Deep Waters: Courage, Character and the Canoeing Tragedy of Lake Timiskaming. James has been honoured with numerous recognitions and awards, including the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada, Honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of Guelph, and a number of others related to his considerable work as a writer and outdoorsman. Years spent as a camper and staff member at Camp Kandalore from 1959 to 1973 inspired James’ lifelong interest in the collection.