Newfoundland and Labrador is a big place, and anybody who says they’ve been everywhere is probably exaggerating! Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot. Nooks and crannies, and communities large and small. Some just off the TCH, and some more isolated. For me, though, I’d never seen a place quite like Nain.
At Choices for Youth’s Department of Education, Employment and Social Enterprise (EESE), we share our Ropewalk Lane offices with SmartICE. SmartICE is a not-for-profit social enterprise that marries modern technology with traditional wisdom to measure the thickness of ice roads, which are vital transportation routes for northern climates. As Training Lead with EESE, I was able to travel to SmartICE’s Northern Production Facility in Nain for two weeks in May to deliver life skills programming to their eight newly hired youth.
The beginning of the trip from St. John’s to Goose Bay was standard, but the adventure really began when I nervously climbed the narrow ramp into the Twin Otter plane in Goose Bay, settling into one of the collapsible canvas seats. The ramp slammed shut and the engines (literally) roared to life. It’s no exaggeration to say I felt like Indiana Jones; I glanced out the window to make sure we weren’t leaving a thick red line behind us in our wake. What I did see was beautiful boreal forests spread out below and, at the coastline, the Labrador sea rich in ice. From above you could see how sheltered Unity Bay is -- it’s obvious why Jens Haven would have chosen this place for a Moravian Mission. Not a lot of time to take it in though, as our plane raced down toward the dirt runway near Nain, the waves crashing below her belly.
One safe landing later, the ramp opened up and I emerged into the bright sun. My feet hit the ground below and it’s then I realized that the community is essentially built on a sandbar. There was a moment or two as I stood in the dirt parking lot of the nondescript airport, backpack on my back and suitcase at my feet, that I wondered what to do next. A voice from a nearby pickup truck pulled me out of it – my ride from the hotel had arrived. The Atsanik Lodge boasts the best restaurant in town. The fact that it is the only restaurant in town is irrelevant – I was well fed during my two week stay!
The SmartICE Northern Production facility is only a short walk from the hotel, and after a quick meeting with my fellow supervisors we were ready and prepared for training to start. The next morning came quickly, with all young people in attendance and the room full of nervous energy. The youth trainees all knew the local supervisors, but myself and their support intern, Todd Perry, were new to the community so we started off slow by getting to know one another. Fortunately, my experiences working in theatre lend themselves well to team-building, and it wasn’t long before everyone was at ease.
My training is designed around the Whole Person; encouraging and helping youth to be their best selves at home so they can be their best selves at work. Over those two weeks we covered sessions in workplace etiquette, communication skills, financial literacy, job search and, with Todd, mindfulness and self/emotional regulation. To be honest, I could go into detail on any of these modules and share the experiences we had, the light bulb moments for our participants, and the fun that we had working together. I could go on to tell you about the great successes they made in their actual manufacturing and the buoys they put together – but the most impactful moments of the training were often outside of the specific modules.
You see, I come from the small town of Rattling Brook. To say I’m proud of that is an understatement. It’s a beautiful place, rich in landmarks, folklore and history. And, believe it or not, on our first day of work together, I took our trainees on a virtual tour. I presented a full slideshow of my hometown and delivered it to the young people, sharing as much as I could about where I come from. When it was done, I could tell they enjoyed it but were wondering why this was something I wanted to share. And then they got their first assignment: to design and take myself and Todd on a personalized tour of Nain. They stood up… looked at each other… looked at me… and looked at each other again. At this point, I laughed and said I was stepping out of the room to have a coffee -- they’d have to work together and figure out where they were taking me!
Fifteen minutes later the whole crew of us were walking the streets of Nain. They pointed out the usual suspects: the stores, the medical clinic, the hockey rink, the new museum, government buildings. But they also introduced me to some of their local names, like the section of town located across the bridge which is called “Over Across.” They pointed out an ancient cemetery at one point and I interrupted, asking if we could go see it. The unappointed leader of the group stopped, considering how we would get to it. It was then that I stopped them by saying, “This is your tour. I’m going to be quiet and follow you.” Later, standing in front of the Moravian church they pointed out a formation across the harbour, high on the mountainside. This rock was the subject of local legend and they told the story with such simple matter-of-factness with their co-workers jumping in to add detail here and there. This was the real Nain. The Nain they had grown up in and were proud to share with me. The amount of team building we achieved in that moment was more meaningful than all the icebreaker activities in the world.
Two weeks later, on the last day of work, the trainees led myself and Todd to a hillside just beyond the airport. They were on a mission to find just the right rocks, and we scoured the countryside looking for them. We gathered them up and atop a huge flat rocky chunk of land they taught us how to build an Inukshuk. Their skill in balancing the teetering stones was something to see. When we were finished it stood tall and then we rested, lounging on the boulders, the sound of seabirds in the air. I took a moment then to remind them of day one, of their tour, how we knew nothing about each other and now we had built connections. “We can laugh together,” said one of the quieter young people in the group.
I reminded them that life is always changing. That we weren’t the people we were even two weeks ago. And the things we might fear, the unknown, are the things that make us stronger, draw us closer and build community. As my flight home tore down the Nain runway and lifted off into the air, I looked down to spot that Inukshuk. They had told me afterward that they had chosen the sight very specifically. It would face the airstrip to bid me farewell as I took off. I look forward to seeing it again when I return.
Rory Lambert is the Training Lead with Education, Employment and Social Enterprise at Choices for Youth.