“I look back on my life before and I wouldn’t want to go back,” says Thomas Whiteley.
His life before? “You know, traveling, not having too many responsibilities, working jobs…” he explains with a knowing smile.
In less than a month, the young man will have finished his studies to become a pilot. If all goes well, he will join the Air Inuit team. And will settle in Kuujjuaq.
If we speak to him by videoconference, it is precisely because he had just returned from visiting his family members who are there.
This change in priority did not come out of nowhere. The young man attributes it particularly to the two years he has just spent in Nord-du-Québec. When he felt like he was becoming an adult.
“I understood a lot about myself there. It was the greatest gift,” he says.
But let’s go back in time a little. Before the pandemic, Thomas led what some would call a bohemian life, a common phase in the life of a young person discovering their freedom.
“I didn’t really have responsibilities, I traveled a lot,” he emphasizes. At 21, he temporarily moved to Tofino, a small surf town in British Columbia, where he had spent every summer since he came of age.
“Afterwards, I went to Mexico. I spent six months there,” he continues. He quickly became familiar with Mexican culture and learned Spanish.
“I was really happy to be able to learn this culture, but at the same time, I started to question myself. I didn’t know mine that well, and I was learning another one,” he recalls.
Born to a Quebec mother and an Inuit father, Thomas grew up in Quebec. Although he regularly visited his family in Kuujjuaq, he never lived there. “I felt far from my roots,” he says.
Later, a childhood friend contacted him to tell him about an aviation program reserved for Inuit students offered in Nord-du-Québec.
“I never really considered aviation, because it’s super expensive,” he says. But the program is interesting. And then, he would finally have the opportunity to return to Kuujjuaq.
Without much expectation, Thomas begins the process of registering for the training from a convenience store that receives the internet network in the middle of Mexico. And he is admitted.
Except that at the same time, the pandemic is putting the whole world on pause. And the start of training is postponed indefinitely.
“The pandemic meant that I absolutely had to come back to Quebec. I said to myself: as long as I’m stuck here, I’m going to go to the North,” says the young man.
Which brings us to his two years spent in Kuujjuaq. When Thomas felt himself becoming an adult. Where does he trace the end of his adolescence?
In Inuit culture, learning to hunt and fish is an important rite of passage in the life of an adolescent, who becomes a man when he is able to provide for his family.
“It’s your duty as a man. I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions, if a woman shows interest she can go, but it’s mostly men who go hunting,” he explains.
When he arrived in Kuujjuaq, Thomas was behind young people his age who had already mastered hunting and fishing techniques.
For two years, it was his uncle who taught him everything. He helped him hunt his first animals, from the first goose to the first caribou.
“It was quite an adventure! We left for between 7 and 10 days on a ski-doo, 500 km from the village. We were stuck in the storm for a couple of days. That morning, we were about to leave when we saw a herd of caribou on the river. We hunted several of them so we could share them with the whole community. I’m going to remember it all my life,” he says.
Today, Thomas is perfectly independent for hunting. He organizes his own expeditions. In turn teaches the knowledge learned by his mentors.
In 2021, Thomas was forced to move to Saint-Hubert in order to complete his pilot training. But he will return to Kuujjuaq. For good this time.
He wouldn’t change his new life for anything.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to this point in life. I’m happy to have a job where I can build a career and work towards a goal. I wouldn’t want to go back to my life before,” he concludes.