• Victoria J. Polsoni

Martha of Gjoa Haven

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

Click to see story featured on CBC news

About two weeks before leaving on my trip through the Northwest Passage, the coolest video idea came to me. The results were emotional and necessary.

My goal was to put together a story about how Adventure Canada facilitates the creation of meaningful connections to communities in impactful ways.

Thoughts of focusing on nature and culture crossed my mind, so I looked through the staff list to see who I could potentially interview to highlight these topics—and a name immediately stood out that completely derailed my train of thought... I asked myself:

"Who the hell is Marshall Dane?"

Marshall seemed like a particularly animated and interesting character. I asked around and quickly learned that he's an independent country musician, he's the nicest guy ever, and he speaks ASL (American Sign Language).

When he's on stage, he takes the time to share inspiring and encouraging stories between songs with his audience. On top of that, he interprets some his stories in ASL, and recently started performing alongside interpreters who sign his music to make his performance even more inclusive.

The combination is a wild one—and yes, Deaf people can enjoy music. You'd have to witness the performance to truly understand its power.

It's unique, and absolutely fascinating.

Sorry! Back to my story:

After seeing a few videos of him speaking ASL and working with the Deaf on his social media, I thought it would be a unique skill to extend to communities in the North—particularly to children.

Naturally, Marshall responded in excitement and was completely on board when I sent him an initial message introducing my idea. I also embarrassingly sent him the storyboard I drew—which resembled a toddler's art project with side notes written in handwriting equally as bad your doctors'...

What's important is that he got the idea.

I could already picture scenes of laughter and joy in my head as he would bond with Inuit children through this experience. I was very much looking forward to our visit to Gjoa Haven, but a feeling of nervousness was also present because I had never visited a northern community before. This would be my very first one.

Regardless of how difficult it is to execute a wild project on an expedition while balancing other numerous duties—I was committed and challenged myself to bring this one to life.

Early morning on September 7th, 2019, 200 passengers were tendered to shore by Zodiac and gathered together at the nearby community centre for a welcome hosted by the residents of Gjoa Haven—the home of approximately 1,000 people.

Pictured above, expedition photographer Scott Forsyth arrives at shore for a wet Zodiac landing with one of Adventure Canada's travel groups, Road Scholar.

Upon exiting our Zodiacs, a resident shook everyone's hands and said "Welcome to Gjoa Haven" to everyone as they stepped foot on the land.

Everyone's rubber boots were kept on shore with their names labeled in their colour groups to ensure they can find them when they return.

On our way up to the community centre, passengers spotted a muskox skull on top of a shed and the cutest sled dogs greeted us on our path.

What seems misplaced is in fact it is placed conveniently, where it can be found and re-used again.

Local residents at the Gideon Qitsualik Memorial Center performed a traditional drum dance accompanied by Inuit throat singing and square dancing.

A wonderful energy filled the room and passengers joined the dancers. When Marshall was asked to go perform with the Gjoa Band, he stepped up with a huge, grateful smile on his face. His excitement added a unique touch to the overall atmosphere that was felt and enjoyed by all.

They closed off singing "You Are My Sunshine" and everyone in the audience sang along.

Marshall had a great chat with the band after they joined forces through their sounds. We were having so much fun that the thought of our important video mission almost escaped us.

It was clear that our story had to change when we realized there were no children present. Our visit overlapped their school hours—somehow both of our artist minds hadn't thought of this before!

But, all good! Because this caused the storyline to get much, much richer.

Earlier on the ship, Marshall had heard through a staff member that there was one Deaf woman in town by the name of Martha Takkiruq, and no one around was fluent in sign language.

Our mission was clear: To find her, and make her day.

Thanks to 22-year old resident Gibson Porter who worked at the community centre, we were able to locate her after the musical performance. He and a friend both took us to her house— where Marshall would have the opportunity share a heartfelt conversation with her in ASL.

She had the biggest smile on her face when she saw Marshall arrive—who was able to speak to her in a language she could finally completely understand. They shared a long conversation and exchanged numerous emotional stories about each other. It warmed my heart to see how much she was glowing during our visit.

Marshall learned about Martha's daughter, her granddaughter, her work situation and the numerous challenges of being the only Deaf resident in a community of just over 1,000 residents.

Martha was incredibly grateful to have a visitor with whom she could converse and share emotions—more than just basic words, even for a short while. Marshall was moved to tears, and reminded himself that moments like these are the reason he learned to sign. We must have spent about half an hour at Martha's house, and it completely filled our hearts.

We later visited the Northern Store and Gibson's family home nearby, where he introduced us to his family while they were having lunch.

Marshall sang "Amazing Grace" on his guitar for Gibson's family, and a young one seemed particularly interested in his music. His family told us he started learning how to play guitar.

Marshall handed him one of his guitar picks and told him not to give up on his dream! Practice makes perfect.

Marshall signed a CD to gift to the family as a thank you for their invitation and hospitality.

Sadly, the clock was ticking. It was time to say our goodbyes and head back to shore.

We picked up the pace and started quickly walking back to the ship, and heard footsteps running behind us. It was Gibson—who asked if he could follow us to shore, and he brought a very special gift along with him to give to Marshall.

He handed Marshall a beautiful wooden Inuit fishing spear.

We were really afraid it wouldn't make it back on the flight, but it was worth a try. It ended up fitting in the guitar case perfectly and was sent in as checked luggage from Greenland—luckily no questions were asked! Coolest gift ever!

On our walk, Gibson pointed out this unusual patch of grass. He told us that this year, it's the longest and greenest it's ever been.

We are grateful to have shared such beautiful heartfelt moments with the community of Gjoa Haven. This day still brings tears to our eyes, and we hope to return someday to continue to meet more amazing people.

Here's the video we produced of our experience that was featured on CBC:

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