Some gloom, but with a view
T he twins make it to Ottawa. But complications in the North don’t always turn out well. The housing shortage across the Arctic is dire: Iqaluit has been described as a town with 8,000 people, 10,000 jobs, and 5,000 houses. Keith Peterson, the recently re-elected Finance Minister of the Nunavut government (he’s also responsible for the liquor commission), tells me one morning that Nunavut is currently short 3,500 houses. They cost $450,000 each to build – on steel stilts, to anchor them in the permafrost, which in turn makes them susceptible to drunks who crawl underneath and light a fire to warm up. Mr. Peterson says it will take up to 10 years to build them.
When there is drinking, crowding has dire consequences. And there is a lot of drinking. Arctic towns are classed, liquor-wise, as open (you can order it), restricted (you can order it through a local board of overseers) or dry. But smuggling booze through the security-free airports is easy and rampant (ask a taxi driver): a mickey of vodka is worth $100. (A gram of weed is $60.) The bar at my hotel in Iqaluit had a sign at the cash: One Drink Per Person After Midnight/ No Shots After Midnight.
Photo: A message written in the frost on a wall in Cambridge Bay in northern Nunavut, urging students to stay in school.
The upshot of drinking and crowding is violence. In 2012, the murder rate in Nunavut was 14.8 per 100,000 people, the highest in the country and 9½ times the national average. More than 80 per cent were domestic affairs. Lynn Almquist, a waitress from Thunder Bay who arrived in Inuvik six months ago, says she was astonished by how desensitized far-northerners are to horrific crimes. “After I got here I asked one of my regular customers who a guy was in the dining room, and she says, matter-of-factly, ‘Oh, that’s [F___], he raped his own grandmother and daughter.’ I’m like, ‘Really? You want more coffee?’ ”
Children whose homes are disrupted by all of the above have a harder time in school. “There I am, trying to teach the lakes and rivers of Bolivia, and they’ve had no sleep,” Ms. Bligh, the Cambridge Bay teacher, tells me one evening. “So generally I let them sleep.” Failing students move on to the next grade regardless – the much-discussed phenomenon of “social passing” – because keeping everyone back would simply explode the schools: Sixty per cent of the population of the North is under 24. Three-quarters of Nunavut’s children never finish high school. Of the ones that do, only 5 per cent go on to university.
Then the complications get starker. In 1969, when more Inuit still lived on the land, the suicide rate in Nunavut was lower than the national average. Today, the suicide rate among Inuit in Nunavut is 13 times the national average – a veil across the North. Ms. Bligh and a colleague recently counted 34 people they had known as students who had died in 16 years of teaching. But there are few resources for people to turn to: In Iqaluit, the citified capital of Nunavut, there is one (1) psychologist in private practice. As of two years ago, 50 per cent of social-services jobs in Nunavut were unfilled. As of last month, each community has its own psychiatric nurse, but they’re not cheap: The starting salary for a nurse in Igloolik, including northern allowance, is $113,820, and housing them is an even bigger problem.
“I guess up here, you’re always thinking of the future. You see far. Time stands still, yet you’re always conscious of where you are in the big picture. Down south I felt so small, because I could only see so far.”
Two-thirds of the suicides are under 24, and most are young men. Yvonne Niego, the RCMP officer in charge of community policing for Nunavut, has the most convincing theory I’ve heard about that: “In the past,” she says, “the focus was on the land. The climate is so severe that it was all about day-to-day survival. Everyone had a role. ... Elders used to look after the youth while the husband and wife did hunting and sewing. Now, the woman works. It’s often the man who has lost his role.” It’s a frequent observation around here that many accomplished Inuit women – who run the place, at a departmental and managerial level – choose to date and marry non-Inuit men.
It’s easy to say the southern lifestyle needs to come north. Whether northerners want it, and how they would handle it, is another question. Sgt. Niego was posted to Ottawa from 2005 to 2010. It seemed like another planet, and not just in the way that Ottawa seems like another planet to everyone. Everything was faster: the changes of seasons, the rate at which the grass grew. “I had to mow it each week. I didn’t know the trees grew so fast. I had to trim them yearly. Up here, lichens grow so slowly.” She shakes her head, grinning. “In the North, there is one season, and then there’s a little bit of a warmer stretch.” Before that she hadn’t realized why Thanksgiving was such a big thing, because the North has no harvest. “I see now why Halloween is so spooky – the leaves fall. Or you have to take care of your house for winter. Up here, we celebrate different things. We celebrate your son’s first caribou, or your daughter’s lighting of a kudlik. Or the first sewing of their own parka.”
She was astonished in Ottawa to learn that “the babies rode around in buggies behind plastic,” rather than in amautis, the papoose-hood parkas Inuit women wear to carry children next to their bodies. “We’re a lot closer in the North. That’s what brought me back.”
And it wasn’t just the trees, which many Inuit find upsetting, that blocked her view in the south. “I guess up here you’re always thinking of the future. You see far. Time stands still, yet you’re always conscious of where you are in the big picture. Down south I felt so small, because I could only see so far.”
A view matters to an Inuk. It isn’t about beauty; rather it lets an Inuk see himself - or herself in a larger picture, as a frame for caution and humility. I grasp this for the first time one afternoon in Cape Dorset, the gorgeous hamlet and Inuit art capital that has been plagued by violence.
Padlaya Qiatsuq, the mayor, and Markoosie Editloo, the hamlet’s bylaw officer and dog-catcher, take me on a tour of the town. They’re a real pair, lifelong friends who grew up in Cape Dorset; Mr. Editloo has a laugh like a double klaxon.
“You always travel with a shotgun?” I ask, clambering into the front seat of his pickup.
“Fuckin’ right,” Mr. Editloo says. “Ha HA!”
They drive me to the town’s immense metal dump, which comprises the entire 50-year material history of Cape Dorset, everything everyone ever wanted and later threw away. Its contents might make an interesting study of what the south has made the North long for. But I don’t understand why they want me to see it. Then I get it: It’s on a hill, with a view of the whole town. From there you can see all the dangers, ahead and behind.