Sitting on a bed next to the oldest Inuit woman in northern Nunavut, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heard and witnessed first-hand what life is like for the people of the Far North.
Trudeau visited Arctic Bay Thursday as part of a two-day visit to the territory.
His first stop in the tiny northern community of fewer than 900 residents was a visit to the home of Qaapik Attagutsiak, who will be honoured next year by the community in a 100th birthday celebration. He arrived bearing a gift basket of fresh fruit.
Her house is a makeshift structure of unpainted wooden planks and plastic, insulated on the inside with curved walls. It was so small, Trudeau could not stand inside and had to crouch through the half-sized door to greet the elder of Arctic Bay.
She has chosen to live in this humble abode because she does not want to live anywhere that has belonged to or has been made by anyone else, a local explained. She helped to build this structure and her children’s homes now surround it.
Inside, the walls are lined with shelves filled with trinkets and collectibles – dolls and figurines and many tiny teapots. Some trinkets she has collected herself, others were gifts from others over the years.
Her conversation with the prime minister was casual. She spoke in her native tongue through a translator, recounting the days of raising her many children in the community, pointing to a black and white photo of herself in her younger days with one of her babies on her lap.
Some of those days have been happy, while others have been very difficult, she said. She was wistful about the time when more of their traditional country food of caribou and seal was brought into the community in greater bounty – back in the days when their catches were more plentiful.
Trudeau replied by mentioning an announcement he’d made earlier in the day about the creation of a new marine protected area to help with conservation efforts. Attagutsiak seemed pleased, but didn’t want to get into politics.
She pointed instead to a silver teapot hanging over a traditional qulliq oil lamp, which, in addition to brewing tea, is also used to help heat her home. She offered Trudeau a cup. He smiled and thanked her, but declined.
Before he left, she gave him two pairs of seal skin mittens she had sewed by hand – one pair for him and one for his sons.
As he ducked out the door to make his way back to his motorcade, a small group of Inuit women who had been waiting to see Trudeau called over to him. A small group of children had also been waiting, but they hung shyly back, choosing instead to observe with wide eyes as he greeted their mothers and grandmothers with handshakes.
Trudeau’s next stop was to a nearby beach called Victor Bay. It was surrounded by mountains with rounded tops and rocky bottoms and colourful horizontal lines of sediment marking their years. The arctic summer meant the water below the mountains was not frozen, and the air was warm from the sun.
Together with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, Trudeau was greeted on the beach by a group of Inuit Guardians, who act as stewards of their traditional lands, waters and ice.
They told him briefly about their work and their love of being on the land – a defining characteristic of the Inuit people.
Trudeau’s final stop was to the community hall, where hundreds of locals had gathered in preparation to greet him for a community feast. The feasts are a tradition in the area, meant to help ensure everyone gets enough to eat in a place where food costs are so high, many often go without.
Dozens of children crowded around the prime minister, who often became overwhelmed by the pressing crowd. But he obliged anyone who asked for a photo, shook many hands and cradled several small babies.
He made brief remarks in the hall, highlighting again the marine protected area announcement. He told the people this measure was being taken to help conserve marine life in the north and also preserve the Inuit way of life.
Most of the locals were not listening closely to his speech. They appeared amused by the spectacle of a visiting prime minister and the entourage of media and staff. They were also distracted by restless children, who wanted to dig into the food laid out in preparation for the feast – trays of bannock and seal among the dishes.
As Trudeau finally made his way out the door, some followed him out, trying to capture a photo or a handshake.
But most remained inside, lining up for their meal and ready to get on with another summer evening in Far North.