The Magnetic North
Writer Ian Brown and photojournalist Peter Power learn that the High Arctic, touted as Canada’s future, is like nothing any southerner expects
Kabloonas on komatiks
T he trick to hunting muskox is to find one. Beyond that, the process is quite simple. At 400 kilograms and 150 centimetres tall, with its sweeping body hair and centre-parted horns, ovibos moschatus looks like a rich cow on its way to opening night at the opera, and is no match for a good shot, a snowmobile and a .308. Under duress, they form an outward-facing circle, as if the next step is dialogue and negotiation.
But you still have to find one. That’s why a writer and a photojournalist from Toronto find ourselves driving southwest across the frozen ice of the Beaufort Sea with our Inuit guides, Clarence Kaiyogana and Roland Eningak, and two Inuit hunters, Bobby Greenley and his 17-year-old son Gavin, ahead of us on snowmobiles. We, the southerners (not always a term of endearment in the North), jolt along behind the snowmobiles on komatiks, low wooden sleds, inhaling exhaust. The noise of the snow machines is a nag, an incessant enormous mechanical drill in the ear. The komatiks catch air off every single rock-knob, tussock and sastruga … and hammer down on the frozen, back-breaking, head-pounding, eye-blurring brick of the tundra five times a minute. I admit there are moments when I think the Inuit are driving this way on purpose.
Oh, and the temperature is -25 C – mild for Cambridge Bay, 500 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and roughly halfway between Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, and Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, all of which together form the vast entity and state of mind known reverentially as the North. It’s late November, the first day of the annual darkness, when the sun does not make it entirely above the horizon. Instead, it peeks over at noon, a semi-depressed Kilroy of the North, oozing pink and orange like a large, cold and, alas, inaccessible tropical drink. Fifty-nine minutes of formal daylight later, the pink begins to bleed away to darkness again. At this time of year, it always feels later than it is.
Every 20 minutes, the hunters pull up on a rise for a smoke and a chat. It’s hard to discern their tracking strategy because the tundra – the holy land the Inuit revere – is, to my eyes, indistinguishable from one place to the next. A rise here. A declivity there. The odd summer shack. Some ice fog. Otherwise, it’s snow and rock and white and snow and rock and white, forever. Like a dream, not a good one.
The Inuit think otherwise. “Hunting’s the best adrenaline,” Gavin says, sucking a cigarette. He's wearing a Knicks tuque. His mitts are polar-bear fur and huge, each the size of first base.
“Better than sex,” his father adds.
Gavin killed his first muskox a week ago. He bagged his first caribou when he was 7.
The journalist interrupts. “How can you tell the difference between the big rocks and a muskox?” I am scanning the horizon with a pair of binoculars.
“Mainly the rocks have snow on ’em,” Clarence, the guide, says. “But once you see a muskox, they barely have any snow on ’em.”
Ah. Sure. Four hours later, we still haven’t spotted a muskox.
But that’s the way it is in the Arctic: What is supposed to be there and what is actually there are rarely the same. The Canadian North is touted endlessly these days as a bottomless source of oil and gas and minerals, as a trove of scientific information about climate and weather, as the arena of an international race for sovereignty and ownership of the North Pole. “The story of the North is the story of Canada,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Canadians last fall, explaining why we must be up there. The Arctic is in its ascendancy, he says, our last frontier, and thus our future. He must be out of his mind.
“You’re literally dealing with a culture up here that’s evolving so quickly that it’s happening before our eyes.”
Still. It might be useful to make our way across the Arctic, along the famous Northwest Passage: If it’s the future, we should see what the future will be like. The answer is (admittedly from the point of view of a month-long visitor, and a puling, soft southerner at that): huge, empty, inhospitable, really cold, ineffably strange, oddly beautiful but thoroughly unromantic, mulishly unmanageable but incessantly optimistic, possibly separatist, and nothing like anything I expected. There is no place on Earth remotely like it. It has its own sense of time and space. Southerners can go there to make money, sometimes a lot of it, but you will do so on the North’s terms, or you will fail.
Many northerners will expect you to fail anyway – or at least to exoticize their world. Journalists are greeted with steady skepticism: “Is this another story about suicide and polar bears?” Sometimes the locals call you kabloona, which technically means “white person” but in common parlance can mean asshole; they might wave their hands in front of their noses as you pass. Sometimes they sound like flag-waving secessionists (“don’t come up here for you”), at others like a nation of Venetian waiters, resentful of the same people they depend on for a living (“come here for us”). No one but a northerner can possibly understand their North, they think.
They have a point. For southern Canadians, the North can seem like an unchanging myth, the vague, comforting but necessary background to the nation’s existence. But both the world and the North have shifted and changed. “Up there” is no longer a place entirely apart, protected from outsiders by cold and distance.
Climate change, along with the emergence of a generation of educated northerners who have seen the outside world and have come back with new ambitions for their homeland – to say nothing of the Western world’s inability to resist any frontier not yet fully exploited – have radically reorganized the apparatus of the Arctic. As Greg Missal, a vice-president of Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., says, “You’re literally dealing with a culture up here that’s evolving so quickly that it’s happening before our eyes.”
Even today, though, hardly anyone from the rest of Canada goes there – only 400 visitors passed through any of the national parks north of the Arctic Circle last year. We can’t understand the evolution of the North if we don’t visit it, can’t grasp the people and places that are changing and the others that are just as fiercely resisting change. Sometimes the two are the same. Because whatever else it is, the Arctic is a rebuke to anyone who thinks he can control the future. That might be the very reason some people call it home.
Walk in and shout hello
I n Arctic hamlets, everyone knows everyone else, and everyone knows whom everyone is related to. The towns spill haphazardly along the shores of bays and inlets, as if a giant packing case had fallen out of the sky, hit the ground and burst open – whereupon people began using the contents where they landed. “Architecture,” in the southern sense of the world, is confined to the odd research building and churches shaped like igloos. Some hamlets don’t have street names; houses have numbers instead. When you do find the house you’re looking for, you never knock: “The only people who do that are the RCMP,” George Qulaut, an MLA in Nunavut, tells me one afternoon in Igloolik. “Everyone else just walks in and shouts hello.”
“In 1960, our culture started evolving into another culture. I’m guessing, but I think it takes a few generations to build another culture.”
We’re sitting in the kitchen of his airy house by the water. He tells me the story of his life, from being born in an igloo to being elected as the MLA for Amittuq region and named speaker of the Nunavut Legislature last fall. The conversation has a pleasantly timeless feel – the Inuit do not use talking points. He remembers his first residential school (he insists it gave him a better education), the year Inuit were allowed to buy liquor (1959), the year federal ballot boxes finally arrived in the Arctic (1962), the year he saw his first Christmas tree (1961, “and it smelled bad”). Like every Inuk over 40 (he’s 60, but looks 15 years younger), he remembers the identification number the Canadian government made him wear on a leather thong (E51285). But the world still felt like it belonged to the Inuit and the Inuit alone. As late as 1971, he remembers his father asking him, “What is Canada? And what is a Canadian?”
Whenever Mr. Qulaut changed his job – from translating to research, from research to working for Inuit organizations to government – he went out on the land. After his mother died, he went out and taught his granddaughter to fish. When his daughter committed suicide and he found her body on the porch of his home, he went out again. He has been making the trek since he was a teenager. The first time, he stayed four months.
Later, he sat on the commissions that in 1999 officially created the territory of Nunavut, making him a living founding father. “In 1960, our culture started evolving into another culture,” he says. “I’m guessing, but I think it takes a few generations to build another culture.” He has no doubt it will happen eventually.
It has quirks, this future. Because of the permafrost, houses in a lot of towns sport individual outdoor water tanks and above-ground septic blocks. The tanks have lights, red and white, and when the tanks need emptying or filling and the lights go on, the water and sewage trucks come round. “There’s no long showers in this world,” a schoolteacher named Patti Bligh explains one evening in Cambridge Bay, “and everyone shares the same bath.” Resolute and Inuvik, on the other hand, are famous for their “utilidors,” a network of above-ground water and sewage pipes enclosed in a continuous cabinet that runs all over town, like a rumour. Subliminally you know you’re never far from a tube of water and human waste. It’s a bracing sensation.
There are no sidewalks in any of the towns, at least in winter, and, as befits a people who were nomadic hunters of no fixed address until 60 years ago, no prescribed paths: Everyone walks where they need to walk, across schoolyards, through empty lots, between houses, along culverts. You see them heading home alone at night in the cold in Arctic hamlets, making their way through shortcuts. With the hoods of their parkas up, their arms held straight out by their winter clothes, they look like monks – an entire people that has taken a vow of harsh, permanent, proving winter.
Megaprojects and mega-paradoxes
T iny hamlets aren’t the only way to live in the Far North. If you want to make more money, you live in a camp.
The first thing you notice as you fly over the boiled-skull whiteness of Baffin Island toward Mary River is that there are no trees, which is why you can’t tell how high you are or how big the terrain is. The second thing you notice is that it doesn’t get any easier on the ground. Baffin Island is as big as California, plus a quarter more. From the air, Baffinland Iron Mines’ Mary River project looks like a paring of fingernail lost on a white carpet.
Still, the $750-million enterprise at Mary River is the biggest thing in the Arctic. The second-biggest thing is the new $300-million road to Tuktoyaktuk from Inuvik, whose construction Mr. Harper inaugurated last week at the western end of the Northwest Passage. Everything’s relative: $300-million is also the size of the subsidy the U.S. government paid to sugar producers from March to mid-October last year. I’ve seen the Inuvik end of the Tuk road. So far, it’s a snowmobile trail. In the artificial economy of the Arctic, however, both projects are bonanzas.
The originally planned $4-billion Baffinland project was pulverized by the financial collapse, but what remains is no piker: 3.5 million tonnes of ore a year, blasted out of the purest iron-ore deposit on Earth, hauled by truck over what is now the longest road on Baffin Island (148 kilometres) to Milne Inlet, and shipped in the three ice-free months of the year to Europe and the blast furnaces of ArcelorMittal, the global steelmaker that helped create Baffinland as a joint venture with a private equity group. It’s an absurdly ambitious undertaking.
The mining camp sits on a bleak plateau so far north the Northern Lights are in the south. It consists of dozens of neatly rowed red, white and tan Weatherhaven Quonset tents, a central island of hard-sided Atco dwellings, and a bazillion sea cans, the steel shipping containers used across the Arctic as outdoor warehouses. The sea-can should be on the Arctic coat of arms. It took nine freighters loaded with supplies last summer to get the camp this far: Three of them carried nothing but 34 million litres of diesel, which run the five dragon-like generators (two running, one backup, two spares) that keep everyone alive. A 737 out of Kitchener has been flying crews in and out at least twice a week via Iqaluit, and the plane is always full.
“They come from a completely different place than we do. Their values are still their families and the land, in ways we still don’t understand.”
Progress is slow. Machines don’t like -40 weather. People wear face warmers, parkas, boots the size of fire hydrants, but no one’s allowed to work outside at that temperature for more than 40 minutes without taking a break. Frostbite is a constant concern. Trucks and loaders are often left running 24 hours a day, to avoid the Goldbergian effort of restarting them (ducts, pipes, batteries, blowers). Employees driving the two-and-a-half-hour road to Milne Inlet require a survival kit and four days’ worth of diesel, in the event of a breakdown in a blizzard. An Arctic blizzard is defined as “extreme” when you can’t see your hand at arm’s length in front of your face.
The hearth of the camp is the kitchen-dining room and the adjacent rec room – long, half-pipe-shaped rooms lined with white vinyl and fluorescent lights. It’s like living inside a fridge, except that the freezing’s on the outside. The bedroom tents sleep four but they’re noisy: The ultra-dry snow squeaks like a team of cheerleaders when anyone walks by.
People come for the money. A couple working the camp together can pull $250,000 a year (a fifth of the campers are women). On the other hand, a return flight from Cambridge Bay to Toronto is $2,300. Very soon, there will be 500 people here. Five hundred jobs for $750-million is not the most efficient job-creation ratio, but that is the megaproject way: 12-hour shifts on a two-weeks-in, two-weeks-out rotation.
Because 85 per cent of the people in Nunavut are Inuit, the Nunavut government wants 85 per cent of jobs to be held by Inuit. Only 30 per cent of Baffinland’s spots are, the company admits. “A lot of people up here don’t have a lot of education or skills,” says Mr. Missal, the Baffinland vice-president. “You take a lot of trouble to develop it.”
Baffinland introduces its Inuit employees to the basics of contemporary capitalism via a two-week program, teaching them how to open a bank account and use an ATM and direct deposit (instead of cashing cheques for exorbitant fees at the North Mart or the Co-op, the only two stores that service most Arctic hamlets). Tony Woodfine, the mine manager, had doubts the program would be embraced, but an Inuit woman recently told him that learning to budget saved her marriage.
Cynthia Panipak is one of Baffinland’s newly minted capitalists, just about to turn 29 and recently certified to haul rock in an articulated dump truck for $62,000 a year. Shy, precise, dark-haired, she’s the model modern Inuk: takes the job seriously, shows up for work on time (not something that can be said of all her fellow Inuit), never talks while she’s driving – a blown tire on one of the biggest loaders can run $20,000 to replace, and needs to be ordered a year-and-a-half ahead of time.
“I love it,” she tells me one morning. “Working out in the field, not in the office.” It is 8 a.m., pitch black, -30, and we’re five metres in the air in the cab of a giant dump truck, waiting for a massive front-end loader to drop 40 tonnes of rock in the truck bed. I admit this gives me a childish thrill.
Back in Clyde River, however, on her fortnight off, Ms. Panipak is the opposite of a capitalist. There she hunts for seals, which means standing stock still on the ice for 10 freezing, freaking hours. She’ll know if the ice is thick enough by jabbing it three times with her harpoon. If she gets a seal, she’ll share the meat with her family and any of Clyde River’s 820 residents who need some, as is the long-standing custom. A big seal is a day or two of food for five families. She’ll give the skin to her grandmother, who’s making someone a pair of kamiks.
All this – the modern trucks, the harpooned seal, the new bank account, the handmade boots – happen at the same time in the 21st-century Arctic. The federal subsidy of the NWT in 2013-2014 will amount to $26,773 per person; in Nunavut the number will be $39,377. It’s $1,464 in Ontario. A lot of southerners look at those numbers and say to the Inuit, We own you – you have to decide between a traditional life and the modern world. But in the North that distinction means nothing.
The strange thing is that the camp works as an air lock in both directions, both into the thicker atmosphere of the south, and also out of it. One afternoon up on the ore deposit, 100 feet above the camp, the wind is blowing 30 kilometres an hour. (It’s twice as cold as it was anywhere in the south during the recent “polar vortex.”) You can stand it for about three seconds. Then it feels as if rogue bacteria are eating your face alive. The sensation is unbearable. This isn’t a temperature at which you want to be surveying or taking notes or packing explosives or dialling a phone. Drill bits have been snapping in the cold. I mention to Jason Paterson, the project’s materials handling supervisor – a tough, funny guy from Kapuskasing, Ont. who has worked in mines all over the world – something Mr. Woodfine said: “If those generators went out, we’d have to leave in three hours. Or else we’d be dead.”
Mr. Paterson nods. “And the Inuit have lived here for what? Four thousand years?” He shakes his head. Many of the southerners who travel up every two weeks consider it a privilege to be working among the northern people, even if they don’t talk about it much.
What no one in the camp knows is how long the megaprojects will produce and what lasting benefits they’ll leave behind. Canada’s first mine in the Arctic, the Nanisivik zinc-lead grab, opened in 1976 and closed permanently in 2002 because of low metal prices. Its mess is still being cleaned up, and the federal government’s much-vaunted plans to transform it into a deep-water military port have foundered. The Polaris zinc operation north of Resolute lasted only 20 years. Supporters justify the Tuk road in NWT by saying it will make everything cheaper. We’ll see. The Deh Cho bridge across the Mackenzie was supposed to do the same thing, and hasn’t, and the Dempster Highway hasn’t lowered the price of anything in Inuvik. I’m not trying to be a downer; it’s just that the North always exacts its price, and the price is often unpredictable.
Nunavut’s land-claim agreement is supposed to change all that, and train local people to profit from their own mines and exploit their own territory on their own terms. But the Inuit and Inuvialuit of Canada’s North are still hunters, not settlers.
One day, for instance, Dorothy Edwards, the head of the camp kitchen, lays out a tray of “country food” for the local workers: crosshatched slivers of maktaaq (narwhal blubber: black skin, pink flesh, tastes like flavourless gum, but produces a noticeable swell of warmth in the stomach); tuktu (raw caribou, semi-frozen, sometimes dipped in soy sauce); and raw iquluk (char). The Inuit fall on it with almost unseemly relish. “I haven’t had caribou meat in quite a while,” says Alexandra Ungalaq, an otherwise shy 25-year-old dishwasher from Igloolik, slipping another sliver of crimson caribou between her lips. “It makes me feel whole again.” Then she starts digging the marrow out of the caribou bones.
Ms. Edwards, from Peterborough, Ont., works for Qikiqtani Industry Ltd., an Iqaluit company that trains Inuit to take over southern-style jobs. “Technically I’m here to train someone into my job. But it’ll be a while before that happens.” In seven years, Ms. Edwards has produced only three cooks who have stuck with it, and not for lack of trying – she currently has 15 in training. She wonders how keen Inuit are to emulate the southern addiction to working for pay in careers that last years and years. “They come from a completely different place than we do,” she says. “Their values are still their families and the land, in ways we still don’t understand.” In the sunless winter, when the temperature is steadily under -40, “they come in and say, ‘Why do you want to come in so early when it’s cold and dark? The thing to do is stay in bed and read a book.’ Because that’s what they do when it’s really cold and really dark. In the summer [when the sun doesn’t set], they play basketball 24 hours a day, yahooing all over the place. Maybe that is the way to live.”
The Prime Minister is keen to transform the North. But everyone up here asks the same question: How much do I want to be like a southerner? Even the southerners.
Riding the white whale
I t’s the gravity of the landscape and the climate that frightens and stops you, the inarguable possibility of deadly exposure everywhere you look. This is the limit of our geography and our capability. In November, there is only white – all colour and no colour, as Herman Melville said, with flecks of stone grey tossed in with no pattern, somehow magnifying the terrifying abstractness of what we are and what we hope to be. The Arctic is our whale (or even our muskox), life reduced to its unforgiving essence. When it isn’t white, it’s black. You’re always planning your next move, your nearest exit to safety, your reply.
The coldest it gets while I’m up here is -54 C, which feels as if your face is on fire, as if some sadist is broiling your cheeks with a blowtorch. Even on an average day, one or another appendage is always dead numb, and warming it up once you’re cold is almost impossible. All my pens keep freezing. An early temptation was to throw my coat on and do it up as I stepped outside, as I would in Toronto, but that’s always a mistake – by the time you get your zipper up, your core temperature is having a panic attack. Icicles on my eyelashes freeze my eyelids shut.
For a trek or snowmobile ride of any length, I wear long underwear; Polartec pants; down-filled snow pants; a shirt; a massive seven-pound, knee-length Woods down parka; a balaclava; a stout wool hat; liner gloves, plus forearm-length synthetic-down-filled leather gauntlets; burly wool socks; boot liners; and a pair of knee-high, foam-lined Baffin snow boots tested to -40 C. I feel like a three-year-old, like an articulated footstool, but I have to admit it gives me a sense of accomplishment to be able to go out in any weather and not feel cold. I often pull up my parka’s hood, but that reduces my field of vision to the size of a saucer, radically increasing my odds of being flattened by a speeding pickup or zooming snowmobile.
People drive fast on the roads in the Arctic. For a while, I think this is because there’s so few roads. Then I climb on a snowmobile myself, one that has been sitting outside all night, and speed away. Suddenly, I am a god. I no longer have to walk through the cold – I can ride, the faster the better. All I am missing is any sensation whatsoever in my rectum.
Complicated kindnesses and complex cruelties
E verything in the North is isolated – there are no roads connecting any of the 25 communities in Nunavut to one another – so everything is complicated. In Resolute, the second most northerly non-military community in the Arctic, locals warn visitors not to walk outside alone because of polar bears (I saw four warming themselves around a fire at the dump). Ralph Alexander, the postmaster – he’s in his 60s, and looks exactly like your idea of a postmaster – advises people on shipping, a subject whose complexity in the North rivals string theory.
“It’s not rational,” he sighs. Why is some air freight out of Ottawa $13 a kilo, whereas some Canada Post rates are $8? Mr. Alexander has spent $10 to ship a video game, but a teacher importing a five-by-five-foot subfreezer she bought online from Wal-Mart is paying $5.
The inconsistencies of the south toward the North are nothing new to Mr. Alexander, who first came to the Arctic in 1974, the year Resolute got TV. (An actual channel to watch showed up 18 months later.) “There’s some stuff starting to happen now,” he says – the Department of Defence’s Arctic Training Centre, a showpiece of the federal government’s sovereignty play, has run exercises that brought 1,100 troops into Resolute – “but the federal government used to throw money at you. Now they don’t throw anything at you. They want people here because of ‘sovereignty,’ but then they go and make the food more expensive.”
“In 100 years, the number of people on the land who can survive the way their fathers did will be fewer.”
People make money anyway, but the process takes time, and isn’t predictable. Aziz Kheraj, originally from Tanzania, arrived in Resolute in 1978 at the age of 24 and married an Inuk. (There are Somalis in Iqaluit and Kenyans in Yellowknife. The North is more diverse than many southern cities.) Thirty-five years later, he owned two hotels, a construction company, and the town’s much-envied fuel distribution franchise (Resolute swallows five million litres of diesel and up to three million of jet fuel a year). He sold his entire empire last spring to Atco Ltd. for $12-million. “I’m 59 now,” he says. “It’s time to retire.”
He thinks it still will be 40 years before Nunavut approaches NWT economically. The population of Resolute was 400 when he arrived; it’s 250 today, because of the collapse of oil and gas exploration. Other changes are more permanent: The sea ice melts sooner, and comes in later, which shortens the hunting season from nine to six months a year, which changes the culture.
“It is sad because the younger generation has less skills than the older generation, in the traditional way,” he tells me one morning in the sprawling, multi purpose building he calls a hotel. (It’s like bunking down in a Home Hardware store crossed with a suburban furniture showroom.) “But it’s evolution. What you do is not what your father did. So times are changing. In 100 years, the number of people on the land who can survive the way their fathers did will be fewer.”
Complication is such a common feature of life in the Arctic that locals don’t even see it: It simply runs beneath the surface of daily existence, a root of existential absurdity. To save money on food and supplies, most people “sealift” them in by freighter in July, although late August isn’t unheard of if the ice is slow to melt. You order a year’s supply of everything at once – toilet paper, cereal, razor blades, dog food. … Imagine that shopping list. Every apartment in Iqaluit comes with a sealift closet. When (not if) people run out of something, or want a leaf of lettuce, they’re stuck going to the Arctic Co-op or the stores operated by NorthWest Stores Ltd. There they can pay (to use Inuvik as an example) $25.86 for a 1.7-kilogram chicken or $34.29 for 3.2 kg of UltraTide. The prices go up as supplies go down, as you get closer to the next sealift. The federal Attorney-General is currently auditing shipping practices in the North, with a report due in the fall. It will not reinforce anyone’s faith in human or corporate nature.
Isolation also complicates everyone’s health. One morning while I am in Igloolik, a pair of 30-week twins is born prematurely to an Iglulingmiut named Shannon (she doesn’t want her family name publicized). Women pregnant with twins are always flown to Ottawa, because not even Iqaluit’s hospital is equipped for serious complications. But the twins are a month early. That means Sylvie Goyer, the nurse-in-charge at Igloolik’s medical centre, has to find a GP and a pediatrician up on rotation from the south in Iqaluit, fly them 854 kilometres to Igloolik from Iqaluit, then find a Medevac flight to take the babies from Igloolik to Ottawa, along with a second travelling incubator, because there isn’t one in Igloolik or Iqaluit. The nurses deliver Baby A at 8:50 a.m.; Baby B is transverse, but luckily arrives 20 very tense minutes later. The doctors roar in just after 11, to supervise their intubation and care.
By 11:15 a.m., both infants are being hand-respirated in little plastic warming bags: They look like small pork tenderloins. They are making tiny squelching cries, like dogs whimpering: According to Inuit legend, that whimper is a word, one uttered by ancient virgin Inuit goddesses when they first lay in the mud of the earth – meaning, “What has happened to our world?”
Everyone in the delivery room is still in snow boots, and the doctors have their snow pants fetchingly unpopped for ventiliation under their hastily tied surgical gowns. The Medevac team finally arrives from Rankin Inlet, complete with a tiny stuffed polar bear in a spare incubator, at 11:45 a.m.
“It’s so stressful,” Ms. Goyer says. “We have to do everything.” But she seems quite proud regardless.
Through all this, the 28-year-old Inuk mother sits to the side on a gurney, her small, skinny husband leaning into her. Shannon’s mother, Jacintha Tulugajuk, has been waiting in the hall with Taylor, Shannon’s daughter, having flown up with the docs from Iqaluit this morning. Jacintha’s husband isn’t here because he is working 1,600 kilometres away, in Yellowknife. She has had six children of her own, one of whom drowned at 7 and another of whom she adopted out to her aunt, because her aunt had no children. “So I adopted two” – one from her son, and one from her sister-in- law. Every Inuit family I meet has engaged in these casual but binding adoptions.
Cindy Bourgault, one of the nurses who delivered the twins, followed another ancient and still common Inuit practice last spring when her own son was born, even though she grew up in Brampton, Ont.: She and her husband (white, also from Ontario) named their baby after the deceased son of an Inuit elder in Igloolik, a young man who had been murdered. The elder is now convinced Ms. Bourgault’s son knows they share this connection.
It’s all very complicated, but the result is simple. “His kids come and visit us all the time, because we gave that name to him,” she says. She doesn’t know if she believes what the Inuit believe, that a spirit lives on, “but I think it’s an excellent way for the kids to cope. And so I’m going with it.”
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.
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.
Around the next bend
T he afternoon I arrive in Cape Dorset, where “Eskimo” prints and art were first developed at the artists’ co-op created by James Houston and Terry Ryan in the 1950s and 1960s, everyone is out of the office: A local man, a 62-year-old accordionist named Qaapik Pudlat, has died, and the entire town, it seems, is attending his funeral.
I wander by the Anglican church. There are at least 300 people inside the circular building (the Inuit prefer curves to corners), a lot of them crying. There is something ancient about it: They live in a tiny community in a harsh land, and one of their number has dropped from the phalanx holding the harshness at bay. No one takes his parka off (God forbid if you lost it), and kids roam at will. When people chorus “Amen,” they pronounce it “Ahmain.” Martha Jaw, the Pentecostal pastor leading the service, tells the congregation that grief is a big emotion, one we often don’t understand, but that God has a set time period for mourning: eventually he gives us a way out.
Later, when I approach Pastor Jaw, she insists we talk in a raging windstorm on top of a hill next to an inukshuk, the stone figures Inuit use to mark the landscape. She’s wearing traditional Inuit clothing and is very warm. I am a block of ice. I think she’s trying to teach me a lesson: Do not think you know what is good for us because we choose to live the way we do.
Back at the artists’ co-op, Tim Pitsiulak is one of the few people who wasn’t at the funeral. “I’m making a drawing of walruses,” he says. (His whales adorn Canada’s new commemorative 25-cent piece and a $3 silver coin.) He pauses. There is a lot of pausing when an Inuk talks. “I hunt these walruses, too.” He bagged two last month, 80 km down the coast in an open canoe, and is going out again tomorrow. “Depending how many hunters are on the boat, we share the catch. Then we announce on the radio that there’s walrus meat at our house. And the community comes by.”
“Really?” I say. “On the radio?”
“Oh, yeah,” Mr. Pitsiulak says. People in the North play bingo on the radio too. They buy cards at the Co-op, listen to the caller on the air, and call in on their land lines if they get a bingo. You can see them playing in their kitchens in the evening as you walk by. They use land lines because there’s no cellphone service in small hamlets such as Cape Dorset.
As for the walrus, they boil it, or eat it raw, or bury it raw to ferment in walrus hide in a hole on a limestone beach, and dig it up months later, and eat it as a treat. It smells like toe jam and tastes like radioactive Roquefort cheese. According to my sources, walrus meat makes you fart like a shift whistle for days on end.
Carving out a place
T oonoo Sharkey, an up-and-coming carver in Dorset, is at home with Mary, his wife; her daughter Oloosie, who’s 22; and three of his six kids (the youngest a child of one year), all jammed into a five-by-eight-foot living room watching a VHS of Turbo that cost $59 at the store. “And after that we’re going to watch Man of Steel,” says Mary – a bargain at $54.
Mr. Sharkey supports them all, plus his parents’ and Mary’s extended families in their various homes, about 40 people in all, almost entirely on carving, at which he makes $150,000 a year. In the summers, Mr. Sharkey’s family moves out onto the land to his wife’s mother’s cabin, but in the winters the three-bedroom house is all they have – they are trying to get a four-bedroom, but you have to apply and fill out forms, and you can’t move if you owe any money.
By now we’re standing in his backyard, in the freezing dark, under an arc light, talking about money as he shapes a 40-pound lump of greenish serpentine stone ($2 a pound at the Co-op) with a hatchet and an electric drill. He had a chance to buy a house in the early 1990s for $15,000. “My wife really wanted that house,” he says. “But it was old.” He figures he’s getting old too. He’s 43.
He turns back to carving. “I don’t think about making money,” he adds. “When it’s completely done, only then I think about money.” He’s a nice guy – short, skinny, glasses, long hair, thick forearms. He seems to care about everything, and perhaps wishes he didn’t. His son steps out to watch for a while in a golf shirt; I can hear another carver with a power tool at another pitch across the street and down a hill. All this at 7:30 on a Friday night. Then Mr. Sharkey sits down, lights a cigarette and looks at the stone. He starts carving again. He does that for another hour-and-a-half, and then heads to bed.
By 10 the next morning he’s at it again, and four hours later it’s finished: a leaping fish, with a startled look as it sprouts a set of wings. In Toronto, galleries will want $4,000 for it.
“Today’s system, it’s all about hunting money,” the director and producer Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen) points out to me one day, smoking in his office in Iglookik. “We have to learn how to hunt money. Whether we’re going to be a heavy-equipment operator, or do office work, or what we do best, as a filmmaker, to go after funds, because there’s a lot of money out there.” He lights another cigarette. “We have to be like you. We have to smell where the money is. If it’s a fresh seal breathing hole, you stand on it. If it’s an old one, you don’t. It’s basically the same.”
“Our people are very in tune,” Nellie Cournoyea, the former journalist, NWT premier and land-claims negotiator who was once a pal of Pierre Trudeau’s and is now a great friend of Stephen Harper’s, says to me a few days later in the office of the local craft market in Inuvik. She’s pricing a couple of moose hides as I arrive. “So we do what we have to do to survive.” After all, hunters have throughout history have been practical types, realists. The Inuvialuit in NWT want land to hunt on, but they also need a pipeline to exploit their huge reserves of oil and gas in ways they can live with. “I think the biggest challenge is to keep the control in the hands of the right people,” Ms. Cournoyea says.
And who are the right people? She says it as I’m leaving, after my notebook is put away: “If you want to know who should have a say in the future of the North, go look at the names in the graveyard. People from the south do not get buried here. People from here do.”
She’s in no rush, in any event. “You in the south talk about human time and space. We don’t think about it that way. Our space is vast, and time for us stretches over centuries.”
Northern Lights, ancient and new
E ventually you have to write about the Northern Lights, because once you see them you can’t help yourself. For me, it happens in Cambridge Bay, after a meal of caribou stew, walking across the sea ice with Ms. Bligh, the teacher, and her two Inuit foster children, Mindy and Brandy. The spectacle washes across the southwest sky. Brandi says to her foster mother, in a laughing, warning voice, “They make you crazy!” We stay for more than an hour, the green spikes springing suddenly out of the blackness of the sky like a fence erected to protect the meaning of the Arctic.
Of course, it’s not a fence: It’s an electrochemical reaction, the result of solar wind blowing over and being pulled back into the magnetic polarity of the Earth. The geography of the Arctic doesn’t mean anything, exactly: It’s a place, albeit with a very demanding climate and terrain. But the place and the geography created a stark history, and a vibrant communal culture, and a brave, resourceful people, from the meek and careful Tunit who never used dogs through the fierce Thule Inuit who emigrated from Alaska and beyond, to the modern Inuit in all their proud confusion – and all three deserve to be treated with at least as much respect as the Arctic’s resources. The outside world gets interested in the Arctic when it has nothing more pressing to do. This was certainly the case in the late 1500s with Martin Frobisher and again after the First and Second World Wars. Perhaps it’s still that way today. Perhaps it isn’t. As an Inuk would say, it’s too soon to tell.
Either way, a new generation is taking up the North’s cause. The new crowd tends to be between the ages of 25 and 45; they’ve all spent time away from the North, seeing the world; and they all want to come back. Dorothy Angnatok is a classic example: At 24, she has reduced suicides in Nunatsiavut (formerly northern Quebec) by giving teenage boys the job of distributing seal meat in their communities. They suddenly have a role, and a publicly acknowledged one. This is an idea that grew out of the place, not out of a government program.
Kirt Ejesiak, one of only two Inuit from Nunavut to have attended Harvard, is building homes in Iqaluit, trying to localize an economy that has always been dominated by outsiders. (He turned down the chance to be Baffinland’s point man in Iqaluit: “Once you’re that guy, you’re always that guy.”) He is more optimistic about international development in the North via the Arctic Council and the Inuit Circumpolar Council – organizations spawned in the North, by northerners – than he is in southern mega projects. He has also run for office more than once.
Others are outsiders. Iman Kassam, raised in Toronto by Kenyan parents, came to Yellowknife, as she says many others do, “to get a sense of themselves.” She works as a journalist. She likes the North for its adventure – she almost fell through the ice recently, living with her girlfriend on a houseboat – but also because it’s small enough that she and her generation might one day set some of the priorities. “It’s easy to find yourself here. And it’s especially easy to find people who won’t judge you.”
David Joanasie, Nunavut’s newly elected youngest-ever MLA (he’s 30), is the poster boy for the new generation. Raised in Cape Dorset, Mr. Joanasie finished school, volunteered in Botswana and Saint John, N.B., and worked his way up through a series of government jobs and local and national Inuit organizations. “I’m trying to set myself as an example of someone who has travelled outside of the territory,” he says, pointing to his stretch in Ottawa at Nunavut Sivuniksavut, a two-year affirmative action-style program designed to help Inuit graduates find jobs and opportunities in Nunavut and the Nunavut government. “People need to learn more about the whole history behind the situation we are in today.”
Four hundred people have now graduated from that program – a significant number up here. “There’s 120,000 people who live in the entire North,” says Steve Ellis, Northern Senior Associate of Tides Canada, an advocacy group with an office in Yellowknife, and himself a member of the new Arctic “It” crowd. “It’s a big small town.” There are also whisperings of a secret movement among the newbies to move past the consensus model of government used in Nunavut toward party politics, complete with a slate in the next election.
That would make their dream – a modern economy and old, traditional values – that much easier to implement, at least up North. Whether they will manage it, or simply become an educated upper class that colonizes the North in its own way, remains to be seen. But “the Inuit are now getting angry and speaking out,” Mr. Ellis says.
The irony is that the ideals of the North’s new crowd are the same values moderates espoused a generation ago in southern Canada: stewardship of the environment, compassion for elders, a balanced approach to development, respect for wildlife, modesty and humility. “There is a Canadian value system,” says Sara French, program director of the Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation, and herself a prominent 27-year-old member of the Arctic hopefuls. “Or at least I’m young enough that I want there to be a Canadian value system.”
What better place to keep it fresh than in the deep chill of the Canadian Arctic?
'Oxy Musko, get ready to die'
W e never do see a muskox. Finally, as the sun oozes back below the horizon at 2:30 p.m., the snow machines turn around, and the jolting, drunken komatiks follow. An hour later, we thump into Cambridge Bay. I feel as if I’ve been dragged 80 kilometres behind a pickup on a long rope, and then asphyxiated.
There is an old Inuit belief that one must not abuse the animal one wants to hunt in any way, for fear of payback. Perhaps I ought not to have danced around my hotel room before we left, singing the jaunty hunting song I made up: “Oxy Musko, get ready to die!”
“Being different from the south and knowing we have to survive. Southern teenagers get off school at minus-20, and we have to wait until it’s minus-60. It just shows that we try more and that we can push through it.”
To me, the day has been a failure. But then Bobby Greenley and his son Gavin, my hunting companions, come for breakfast the next day, and we spend the entire time talking about the hunt. Gavin does it for the same reason he watches hockey – to be with his dad – but he’s proud to do it, too, and considers it important. It’s a matter of endurance: “Being different from the south and knowing we have to survive. Southern teenagers get off school at -20, and we have to wait until it’s -60. It just shows that we try more and that we can push through it.” Gavin has been to Europe with Ms. Bligh, but this is his culture, one that’s been around, more or less unchanged, for millennia. “You can’t just put it aside and not try.”
Anyway, he says, it doesn’t matter that we didn’t get a muskox.
“Really?” This is me speaking. I am a southerner, after all. I measure time in the here and now, and success by what I have to show for it.
“Just getting out and coming back,” Bobby says. “That’s the main thing. You get anything in between, that’s a bonus.” Perhaps that’s how I should see my trip to the High Arctic – or any southern project in the middle of someone else’s land.
After he killed his first muskox, Gavin thought about the animal incessantly. The muskox was dying for his benefit, so he tried to do it humanely. He tries to shoot caribou in the neck, because his people eat the head, and the stomach, and even the contents of the stomach. Gavin has tasted that delicacy with his grandpa Peter.
“I’ve never had it,” Bobby says, shaking his head.
Gavin looks at his father.
“That surprises you?” I ask.
“Yeah!” the boy says, smiling. “I thought he would’ve!”
He looks secretly pleased. He has done with his father and grandfather what they have done with their fathers and grandfathers – and he’s even gone a little further. He’s still a fish, but now he’s a fish with wings. Up here, that might be enough, if he’s allowed to believe it.
Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, and the author of the award-winning memoir The Boy in the Moon.
Peter Power is a four-time National Newspaper Award-winning photojournalist.