Sunday, December 19, 2010

An arctic adventure

The following is from a friend of mine who has gone to work in Igloolik - the tiny village in Igloolick island north of Hudson's Bay. I thought you might enjoy a true winter story! If you "google" Igloolik - you'll find pictures of the village and of the things my friend is talking about:
When I first stepped off the plane in Igloolik I thought the airport looked a bit like a garden shed in the middle of a gravel beach.  It was a bit like landing on the moon, and in four months little has changed to make me feel any different.

If you look up – way up on a map of Canada, past the tree line and the Arctic Circle, you will find the Inuit Hamlet of Igloolik on a little island in the middle of nowhere.  Hooper Inlet is to the West; Fury and Hecla Straight is to the Northeast; and Foxe Basin is to the South.  At its widest point, the island is 19 Km long. Igloolik is the only community.

For four thousand years semi-nomadic Inuit have been in this region fishing Arctic char, and hunting caribou, walrus, seal and beluga. When I asked my Inuk friend Theo where he grew up, I thought he would point to Kugluktuk, Qikiqtarjuaq, or Sanikiluaq. Instead, he drew a circle around a huge area around the Melville Peninsula and Baffin Island. “This whole area is my home,” he said. He pointed to a dozen places that were his family’s “main camps”, adding that he comes from a large family that is famous from the Keewatin to Greenland for their skill as walrus hunters.  “I was born in an igloo right here in Igloolik, and before I was sent to residential school I lived everywhere.” Theo is as happy telling me about the time he travelled with his family to Greenland by dog team, as he is recounting his latest trip to New York City to see a show. Like most Inuit in Igloolik, he balances the modern world on a traditional world view and a foundation of ancient values.

Igloolik is a tiny blip on the shores of Turton Bay. Population 2000, and as many sled dogs. A few of the roads have nicknames like “Beach Road” which coincidentally runs parallel to the beach, and “Young Street” which is a tongue in cheek tribute to Toronto. Otherwise we navigate the maze of frozen roads using major landmarks such as the Blue Building, or the Mushroom, or the bridge you don’t cross in winter, and most intersections have a skull of some sort prominently displayed as a marker. “Take a right at the beluga skull, and a left at the second walrus.” We have one water truck, one sewage truck that works and one that is broken, and a brand new Zamboni.  The roads in summer are hard packed dust, and in winter are wind packed snow and ice that the children skate on. There are two grocery stores where for $10 you can buy 3 bars of Ivory soap or a small bag of onions; for $24 you can buy 1.8 L or Ocean Spray cranberry juice; for $27 you can get a 12 of diet Coke; or once or twice each year you can get a frozen “bucket of KFC” for…drum roll… $60.  If you can get it, “country food” is more nutritious than anything the stores sell. We have a local circus that performs at the “Igloolik Playhouse” (i.e. elementary school) and around the world, an 18 hole golf course (on the tundra in summer, and on the ice in winter), and a prestigious film industry, which among its many accomplishments produced The Fast Runner ( Shoveling your driveway involves using a saw to cut out igloo building blocks and tossing them aside. The “dark season” lasts from late November until the mid-January. Gradually, the sun’s rays will claw their way above the frozen horizon until we have 24 hour daylight in May. These days the temperature dips regularly to minus 42 C. The wind gusts to 50 km/hr daily, which is consistent with the first piece of Inuit traditional knowledge or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) my friend Moshi shared with me, “The wind never dies. It only changes direction.”

The second piece of IQ that I learned was, “If you hear gunfire, duck.” Although this was imparted originally in the context of standing too close to the shoreline during a beluga hunt in September, it has been especially useful in town this week. Yes, it is illegal to shoot in town, and most people don’t. Still, these days everyone is driving around on their skidoos with a rifle slung over one shoulder. All with good reason… like many communities in the North, Igloolik has a polar bear roaming around town. Our bear is most likely a juvenile male wandering around before heading off onto the ice. The hunters have been tracking him to chase him away. When they heard he had torn a wall off a house they reacted calmly saying, “He is probably just bored.” Nevertheless, everyone was taking it seriously because it can be very dangerous to have a large, hungry carnivore roaming around. His paws leave massive, sasquatch-like prints in the snow. Each paw print is the size of a large dinner plate. Every time I step outside, I feel like a glorified seal. I dare the person who protests on the Hill dressed as a seal to try doing that here for a day… let me know how it goes, okay?

In four months living in Igloolik, I have learned a great deal about theNunavut Land Claims Agreement, the effects of warming in the North, the impacts of development on the landscape and the Inuit culture, and the enormity of the challenges facing Canada’s Arctic, its wildlife and its people.  In 21 years working in wildlife conservation and policy with federal, provincial and now territorial governments, this is the first time that the definition of sustainable development has lost all abstraction. In Canada’s North there is no hiding the linkages between the environment, the economy and social well being. This experience has opened my eyes and renewed my conviction about the importance of public policy, and renewed my faith in the dedication of government bureaucrats who are working to make positive, lasting change.

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