Nunavut is the size of Western Europe or all of Mexico, comprising 20% of Canada’s landmass. A statistic like this would typically suggest millions of people, heavy attention on the world stage, and significant development.
But we’re not talking typical here. There are no roads into Nunavut, nor are there roads between any of the 25 communities that make up its town-like population of 35,000 (<0.1% of Canada). Majority Inuit, proudly part of Canada yet largely disconnected from the national conversation, it feels like a different country. Maybe even a different planet: the landscape looks like Mars. No amount of Canadian flags, Tim Hortons, or TVs playing “southern” content can change that. Up here, people pay attention to what’s going on down south, but I can’t say that many of us down south do the same for the north. I found myself needing constant reminders that I hadn’t left the country, even with the words “us foreigners” once slipping out of my mouth. It’s hard to absorb how drastically different Canada can be from coast to coast to coast.
Rankin Inlet (which we had a half-hour layover in, enough time to walk from the single-room airport into town and back and nearly miss our continuing flight) and Iqaluit may be nearly directly east of Yellowknife, but we may as well have flown across the Atlantic to Scandinavia, which shares the same latitude and degree of difference. But other than those colourful houses and the endless summer sunshine, you’d be hard-pressed to say any of it feels like Scandinavia at all. It’s more like… a cold Wild West, in more ways than one, with a couple warps in time.
The unpaved dirt roads most strongly evoke that feeling, with cars and plate-less ATVs (moreso in Rankin than in Iqaluit, but still) zipping around kicking up dust. There aren’t any traffic lights in the entire territory, other than a temporary one used for construction that apparently confused locals for days! The buildings are all on stilts so that heat from inside won’t cause them to melt the permafrost and sink, but Iqaluit’s got a strange mix of old wooden buildings and shacks standing metres from new, occasionally bewildering avant-garde constructions, like the igloo-shaped church or the giant UFO elementary school. Walking by the shore (with the water currently frozen for quite some distance), snowmobiles, ice fishing shacks, shipping containers, boats, and other knick knacks lay scattered around, some clearly unused for a long time, suspended in ice and snow.
All of this is surrounded by…nothing and everything at the same time, as far as the eye can see. The patchy snow-covered hills of the edge of the Canadian Shield, of which Baffin Island forms the northern end. The frozen Frobisher Bay, flat and endless after the shore’s rough ice. You could imagine tumbleweeds in the ever-present wind, if any vegetation grew up here — we’re way past the tree line.
It’s beautiful. And when we stayed up for the midnight sunlight (after an 11 pm “sunset”) and hiked up a hill for the 2:15 am “sunrise”, watching the pink-hued light creep onto the land was certainly worth freezing in the wind and wrecking our sleep schedules for a week — days bleeding together without end and without darkness. While this is the furthest north I’ve ever been, Iqaluit is still south of the Arctic Circle: there’s plenty more land in Canada north of it!
Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, located right next to town and the airport, serves as another quick way to nature. We greatly enjoyed an afternoon walk, watching kids playing in the snow, flying kites, and building inukshuks, overlooking small groups of ptarmigans, hills of lichen, and the frozen namesake river. I didn’t realise how soothing the sound of a melting river could be, the gentle crinkling of small bits of ice knocking each other apart.
On opposite end of town is the neighbourhood of Apex, a half-hour (more like 45 minutes with deep snow to contend with) walk by the shore from downtown. It’s got an edge-of-the-world feel, and the old Hudson Bay Company trading post from 1914 still stands. (In fact, it was this music video from a rather famous band that brought this place to my attention all those years ago.)
Stunning and evocative as it may be here, it’s clear that there’s some ways to go, even in Iqaluit, the most developed settlement of the territory and the only one with a population above 3000. Most buildings have a telltale red light on the side, which when on indicates that it’s out of water: older buildings depend on water tanks that the city fills when it can, which isn’t always possible during poor conditions like a winter storm. The city itself is due to run out of its drinking water supply, currently a small lake reservoir up the hill, in the next five years unless an additional source can be made ready. Garbage is also an issue: open streams often have inexplicable debris like bicycles in them. And of course, across the inlet there’s the overflowing dump, where a two-story deep pit meant for a population of 2000 has turned into a now-dormant “dumpcano” piled high that’s occasionally caught on fire, thanks to an exploding population (now 7700), infrastructure slow to adapt, and limited means to ship garbage out. Lots and lots of totalled cars.
The limited accessibility of Iqaluit greatly affects daily life. In some ways, it can be quirky — gasoline is bought for the entire community twice a year, locking prices to something cheaper than what most of the rest of Canada pays. Amazon Prime shipments make up maybe 80% of the packages handled at the local Canada Post. Internet is expensive, capped, and slow slow slow, even at the best of times (not so much in inclement weather). Flying is like it was back in the 90s, with no airport security and generally empty, comfy flights. On the other hand, the necessity of running frequent flights and the tiny population it serves pushes flight prices to stratospheric heights: if you’re not using airline rewards points like we were, it’s cheaper to fly from Vancouver to New Zealand round-trip multiple times than to fly to Iqaluit. Even the 3.5 hour flight to/from Ottawa, the most popular route, rings up a cool $1500+ round trip on a good day, upwards to $2700. This in turn affects the cost of living: with a limited summer window of shipping supplies, most things are flown up, and even grocery prices are through the roof. Nutrition North, the federal government food subsidy, can’t fully mask the price of healthy foods — never mind more “luxury” items like $6 avocados and $13 cartons of almond milk after the subsidy, or the products the subsidy doesn’t cover. Diets are more meat heavy, like traditional hunted/country food, while restaurant prices are high and skimp on the vegetables. Wages, thus, are accordingly high… mainly if you’re a southerner who’s moved up here for a job. All of this, along with whatever the opposite of an economy of scale is, serves a vicious cycle that drives up all costs, and is a rather obvious deterrent for visitors. Most locals — even an MLA — who talked to us seemed a bit bewildered that we weren’t there for business.
While we sort of struggled to fill time and entertain ourselves for the duration of our five-day stay (owing to the fact that Iqaluit is basically a small town and we had no community connections or ways to get out on the land ourselves), compared to other smaller communities in Nunavut, Iqaluit is the big city, the most accessible window to the world with a faster pace of life. It’s got the only movie theatre in the territory, the only museum, the only cafe, the only liquor store, a rare fitness centre and pool, and an actual (single digit) choice of restaurants and bars. The Royal Canadian Legion acts as a bar/club/karaoke joint, *the* place to be for a night out (and it brings in more money than all other legions in Canada combined). As for goods, virtually everything else in the territory’s probably passed through Iqaluit at some point, and could very well be a bit cheaper in Iqaluit. As with a big city, you’ll also see a surprisingly diverse population in Iqaluit. There’s plenty of southern Canadians here to work, with Quebec probably the largest contingent given the amount of French I heard in town. But there’s a visibly-sized black population (the largest group by far after Inuit and white) with appearances and accents suggesting many as African immigrants, and I heard some Punjabi and Arabic around town too.
So that’s the city and all the people that moved up here. But what of the people of this land? After all, Nunavut was split from NWT in 1999 by a land claim agreement to form a territory for the Inuit.
It’s immediately obvious from the outset: they live their lives and proudly carry their traditions. The culture thrives, hardly needing preservation measures for survival. Inuktitut is written in syllabics (for other language geeks, it’s based off of Devanagari, so if you can read Hindi…) on practically every sign, one of two Inuit dialects sharing official status with English and French in the territory. It’s the primary language of most people, heard most frequently around town, and dominates in debates in the legislature.
Speaking of the legislature (a session of which we visited on a rainy day, listening to live translations by headset), it works in a uniquely northern way: no parties, all independents, and all respectful. In the igloo-shaped room fronted by a narwhal tusk sceptre, most MLAs wore clothes adorned with sealskin or traditional elements, while sitting on chairs of sealskin. Even the guest benches we were on had sealskin cushions. Inuktitut instruction and drum-dancing methods were topics of debate on equal measure alongside transport infrastructure, the yearly budget, and legalisation of cannabis. The day after we visited, they even voted out their premier in a surprise non-confidence motion, then voted in a new one amongst themselves hours later!
As we heard and saw over and over again around town, people really get out on the land. On the frozen bay every day before the spring melt made it too wet, we saw locals take their snowmobiles out or back in, qamutiq (traditional sled) attached and loaded. I overheard a family chat in a diner about their kids’ close call in a front-flipping snowmobile accident, and others talk of their fishing or hunting exploits. You can find that food too: the country food store stocked frozen caribou, muskox, and Arctic char on our visit, with seal and whale available usually during community feasts only. (Unfortunately for us, with no knowledge of how to prepare such meats and low herd numbers this year, we weren’t able to try the former in restaurants despite usually being on the menu.) Seal may be controversial elsewhere, but here it’s an essential part of life, skins being a byproduct of food. No part goes to waste.
While snowmobiles have generally taken over as the winter travel method of choice, traditional dog sledding still lives on, with Canadian Eskimo-breed dog teams still training and being kept at the kennels just outside of town. Alex and I had a go at it, assisting with harnessing, de-harnessing, and feeding the dogs, all of whom are huge and adorable and crave human attention one second… then violent and fighting amongst themselves the next. The moment you yell “Ready!” and get the sled going though? No more drama, they’re all happy to run. We spent four hours on the ice away from the city, admiring the bright evening light (10 pm and still blinding), in awe of being the only beings around with no sounds but the dogs and our sled. (We had hoped to try ski-joring, skiing while harnessed to dogs, but alas, the ice was too wet. Not so sure how traditional this sport is, but we were happy on the sled!)
Traditional craftwork also thrives, and not just in the museum. Soapstone carvings and clothes and figures incorporating sealskin can be seen there in more traditional forms, but works from artists across the territory take on more modern forms in stores. Some artists sell their wares table-to-table in the city’s nicer restaurants.
As our Couchsurfing host Theresa, a Newfoundlander working in the local hospital as a GP, shared with us from her experiences, Inuit family traditions continue as well. Nunavut has the highest birth rate in the country owing to this, and families with 8 or more children aren’t uncommon. Walking around town, I saw plenty of mothers carrying babies in the “hood” of their traditional dress. Some extended families still informally adopt children amongst themselves, leaving no child uncared for.
Unfortunately, traditional and nomadic lifestyles, southern sedentary values, inequality, and a history of institutional disadvantages don’t make the best mix of ingredients for a healthy population. Same with the expensive cost of food (which probably explains the higher-than-usual rate of malnutrition), a housing crisis, and disjointed access to care facilities, some of which necessitate a flight down south. Alcohol (strictly controlled in the territory), addiction, and domestic violence are big problems, and Nunavut has the highest suicide rate in the country. Adding to the difficulty, societal dynamics take a different form in such remote places where people all know each other and communities are small and not easy to get out of, bringing other problems to the fore. In other words, you could go stir-crazy.
It’s an extra hill to climb needing made-in-Nunavut solutions, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism as well. Nunavut has the youngest (averaging 25) and fastest-growing population in Canada, and Iqaluit seems like a land of opportunity. For younger folks, there are plenty of Inuit role models in business, government, and the arts. If you’ve got a creative mind and work hard, chances are you’d fill in one of many gaps. Restaurants, mechanics, construction, equipment suppliers, transport, tourism, services… there’s little that’s fully developed, there’s little competition, and the possibilities are endless. Whatever is established here necessarily needs a local northern twist. There’s an anything-goes attitude here: as one guy I talked to inelegantly but aptly put it, “Throw out the rules, you can do whatever.” If you’re here to stay and you make an effort to integrate, you’d find a supportive, welcoming community, whether you’re Inuk or not. We met plenty of people who moved here, like Theresa and her friends, who can attest to that.
Iqaluit’s gone from tiny backwater town to bustling Wild West and quadrupling its population in less than 20 years, and it feels like watching history in fast forward, as it continues to lead the way in figuring out what Inuit life should look like in the here and now. I’d love to come back and see where it goes in another 20.