RESOLUTE BAY, Canada, 2011 – In 2009, Canada’s Governor General Michaelle Jean attended a ceremony in Nunavut, part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, at which a seal was slit open, its heart removed and presented to her as the guest of honour. In a demonstration of respect for her hosts she ate the heart – raw.
Not surprisingly, but somewhat disappointingly, Ms. Jean and the Inuit people with whom she shared the seal with were roundly derided by the international press as barbarians. A Haitian refugee who came to Canada at the age of 11, Jean is an accomplished and respected journalist and broadcaster who holds four different degrees from some of the top university’s in the world. She is hardly a barbarian and it also worth noting that both her predecessor and Prince Charles had previously partaken in raw seal meat in the Arctic. For Jean, it was simply a matter of following etiquette and showing respect to the indigenous people.
The incident was still fresh in my mind as I found myself on a First Air flight from Ottawa to Resolute Bay, the northern most settlement in the Canadian Arctic. The plan was to hook up with a ship that had an ice-hardened hull and would allow us to trace the North West passage, stopping at remote villages along the way. There was no single motivation for making this trip. I was certainly interested in seeing a pivotal part of the globe before climate change and the race for resources completely changed it. But I had also recently started to split my breathing time between the smog of Hong Kong and the pristine air of a small village nestled in the mountains of central Bali and had become intrigued by how an ancient civilization had maintained its traditions, and the people their dignity, in spite of the onslaught of tourists and the introduction of the trappings of the modern world.
I knew that the indigenous population in the southern, inhabited parts of Canada had been decimated by our attempts to assimilate them. They were, for the most part, trapped in a no-man’s land. They had largely lost their language and traditions and were still unable to integrate entirely into Canadian society because of the extreme prejudice they faced but also because they were as much out of place in our world as we would have been if we were forced to live in theirs.
Frankly I was hoping that somehow the ice-choked Arctic might have insulated the Inuit from the broader influences of the south and that I might find pockets of people who had maintained large semblances of their old way of life. Perhaps there might yet be a bit of Bali tucked away beyond the tundra and the frigid northern seas.
When you look at a map of Canada you are deceived into thinking the flight to the far north would be much shorter than a flight from the east to the west coast. It’s not. The vast majority of Canada is a massive, hostile, barren land largely devoid of people. In fact, all but a very small number of Canadians live within a few hundred kilometres of the US border because most of the land beyond that is considered uninhabitable. And as you move further north, even beyond the small mining outposts and into the Arctic regions, the population is even sparser with slightly over 100,000 permanent residents.
In spite of modern technology, permanent settlement in the Canadian Arctic presents challenges that for most of the year would be similar to attempting to establish a base on another planet. Strip away our supply ships, and we’d be dead within days.
Sashimi aside, this encounter was an ominous sign of what was to come in my quest to find my Arctic Bali…
Those who choose to brave an Arctic winter endure months of complete darkness and temperatures that are frequently below minus 30 degrees Celsius as well as a suicide-inducing landscape completely void of any vegetation.
For those who live in these remote settlements, it is imperative that their shopping list be thorough and comprehensive. Everything you need – and I do mean everything – must be shipped in during the summer window when the ice opens enough to allow ocean freight into the region. There are no ‘Ice Truckers’ when you get this far north.
Most items in the trading post shops are at least double the prices that you would pay in southern Canada. Should you run out of something come winter, airfreight is the only option and the exorbitant charges feature items like a tiny tube of toothpaste for ten dollars.
I found out first hand when a speeding boat off the coast of one village intercepted our ship. We assumed there must be some sort of emergency so we slowed to let them approach. However, we soon found out that their panic was inspired by nothing more than the depletion of their storage of soft drinks. The next supply ship was some weeks away so they were anxious to barter our stock of soda for fresh fish. While we did not do the trade, we did purchase some fresh Arctic Char, which was carved into some of the best sashimi I have ever eaten. But sashimi aside, this encounter was an ominous sign of what was to come in my quest to find my Arctic Bali.
At every outpost we stopped, it seemed like the Inuit culture was sliding down a greased rope. The young, teeth rotted by an unfamiliar and unhealthy diet, had lost the ability and interest to hunt. The Canadian Federal Government’s well intentioned welfare payments ensure that they do not starve and that they can still tune in to cultural icons like ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’ But the welfare payments have served to destroy all motivation and leave the Inuit with no purpose in life.
And, of course, the devil loves idle minds. An RCMP officer in one of the villages informed me that the sale of alcohol is not permitted in most of the Arctic, “because all hell breaks loose.” But the difficulty in obtaining booze has merely resulted in an epidemic of gasoline and solvent sniffing in these communities. Once again we can see how our best intentions can result in devastating and unintended consequences. Well so much for finding traditions and dignity. It was not only disappointing and depressing, it seemed hopeless as well.
As we approached the end of the journey, the passengers were assembled for one last Q&A session. It was an eclectic group that included scientists, professors, photographers and a hodgepodge of adventure seekers. There were various Arctic specialists on the panel but only one Inuit. She was a female lawyer who, against all odds, had managed to successfully navigate our education system and was heavily invested in promoting Inuit rights.
A question posed by one passenger and the lawyer’s answer demonstrate quite succinctly the widening disconnect between the Inuit and the European communities of Canada.
According to the passenger, the government of Canada had given the Inuit everything from money and access to education to housing and medicine.
And yet, according to this passenger, their society was a colossal failure as substance abuse was rife, dropout rates were off the charts, teen pregnancy was out of control and suicide rates were soaring as well. “At some point, he asked, “You have to take responsibility for your situation, don’t you?”
The lawyer was adamant and thorough in her answer and reminded one and all that her people never asked for none of this.
“You imposed your ‘civilization’ on us,” she said, “creating these problems. As a child, I was taught to be ashamed of my ancestors and our culture but I am no longer ashamed. I am very proud of their achievements. It is amazing that they, without all these modern conveniences, were able to survive in this harsh environment for thousands of years. We were doing quite well until you gave us everything, thank you.”
I could not help thinking back to the Governor General and the controversy over her eating the seal parts. There was dignity and respect in that action and there was most definitely dignity and pride in this Inuit lawyer’s response and manner. And the imbeciles of the international press, most of who will never come close to visiting here, are content to perpetuate the nonsense that these people are all barbarians.