Crowning Beauty: at a High Arctic Pageant

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

“And Miss Pond Inlet, from July 2012 to July 2013, goes out to …” The announcerpauses for suspense as a toddler pirouettes in front of the microphone. The crowd of spectators is ten rows deep, lining three walls of Pond Inlet’s community hall. Restless children are starting to overflow onto the dance floor. “… Jena Merkosak!”

Merkosak has Shirley Temple ringlets and a China-doll complexion. She wears a knee-length, white taffeta dress that showcases her shapely calves. She has poise, grace and impressive control in high heels as she maneuvers through the crowd to receive her crown. But she’s not necessarily a beauty queen, and this contest is not entirely about looks.

The Miss Pond Inlet pageant, which was first held in 2011, has quickly become the most popular event and the culmination of the town’s annual July 9th Nunavut Day party, marking the territory’s creation. The contest is open to any local lady with the guts – and a gown – to participate.

The latter can be a tall order: In this North Baffin hamlet, there’s only the Co-op and the Northern Store, and neither sell dresses. That’s where creativity comes in, as the 35 contestants in all their makeshift finery can attest. Two of Merkosak’s challengers are elders, one of whom wore her handmade wedding dress as she set her own pace up the catwalk to an endless loop of Adele’s “Rolling in the deep.” Many of the girls wear borrowed outfits; others have no shoes to match, and walk proudly in mukluks, runners or rubber boots instead. A tall, thin woman modeled a floor-length amauti – a traditional woman’s parka, with a deep hood for carrying children. A teenager with pink-dyed hair patched together a gown from miniature Nunavut flags.

After the fashion show, the models line up, fanning themselves with their contestant cards. Five judges – including one youth and one elder – file slowly past, holding notepads and golf pencils. They jot down their choices and then then disappear into a supply closet to confer.

There’s no swimsuit competition, no talent contest, not even any official criteria. There’s no need for speeches, either. In a town of 1,500, the judges already know most of the participants. If Merkosak had spoken, she’d have explained how she made it to college in a territory where the highest-ever graduation rate was 39 per cent. She’d say that, at just 20 years old, she’s travelled to Ottawa and Edmonton as a youth ambassador for the Baffin region. But she doesn’t need to say it – it’s common knowledge. There are plenty of pretty faces in the room, but it’s Nunavut Day, and the young territory needs new leaders. So when Merkosak’s name is called, the crowd roars.

Merkosak accepts her crown, a rose bouquet and a $300 cheque from the municipal office. An accordion band strikes up a square dance at the back of the hall. She stomps her heels, setting her tiara bouncing atop her ringlets. Martha Kaunak, a fellow contestant eliminated in the first round, smiles. “I’m glad she won,” she says as the crowd of spectators floods the dance floor. Someone flings the fire-doors open to let in the brisk July air. Kaunak twists around and shouts to her friend behind her, “Give me your boots. I want to dance!”

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