Queen Vicki

January 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

It takes perseverance, scrappiness and a dollop of eccentricity to be an Arctic entrepreneur. Saskatchewan-born Vicki Aitaok has plenty of all three. She’s fighting to bring the world to Cambridge Bay, and to save its history. Should she be?

September 2013 was a tough month for tourism in Cambridge Bay. Skies were a cold grey and the freeze-up came early—several attempts through the Northwest Passage had already been kiboshed because the summer season was cut so short. The last cruise ship of the year with a scheduled stop in the hamlet, Le Soléal, had unexpectedly bypassed Cambridge Bay with up to 260 passengers onboard; this would translate to thousands of dollars in lost revenues for the community and its main tour operator, Vicki Aitaok of Qaigguit Tours. Then, on September 5, some of the first snows arrived early; unfortunately so had Aitaok’s last tour, a contingent of 22 world ambassadors passing through the hamlet on their whirlwind annual visit to the North.

At 9 a.m., Aitaok got a call to muster the tour bus and support vehicles. The ambassadors had been weathered out of their stopover in Baker Lake, and their plane was due to arrive two hours early. The traditional dance and fashion show Aitaok had arranged was a no-go—it would be impossible to arrange the performance in time—and this was only one of several schedule changes over the past two days.

And then there was the Norwegian ambassador. Though Aitaok had never met the staid, white-haired Mona Elisabeth Brøther before, she had been involved in a letter-war with Norway for six years. One of Cambridge Bay’s most famous tourist attractions is a boat, the Maud, which Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen used to cross the Northeast Passage, then sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1925. The Maud got iced-in in a strait outside the town the next year, and still rests there today, partly underwater. It was sold to the town of Asker, Norway, in 1990. Recently, Asker has decided to repatriate the Maud, and Aitaok has been fiercely leading the charge to prevent that.

The day of the tour, Aitaok stayed on script for the most part. She delivered her welcome speech, just a little longer than the mayor’s, passed out hamlet maps and shook hands with each of the ambassadors. But when she came to Norway’s Brøther, she flashed an extra-giant white smile. Heartily, she said, “You’re taking our Maud,” and moved everyone out to the buses.

Technically, Aitaok doesn’t belong to Cambridge Bay any more than the Maud does; the blonde, blue-eyed granddaughter of Saskatchewan pioneers, she first moved north 26 years ago to do a little trail-breaking of her own. Now, at 51, frenetic, and a little bit flustered, she’s built a successful little empire out of her Quonset hut craft shop, the Arctic Closet. From there, she runs the North’s first privately-owned cruise ship tour company, Qaigguit Tours. This summer, the Closet moved into a second location, at the airport. It’s now impossible for the couple thousand logged annual Cambridge Bay visitors to pass through town without encountering a branch of Vicki Aitaok. Like the Maud, she’s become the unlikely face of the hamlet she stumbled upon.

But like many of the qallunaat entrepreneurs who make the unusual decision to stake their fortunes in harsh government towns with little manufacturing to speak of, Aitaok’s daily struggles call for equal parts perseverance, eccentricity and scrappiness. She’s got plenty of all three.

***

“In the South, I was always aware that everything has been already done, over and over. There’s not that much that’s new.” We’re in the Co-op, where Aitaok is doing a little grocery shopping between tasks. There are no cruise ships today. A private yacht, the Octopus, has stopped briefly in town and requires a little logistics support—ferrying personnel and equipment from shore to ship—but in between those tasks, she’s free. “In the North, I thought, there are still so many firsts, I just fell in love.” When she was a little girl in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, she pulled out her map and traced her line of longitude, 105 West, up with her finger until she came to the next town—Cambridge Bay, nearly 2,000 kilometres north, as the crow flies, and decided, “I want to live there.”

After a few years in Yellowknife and a brief hiatus doing missionary work in Kingston, Jamaica, Aitaok made the leap to Cambridge Bay in 1994. Quickly, she discovered that for each opportunity to be first in the North, there’s also much room to work with what no one else seems to want. Inspecting the price tag on a double pack of spare ribs, she tosses it into her grocery cart and explains how she got the real estate for her first business, Arctic Closet. “I bought my first house in ’97. It actually was two houses; one was to live in but nobody knew what to do with the other house, which was just little. So I turned it into a chalet bed and breakfast, complete with kitchen, bedroom, laundry—everything.”

It seemed everywhere she went in Cambridge Bay, invitations to plant roots followed. She became lay pastor at her church, where she learned to deliver sermons in Inuktitut, married an Inuk (which makes all of her businesses 100 per cent Inuit-owned), adopted two kids and had a set of twins with her husband, Jorgan, all within the space of a year. She’s a vocal member of the local housing, education and employee benefit boards, ran unsuccessfully for mayor and even developed her own business newsletter for the Kitikmeot region, Cambridge Bay Connections.

Around the time she grew tired of operating the Arctic Chalet bed and breakfast, she noticed a lot of people in town had old clothes they didn’t want anymore, but nowhere to sell secondhand. Instead of taking them to the dump, she encouraged locals to sell to her on consignment. When people started asking for more accessories and crafts, she diversified to meet the demand. “I asked the customers what they wanted,” she says, “and then I made a list and got everything on that list.” She went shopping all over Nunavut: “When I’m in Baker Lake, I buy from the Jessie Oonark Centre; out of Arviat, I buy from Kiluk; in Pang, I buy from the Uqqurmiut Centre; Taluq in Taloyoak; the Nunavut Development Corporation; and in Iqaluit I buy from Rannva and whoever comes to my table, breakfast lunch and dinner.” The Closet now stocks items from all three regions of Nunavut (the only thing she doesn’t want much of is carvings—“people don’t buy them”) as well as some wholesalers from Ontario.

About two years ago, Aitaok saw another opportunity to pick up some unused space, this time at the airport: “The Co-op had the contract [for the canteen] there,” says Aitaok, “but when I saw they left, I called the airport to bid on the proposal.” The space wasn’t advertised until last July, but when it was, Aitaok pounced. Now, in the off-season, she serves between 10 and 20 hot dog and chili lunches daily, as well as merchandise from the downtown store for last-minute souvenir shoppers.

Similarly, she says, starting Qaigguit was an obvious decision. “In 2005,” she remembers, “I found out on a Friday that a cruise ship was coming the next morning at 8 a.m. Would I open the store? Of course.” But at the same time, she thought everybody in the community should know about the cruise far in advance, not the night before.

“When I opened the store the next day,” she said, “there was nothing planned for the visitors. All they did was walk around town.” So Aitaok made her own attraction. “When they got to the Closet, I pulled all the furs out so people could try things on, touch and feel and take pictures. And they loved it.”

The next year was the same: “Nothing for these people to do.” So Aitaok approached one of the co-ordinators who worked on the cruise ship. They agreed more ships would be willing to come to Cambridge Bay if the community had something organized for the passengers. “I told her, ‘I’m going to get involved with that,’” says Aitaok. In 2007, when the ship came back, she had a job with the visitors’ centre, arranging the community tours and events.

Now, alongside Pond Inlet, which has spectacular scenery but also a well-developed visitors’ centre, Cambridge Bay leads Northwest Passage communities in cruise ship traffic, averaging five or six visits per year, and Cambridge Bay economic development officer Jim MacEachern agrees with Aitaok: the more organized the community tour, the more visitors will spend.

As we check out the groceries and head to her black truck, Aitaok finishes up her supermarket autobiography and says something surprising. All her years in the Far North might have made her at least a little complacent about the subpar quality of the groceries and customer experience: “You know, the Co-op? I don’t actually like to shop there anymore.” She goes on: “I talked to management about it, said, ‘I don’t know if your sales are up or down, but as a consumer, I’m starting to lose confidence in your products.’” She slams the trunk. “I just thought they might like to know that.”

The first thing about Aitaok: she might have found her opportunities in Cambridge Bay, but she came in with her own ideas about the way a business should be run. The second: she likes a challenge.

***

In 2007, Aitaok had just started her job at the visitors’ centre when the hamlet council (of which she was a member) asked her to act as a liaison between Cambridge Bay and Parks Canada. They wanted to see the Maud designated a Canadian heritage site. It may not have been built in Canada, but council argued it had spent many more years in Canada—about 90—than it had in Norway, and it formed an important part of Cambridge Bay’s history. Many of the hamlet’s early houses in Old Town, across the bay from the current town site, were built with timbers stripped from the Maud. Some of them still exist today. “At the time, the hamlet wanted this,” says Aitaok.

But then the application for heritage designation was rejected because the hamlet didn’t own it. “We always thought the hamlet owned it or no one owned it,” says Aitaok.

“It was just there.” They investigated further and found out the Hudson’s Bay Company had sold it to three people from Asker, Norway, in 1990 for a dollar. “So I report back to the council: okay, if we want to own it, we have to go further—ask the community of Asker to renege; hand it back; sell it to the hamlet.” So they did. Two out of three said sure, but the last holdout sold it, again for a dollar, to Jan Wanggaard, an artist and businessman in Norway who agreed to lead the Maud’s repatriation.

Aitaok’s inner fighter wanted to keep going. “I asked other people in the community: ‘Do you see the value in keeping it?’ To me, it was all part and parcel of the history of Cambridge Bay: the DEW Line, the Loran Tower, Roald Amundsen, all the Northern stories … But then I wasn’t going to fight for something that they didn’t want. I wasn’t born here.” She started an online petition, “Keep the Baymaud in Canada” (the ship is also known as the Baymaud). In the first two months, it garnered only 67 signatures (though the Facebook group attracted 297 members), and the new hamlet council decided not to support it.

“So I dropped it,” says Aitaok. “The council and I, we didn’t see eye to eye on that. And the Inuit people, they’re not controversial. So I stopped.”

Is Aitaok less of a member of the community than Cambridge Bay-born folks, considering she raised four children in the community and served on the hamlet council for two terms? Many don’t think so. Dan Caron, manager of Green Row Executive Suites, a local bed and breakfast, says, “There are a lot of white people in town that really care about Cambridge Bay; maybe not born here, but they’ve spent a significant amount of time here, and their ties to the community are strong.” He points to his own boss, Bruce Peterson, owner of Inukshuk Enterprises, who went to residential school along with his fellow Cambridge Bay-miut. For years, he’s led a charge to save the Loran radio tower, with not a whole lot of local support. But Caron says that doesn’t invalidate the cause. “There are a lot of people who still use that tower for navigation.” They’re just not big on signing petitions.

Peterson agrees. He says Aitaok sets a strong precedent for other Cambridge Bay entrepreneurs. He has his criticisms: he thinks she should serve more country food on her tours, and calls her idea to invite people to wear traditional clothing on cruise ship arrival days “crass.” (“Tourists are smart enough to see that the world is changing.”) But he cites at least one tour business in the works to add to the Cambridge Bay competition in the upcoming years.

“Cambridge Bay has a lot of things going for it,” Aitaok says. “A real downtown, something that not many other hamlets have. We’re friendly. We have a lot of go-getters”—she points to several new businesses, including a taxi company, a six-room inn and a convenience store, as well as a restaurant that’s scheduled to open this year. And with the construction of the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station, the town’s demographic will change. “We’ve always been a hub,” says Aitaok. “We’re just going to get busier. And of course, the Maud put us in the news…”

Aitaok’s residual passion is palpable: “Of course Norway wants it: it’s all tourism, it’s business, and let’s be serious, that’s the main reason I wanted to keep it here too … Every cruise ship that comes, they all want to see the Maud. People in town might be so used to seeing it they don’t care anymore, but to others, it means something. It’s part of their history also.”

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Up Here magazine. Read that version here.

Reporting for this story was made possible by the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Greg Clark Award.

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