Sweet Shift

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

“You’re late.” Dwayne Barnaby lifts a combat boot to the stool behind his shop front display case and sucks back a power smoothie. “You just missed the bingo rush. You would have been swamped.” He grins. “They would’ve victimized you.”

10:35 p.m. 20 minutes into my first (and only) shift at Dwayne’s Convenience, Fort Good Hope, NWT’s only after-hours candy shop. I’ve sold a pack of cigarettes, two slushies, four cans of pop, a Mars bar and four gummy tree frogs. Barnaby, a buzzcutted health nut in a wide-striped golf shirt, is belly-laughing—harder than he’s belly-laughed in years, he says.

In the 20 years Dwayne’s has been in business, he’s never had an employee on the payroll. When he’s out of town, his dad runs the shop; otherwise, Dwayne’s is a one-man show, 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week, 365 days a year. So when I came in asking questions one February night, Barnaby said, “Why don’t you come back tomorrow night. Work a shift, you’ll know everything you need to know about this place.” Seems more like a set-up for his own Just-for-Laughs. Locals freeze when they see anyone but a Barnaby behind the counter. One boy giggles so hard he just points at a cherry slush and a bag of chips, shoulders quaking on his way back out.

“If you Google me, the first thing you’ll find is that my house burned down,” says Barnaby. Actually, his house burned down twice, in a 2010 arson mini-spree. Barnaby had no insurance, but didn’t press charges. He took the opportunity to move from his old lot (two houses over from the candy shop) to a new one, right next door, so he can watch over Dwayne’s 24 hours a day. “Of course I know who did it,” says Barnaby. He downs a handful of chia seeds. “I know everyone in town.”

11:30 p.m. The bell hanging over the doorway chimes; Dwayne ducks behind a wall of organic soups in the corner. “I’m not going to help you this time,” he says. It’s three teenagers. “Orange Crush, a Snickers and four Double Lollies,” says one.

“Sure you don’t want Double Bubble?” I ask. (The Double Bubbles are older and Barnaby wants to sell them before they expire.) “They’re five for a dollar.” The teen shrugs and takes a handful of Double Bubbles. Barnaby’s thumbs-up emerges from behind the soup.

Next up is a whole crowd, sweaty yet flushed from the cold. “Rap band at the high school,” says a boy in a windbreaker. “Called Second Generation, I think. Pretty good.”

A man in his early 20s keeps his snowmobile helmet on until he gets to the counter. He says he’s been driving the high cliffs outside of town, Old Baldy and the Ramparts. He just came in for a pop and he’s on his way back out again. “Wanna come?” He asks. I look back at the soups.

“Nah, gotta finish my shift.”

12:30 a.m. Dwayne’s has been silent for almost an hour. Barnaby goes back to reminiscing. “One night,” he says, “I was at home in my old place, next door to my new place. It was raining. There were a couple girls—just little girls, maybe 12 or 13. They came around, trying to break through the side door, but since it was raining, they thought I wouldn’t hear them. So I snuck around the bushes to the back and threw a rock at them. One girl got scared, she said, ‘Somebody hit me!’ But the other two didn’t believe her. They said, ‘Stop it. You’re just imagining things.” So I hit them again and this time, they all went screaming. They ran off and I stepped out, said ‘Shop’s closed, come back tomorrow.’… You have to be forgiving in this place,” he says, referring to both town and shop. “Most of the kids around here, they’re just bored.”

12:50 a.m. Barnaby flips the switch to the open sign. He empties the cigarette drawer and the cans of Copenhagen chewing tobacco into his backpack, leaves the popcorn in the roaster. He cashes out the till. $930.

For my hours, I get a travel mug and a salute—“Watch out for the wolves. They’ve been picking off the dogs.” He bolts a heavy-duty padlock shut on the steel door.

Barnaby disappears inside the one-room house next door and I set out for home along the snowmobile paths in the dark, -40 with the dogs howling.

This story was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Up Here magazine. Read that version, with an illustration by Jonathan Wright, here.

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Runaway Star

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Lucie Idlout abandoned a successful music career for life as a small-town bureaucrat. How’s that working out—for her and the town?

The day the 2012 Sealift came to Igloolik was a workday for Lucie Idlout, economic development officer, and a school day for her adopted son Thomasie. At eight a.m., the barges were already running back and forth between the main ship and the beach, the forklifts were carting seacans of new stuff, and a crowd had started to gather. Pouring cereal for six-year-old Thomasie, Lucie’s eyes kept drifting to her living room window, looking out over Igloolik Bay.

“Son,” she said, as Thomasie reached for his backpack, “we’re getting on that ship.”

Generally, people don’t just get on the Sealift. Unloading is a massive operation with a short time window and many communities to get to before the freeze-up. “It’s something you would have needed to clear with head office before we got here,” confirms a worker unloading a shipment of Jeeps. Lucie points to his walkie-talkie. “Call the captain.” She’s all in black: black jeans, black hair, giant black sunglasses. She smells like cigarettes and gum. “Tell him I’m Lucie Idlout, economic development officer of Igloolik, and I would like to take a tour of the ship.”

The worker bleeps back and forth with the captain for a bit, then: “Tomorrow?”

“Today.”

Several hours later, we emerge from the ship with a stowaway: the captain’s wife is a bookish, Swiss woman who listens quietly while Lucie and the captain talk Inuit employment; but more than that, she’s become completely enamoured with Lucie—her ballsiness, and her stories of a previous life as a rock star. Lucie’s going to be cooking her a roast beef supper.

We hitch a ride back home with the Public Works truck and pass the hamlet office on the way. Outside, Lucie’s senior administrative officer—the one she reported sick to that morning—stands smoking with a few members of the council. He raises his eyebrows. Lucie makes devil horns with her fingers, leans back and screams into the dust cloud forming behind us: “Rock ‘n’ Roll E.D.O.!”

I lived with Lucie Idlout through the summer of 2012. I came up to work with Kingulliit, a local film company, and she had a room to rent. I knew little about her except that she’d been nominated for a Juno award, had once opened for the White Stripes in Iqaluit, and has eight Canadian streets named after a line in one of her songs. In preparation, I found a review of her last album, Swagger, written by Toronto Star music critic Ben Rayner, who rented her room in Iqaluit in 2007. “One of the first things she did,” Rayner wrote, “was level a squint at me and intone, ‘I’m gonna break you.’”

How did she go from man-breaking rock diva to small- town government worker/single mom, and why? In Iqaluit I talked to Lucie’s longtime, ex-Nunavummiut friend, researcher Jack Hicks. “Lucie’s cutting against the grain,” he said. “It’s a general pattern for both Inuit and non-Inuit to move out, from smaller communities to larger ones. People don’t often go back to the smaller communities”—especially after they’ve made a name for themselves in the south. “You’d have to ask Lucie,” he said. “but I suspect there’s a bit of a personal journey there.”

***

“That story,” says Lucie on the phone from Igloolik in 2014, “Born in the community, raised in the community, related to most of the people in the community. High school sweetheart, babies, elderhood, death… People still have that. The people who don’t have that story are the people who moved to the larger centres.” The Inuit translators, interpreters, writers and politicians who relocated to Ottawa throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s—the mothers and fathers of Nunavut. As children, Lucie and her two older siblings followed their single mom, Leah, wherever the government work went—usually from Ottawa to Iqaluit and back on a yearly basis. She summered with relatives in Nunavik and on Baffin Island, and even spent time in a foster home. She won’t talk about that, but says, “When somebody plucks you out of your community and they take you somewhere else and they feed you something else, it confuses you. And that confusion may stay away for a certain period of time, but then you reach a certain age and it’s like, ‘Jesus Christ, where do I come from?’ If you don’t have that story we were just talking about, those are hard answers to get.”

“But aside from the aesthetic,” Lucie says, “being down south didn’t really seem all that different from being up North. Inuit House [a mid-’70s Ottawa student cultural centre] was already established, so we went there pretty regularly; and Martha Flaherty [granddaughter of Nanook of the North director Robert Flaherty] put groups together to showcase Inuit traditional clothing. So we only ever mingled with an Inuit community.”

But a culturally savvy community isn’t the same thing as a traditional one, and when Lucie summered with relatives in Pond Inlet as an adolescent, she noticed her Inuktitut was choppy. She wasn’t interested in following gender roles either. She woke up one wee-hour morning to get dressed and join her uncle on the narwhal hunt. When he muttered, “girls don’t go on the narwhal hunt,” and walked out the door, Lucie cried to her aunt until her uncle returned to take her.

That scrappiness is probably, in part, what drew her to music—specifically, the ladies of early-’90s alternative rock—but Lucie didn’t necessarily see herself as a career musician. She put her resume into ITC (Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, then working on the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement). A year later, she was on a six-week, six-region tour of the Northwest Territories, speaking to youth on self-government and the constitution.

She was promoted to self-government information officer, working under a constitutional lawyer who “scared the shit out of me because she had such high hopes for me.” Lucie never doubted her own abilities, but after the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord—proposed changes to the constitution that ITC helped draft—she began to question the political process. In the end, she voted against the Land Claim, “not because I wasn’t proud of our leaders…but extinguishing aboriginal title? It felt like we were basically doing a land for cash.” She left the office, telling herself, “I’ll come back to fighting the good fight when I’m 40.”

In the meantime, she was a talented, bilingual Inuk in a young territory. She had a million different options and explored every one. She studied acting at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre and double-majored in Psychology and English Lit at Ottawa U. After courses in Law and Political Science at Carleton, she even applied to the first cohort of Akitsiraq, Iqaluit’s proposed law school, but was rejected. She played the Alianait Festival twice, National Aboriginal Day too many times to count, released two albums, wrote a couple film scores, won two Aboriginal Music Awards, hosted APTN’s Buffalo Tracks, and was nominated for a Juno. “Lovely Irene,” her song about a small-town woman coping with domestic violence, inspired a campaign to rename one street in each province and territory “Angel Street.”

“There’s a meaning to being a young Inuk as the Inuit world finds its new place,” says Hicks. “There are opportunities there that might not exist for somebody who lives in an equally-sized town in Ontario or Saskatchewan. But it’s a double-edged sword,” he adds. “On the one hand, you get recognition. On the other, you lead a very public life.” As open as her every accomplishment was, so were her struggles—three failed marriages, frequent writer’s block, and the fact that at 39, she was still a couch-surfing artist who “spent more time writing grants than playing music.”

“And then a funny thing happened,” she says. “I turned 40.” Education Minister Paul Quassa suggested she apply for an economic development position opening up in Igloolik. “I saw my friends having kids, being in stable relationships, buying homes and setting themselves up for what will inevitably be their retirement. And then I saw myself wandering around, absolutely enjoying my life in every possible way. But what did I end up with?”

She left an Iqaluit relationship that her friends described as appalling, but salvaged the good that came out of it: Thomasie, the five-year-old boy she and her ex-partner had adopted together. “I wanted him to be in a community where Inuktitut was strong, where he would learn some traditional skills he might not learn in Iqaluit, where he would have the best of everything.” As for Lucie? “I wanted to take the focus off me for a bit.”

***

It’s six a.m. when Lucie bursts into my room. “I need a Land Day.”

“What’s a Land Day?” I couldn’t possibly understand, she says. It’s an Inuit thing—a need to get out on the open water, explore islands, eat seal. It’s what drew her to Iqaluit over Ottawa in the first place, and part of what draws her deeper into the communities now.

But she’s not like other Igloolingmiut—she knows the North, but not this land, and besides, she’s a municipal worker. She’s been watching her neighbours’ faces getting brown and healthy all summer, but she can’t join them. They come and go with the weather, and Lucie’s on nine-to-five.

We send Thomasie to school, then Lucie calls in her Land Day. With no other options for escape, we do what a city-dweller does in an unknown place—call a cab. We might ask the driver to drop us off at one of the local fishing spots, the Point or Ham Bay, but in mid-2012, there’s still no cell service in Igloolik. How would the driver know when to pick us up? The cab takes us one street over, to the southernmost house in town, where the beach stretches out for miles, where locals chain up their dogs and toss beluga heads.

It’s violently windy. We find scraps for our fire on the beach—an empty Pampers box, a couple sheets from my notebook, topped with a six-foot plywood plank. Lucie doesn’t care how cold her hands get; she wants a fire she can smell on her clothes. She sparks her lighter again and again until the plywood ignites. When the whole thing is finally blowing smoke across our faces, Lucie leans back on the slanted shale and lights a cigarette, beaming. “What an excellent Land Day.”

***

“I think it’s a fair statement to say that it’s been a big adjustment for Lucie,” says Igloolik Senior Administrative Officer Brian Fleming. He’s just returned from a business trip to learn that she wasn’t in all week.

“I’ve been a musician for 20 years,” says Lucie. “I went from being the superior to reporting to a superior.” Keeping office hours is a problem: “When you’re your own boss, you don’t turn it on at eight-thirty and turn it off at five. You get up in the morning, you start working, and you don’t stop until you go to bed.”

Then again, Lucie’s more powerful than most government workers who come into the communities cold. In April 2012, the Rockin’ Walrus festival, which brings a couple dozen performers and technicians into the hamlet each year, was in trouble. One of the main organizers had recently moved back down south, and the organizing committee was floundering. Weeks before the festival, many of the artists weren’t confirmed, contracts weren’t written, travel and accommodations were yet to be arranged. “[Rockin’ Walrus organizer Mark Airut] asked me if I would be willing to take on the festival. It made perfect sense for me because I’ve been to so many festivals before. As a musician, I know how I like to be treated. I know what details to expect.” She negotiated contracts with the artists already on the roster and called in a few favours where there were blanks in the program, bringing up a theatre and voice instructor and a sound technician. When the hotels filled up, she offered her living room couch. Lucie has organized Rockin’ Walrus ever since.

True, aside from arranging a 2012 heavy equipment operator course, Lucie hasn’t established any great relationships with the resource industry (in particular, Baffinland, which runs the nearby Mary River mine). Pond Inlet E.D.O. Colin Saunders says he’s had 50 heavy equipment operators trained in Pond in that time period, as well as drillers, wilderness and First Aid technicians. But Igloolik’s main export is art. There’s more than a handful of internationally-exhibiting carvers, printmakers and carvers in town, as well as Artcirq, the renowned local Inuit circus, two film companies, a couple of touring rock bands—and Lucie, of course.

It was the arts festival that drew Lucie to Igloolik in the first place. When she played the first Rockin’ Walrus there, in 2011, she remembers, “it was just dripping with creativity…The second day I performed, going into my second song, I yelled, ‘I love this community! I’m going to live here one day!’”

Igloolik is like any other modern Northern community. It battles openly with poverty, addiction and suicide. “But it also has a history of strong community figures,” says Hicks, from strong Anglican ministers to Zacharias Kunuk and Atanarjuat, right through to the kids mentored through Artcirq. Hicks says that could contribute to the fact that Igloolik’s remarkably low suicide rate relative to the rest of the Baffin communities.

Could Lucie be a role model? Potentially, says everybody. That’s one of the reasons she was recruited to Igloolik—she fits in, almost too well. But she lives too hard, fights like a southerner with the administration, and the kids I meet on the street regard her with equal parts curiosity, awe and terror. “Onstage she’s a role model,” says Artcirq owner Guillaume Saladin. “But she needs to get back to her music.”

***

I saw Lucie play just once in the five months I lived with her in the municipal housing she shared with Thomasie and her handful of lapdogs. She had a guest from out of town who’d begged her to sing. She pulled her guitar out from under her bed, poured a cup of homebrewed wine and perched her bare feet on the living room coffee table. It was the fastest, shortest set I’d ever heard—a couple covers and she was resolutely done. But in those few minutes she played, she was gone—out of Igloolik, out of Nunavut, out of any place or question of culture. She didn’t sing; her smoky voice snarled. No one asked questions, no one dared ask for more, and then she clamped her guitar back into its case still humming.

Since then, she’s performed publicly on several occasions, in Ottawa, Iqaluit, Toronto and Igloolik, (as a condition of her contract with the hamlet, she’s allowed to pursue her music career) always with Thomasie at her side. There was a 10-year hiatus between her first and second album, and she says she doesn’t push herself when she’s not inspired. When it comes, it comes.

Is she hiding out, running away, or actually following her destiny, however un-ambitious, of office work after 40? It’s a transition that could probably only happen in Nunavut, and one that in a way actually characterizes Nunavut: a young place with relatively few people to try out many, many hats. “Really, as a musician, you’re running your own small business,” Lucie insists. “So music to economic development wasn’t really such a huge shift.”

This past March, she said, “I started writing again … A couple songs, just the verses, but it’s the first time in a while I’ve felt like writing anything.”

A month later, her excitement has waned a bit, but she’s still working out one song. “It’s partly in English and partly in Inuktitut and it’s a conversation that a woman is having with a man. It’s pretty lusty … But I haven’t worked on it for a couple weeks.”

What’s been getting in the way? Health travel, visiting family, a broken patella. “Last week my house got broken into, so insurance claims, cleaning up, dealing with police reports.” And recently she’s fallen in love again, with retired broadcaster Abraham Tagalik, “so that’s been nice,” she says. “Life stuff.”

This story was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Up Here magazine. Read that version, with an illustration by Pablo Iglesias, here.

No Rice, No Good

January 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

The best Chinese restaurant in the Sahtu could pass for an oil camp from the outside. In the parking lot in late February, truckers fresh off the winter road sleep in their cabs, engines idling. The restaurant is just a room in a branch of nine camp trailers that make up the Sahtu Dene Inn (around Norman Wells, the hotel and restaurant go by their former name, the Mackenzie). The dining room has no door, just a tangerine tartan rug and a beaded blue curtain leading inside. On the other side of that curtain there’s a whole other world going on.

At a table along the left wall, a pudgy boy hiccups into the crook of his mother’s arm, a wonton floating in the soup bowl in front of him. The walls to his left and right are fake brick, draped with plastic ivy and maple leaves. In front and behind, it’s a French chalet: smeared stucco crossed with beams painted dark brown to resemble oak wood. The boy stares shyly at a stuffed wolverine, cupped in the antler of a moose. Several hundred pounds of taxidermy stare back.

“No pictures!” says the owner as my companion pulls out her camera. “No interviews!” she says at the sight of my notepad. “No!” she shakes her head at a man attempting to order a char stir-fry without rice. “No rice, no good!”

When the Mackenzie was established in 1983, it was intended as a camp for industrial workers. Original owner Jerry Loomis bought the trailers from Imperial Oil, who’d been in the area since 1937, and was building a set of artificial drilling islands in the Mackenzie River. Loomis owned a transportation company, gas station and a vehicle rental service and needed a place to house his employees.

But when oil prices collapsed in 1986, Loomis shifted his attention to tourism. He bought the pricey tartan rug in Edmonton—$40-45 a yard—and imported a kitchen of French chefs. “We had six outfitters working out of the hotel, and, at $20-30,000 a shot, we were catering to the Ted Turners, the big game hunters. [Former NWT premier] Steve Kakfwi wouldn’t stay anyplace else.” Lobsters and chateaubriand were shipped up by the planeload. Trophies—sheep and moose heads, pelts and weapons—collected on the walls.

In 2000, oil prices rose again and wilderness tourism declined. The Mackenzie was outdated anyway. Loomis sold the hotel and restaurant to Jane Han, then Norman Wells’ only Chinese resident. Han kept the steaks on the menu but added her own creations, including a couple of local fish dishes and produce from Loomis’ greenhouse. She stuck with the décor and added some wolf skins to the walls, some porcelain tea sets and red lanterns in the corners. The restaurant became a favourite for Sahtu Dene travelling through Norman Wells to see family or do some shopping.

Last year, the hotel portion of the Mackenzie was sold to the Sahtu Dene council and the restaurant went to Han’s brother-in-law. Vietnamese dishes got added into the mix and the dining room got a new name: Sam’s Café.

This year, a sign appeared on the cash register: “Unfortunately, due to an increase in gas prices of 138% we will have to raise our food prices by 5%.” The tables are selectively dressed, as if someone ran out of energy halfway through. The thermostat reads 12 degrees but I can’t tell if the room is cold or the thermostat’s just broken. A little alcove in the back right of the dining room is shut down with the lights off.

Later, over the phone, Sahtu Dene Council spokesman Brian Davidson confirms it: “Imperial Oil is shutting off the natural gas in Norman Wells this year, and it just won’t be practical to convert [the Mackenzie] from natural gas to oil.” Davidson says the council plans to move the trailers off the lot and build a whole new hotel and restaurant in their place. “That old girl,” he says, “is in her last days.”

The owner comes back to clear our empty plates and to bark at the man who wanted his stir-fry without rice: “Eat your vegetables!” Everybody laughs. With the bill, she brings fortune cookies. My neighbour’s reads: “Something on wheels will be a fun investment.” Mine: “You will bring sunshine into someone’s day.”

This story was originally published in Up Here magazine, with an illustration by Jonathan Wright. Read that version here.

Remembering the Walrus Hunt

January 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Aivilingmiut of Nunavut are walrus hunters. Like many regional groups of Inuit, they’re named after the animal that once kept them alive. In all seasons, they follow the aivik (Inuktitut for walrus) north of Hudson Bay, all the way up to Baffin Island. These days, no one survives on walrus anymore; but still, when an Aivilingmiut elder broadcasts over the community radio that she’s craving igunaq —fermented walrus meat — local hunters have a duty to find it.

***

The boats shove off from a limestone shingle shore. It’s late July, and finally, Igloolik Bay is clear of ice. Each boat carries one family: mom, dad and one or two sons who’ve been chosen to learn the hunt. The loose itinerary says the Airuts, Ammaqs, Irngauts, and Awas will be gone for a week, and they’ve packed enough food and snacks to cover about three days. For the rest of that time, they’ll depend on the land: collecting rainwater from the tops of ice sheets, hunting ducks, and shooting seals when their black heads appear on the flat waves in the distance. They motor for hours, passing a hundred little islands. No one’s worried about running out of land.

Igloolik’s hunters and trappers instituted a moratorium on walrus tourism in 2008, banning sport hunting and photography trips south of Baffin Island. They said the increased traffic from tourists was scaring the animals eastward, toward Cape Dorset. Though the moratorium has since been lifted, some people think increased shipping and development on Baffin Island still stresses the walruses, while others say it’s the loss of sea ice. Whether the Atlantic herd is dying off or moving away is unknown, but locals say there are fewer around today than there were 30 years ago. Regardless, scientists and Inuit agree that changes to the Arctic profoundly affect animal populations, which in turn profoundly affect Northern culture and tradition.

***

By evening, the hunters make camp at an ancient walrus-hunting outpost, a small island, Qaisuut, just north of the northernmost tip of the Canadian mainland. In the 24-hour sunlight, no one sleeps. Hunter and father Lukie Airut cuts sealskin pelts into thin ropes, shaves the hair off, and dries them against an orange cliff. Elizabeth Awa teaches her granddaughters how to collect heather from the high, green fields and lays it down for a bed. Elder Abraham Uruyaralok sits on his mattress and sings traditional songs. He also monitors the high-frequency radio, chatting with other hunters in the area. The kids walk the thousand-year-old foot trails all night, in the purple light, with rifles. They’re guarding for polar bears. At a flat beach, they repeat the stories their parents told them; this island once teemed with walrus and hunters could pick them off from the land. In a sod house a little ways up from the beach, they find the remnants of ancient tools and kids games, and a human skull. The kids all know about the skull and visit it every time they come to Qaisuut. It’s a witness to what happens when too many hunts go bad and people are forced to change their way of life. All night, Peter Awa plays his fiddle, and boiled seal intestines circulate through the tents. They’re just passing time until morning.

***

The first herd we see we just watch. They’re like elephants in the water — clumsy. Even in the open ocean, they lumber and gasp, as if it’s difficult for them to keep their noses and mouths out of the water. Their heads bob up and down, tusks stabbing the waves. The six boats gather behind them, but the walruses don’t need to see us to know they’re in danger; they bob their heads a little faster; the herd splits. Awa shoots and hits a bull on the back of the neck. The bull rears back. Two boats rush to his side and pierce him with a homemade harpoon connected to an empty jerry can. He pounds at the jerry can with his tusks. He batters it but cannot puncture it. He rocks the twenty-foot aluminum boat with his thrashing.

Another shot from the boat next door and a cow is hit. Before the hunters can harpoon her, the rest of the herd has banded together around the female, and two others are carrying her away on their backs. An ice floe gets between the boat and the walruses, and Lukie Airut doesn’t think twice — he throws himself on top of the ice. For a moment, he stands with his harpoon poised over his head. When he learned to do this, he learned on a kayak. He throws his spear, but it bounces off her hide. He spears her again, this time through the left flipper. Airut jumps back on his boat and pulls her away from her herd with his sealskin rope. The boat, lopsided with the one-tonne weight, putters toward an ice pan about the size of a high school gym.

Nine walruses are culled from two herds in the morning, and then, all afternoon and into the evening, they’re butchered. It takes nine men and a pulley system to get each walrus out of the water. When fish-splitter knives open the grey, scarred hides, the ice fields turn red with blood. There’s no lunch break — livers and hearts are laid out in front of a lawn chair on the ice, and hunters can snack on them as they work. Each family butchers its own walrus, and each family works in its own way, but everyone’s preparing the same thing: the Aivilingmiut specialty, igunaq. They fold pouches of fat, meat and skin into airtight sacks, and sew the sacks closed with strings of extra skin from around the chest and rib cage. The kids hold their knives and watch how the butchering goes. They will do this hunt after hunt, until they’re ready to try it out themselves. Miss one year and they start to forget.

***

The boats are full, and the hunt is over; the kids are homesick anyway. The families split off when they get into shore, carrying their igunaq to rock caches just outside of town. The walrus meat, two men to a pouch, is carried to a burrow in the permafrost, where it sits to ferment for up to two years. Some Canada Day or birthday or whenever an elder gets on the radio with a craving for walrus, the hunters will dig it up and the town will remember that taste.

This story was originally published by The Canadian Encyclopedia. Read that version here.

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.

Country Food in the City

January 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

One great thing about Northern parties: every once in a while, near the end of the night, someone will pull out a slab of maktaaq (narwhal meat), much like a whiskered gentleman might produce a pricey scotch in a hazy southern drawing room. Cardboard will be laid down, ulus and pocketknives produced, maybe a little soy sauce or HP, and a good old impromptu country food feast will ensue. When it happens in one of the communities it’s a nightcap—chewing (and more chewing) commences; conversation continues. But in a Yellowknife trailer this past year over Christmas, it triggered something else: a bit of rapture.

Whale meat is strong—not fishy, but definitely of the sea. After eating whale, seal or walrus, the flavour will permeate your body and scent your skin. Eating maktaaq again took me back to a summer spent on a boat, warming up on seal meat while cruising the coastline, scoping shores for herds of caribou. I wanted more. But where to find country food in the city?

“As far as wild meat goes, there’s not a whole lot that’s commercially sold; some Alberta bison, local fish—pickerel when it’s running, and whitefish—and I guess muskox, but we haven’t had that in a while.” Northern Fancy Meats owner Terry Greene is giving me a tour of his Yellowknife operation; he’s the only butcher in the city who can handle a whole caribou or muskox. For 30 years, he’s offered country food processing (“basic cut-and-wrap, that’s your stew, burger, steaks, your roast is $1.85 a pound, right up to $10 a pound for jerky”).

“Ten years ago, we were here every night; it was always overtime. Back when everyone was allowed to hunt caribou it was swamped in here.” But today, the abattoir is almost empty, and it’s been that way since 2010, when strict harvesting limits were put on the Bathurst caribou hunt. In the freezer, past the pallets of beef and chicken there’s a little Rubbermaid cooler and a small cardboard box of ground caribou that a customer wants turned into jerky. Otherwise, there hasn’t been any country food all week.

There are a few restaurants in town where wild meat is actually on the menu—Bullock’s Bistro for local fish and The Lodge at Aurora Village for reindeer, buffalo, locally-smoked fish, berries and bannock. Otherwise, Greene suggests I try online, but buyer beware: “I recently had a customer that got some caribou hips from Rankin, three in a box. Told me she paid $3,000.”

Iqaluit’s Tooma Natsiq started the Facebook page, “Inuit country food sell/swap” in June 2012, and says he’s never seen caribou prices that high. “Usually for a full caribou, hunters are getting $200 to $300,” he says. Even at that price, the sale of country food is controversial among some Inuit. “Growing up, we would always give away country food,” he says. So when Nunavummiut started selling wild meat online, “people were complaining a lot, saying we shouldn’t sell food.” He created the page as a safe space for hunters to sell their meat and make enough money to finance their next hunt. “If anyone complains,” he says, “I’m going to ban them from the group. [Facebook] has become really important for making country food accessible to people who can’t go out hunting anymore.” And to maintain a steady diet of country food, he says, “takes a network.”

Among the Tłı̨chǫ, too, the country food-sharing network is still strong. Petter Jacobsen isn’t aboriginal, but as a traditional knowledge researcher, he’s been accompanying Tlicho hunters since 2010. “We’ll pack up for four or five days, and in the springtime, we’re looking for Bluenose East caribou migrating north.”

After harvesting six caribou last April, he says, “we brought the meat back to Gamètì and stored it in a warehouse. When we came back the next day, it was already gone, just one guy’d cut off a big leg, next guy’d cut off a leg, and so on. We had to go out hunting again.” Jacobsen took as much as he could carry back to Yellowknife, where he says he eats country food about twice a week and still can’t share it enough.

One night, Jacobsen hosts a dinner party pairing caribou ribs with Spanish red wine and roasted, rosemary potatoes. The rib is so long it looks silly, arching wider than the plate, but slender, and elegant. It tastes strong, fatty, gamey, but nothing like summer on the boat—not like freedom, but packed with energy. Cooked in the oven, it’s a different thing entirely.

“I think it’s important to have country food here in town,” says Jacobsen. “It gives you a feeling of where this place is. Sure, it’s the city, but not really. It’s the North, we’re in the middle of nature.”

Read the story, with photography by Angela Gzowski, at Up Here.

A DEW Life

January 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

Monday night at CAM-MAIN (Cambridge Bay), it’s 17 minutes for supper and then workers start to file out of the dining room. For a few more minutes, it’s “Night Val,” “Thanks Val,” “Have a good sleep, Val,” as each of the 12 men clears his tray and retreats to his own dorm and internet connection. But the camp chef takes her time. She settles into her studded leather swivel chair. “I think I’m going have just one more of those lobster tails,” she says, laughing a hearty “hoo hoo hoo!,” and makes a clearing on her plate, next to the cornish hen bones.

Valerie Gordon’s dad was an Alaskan maintenance worker on the early western DEW Line sites from the Yukon to Inuvik, and Gordon herself was born without the aid of a doctor in the Inuit camp at Tuktoyaktuk, BAR-3, in 1962. From various kitchen tables at BAR-1 (Komakuk), BAR-2 (Shingle Point) and PIN-3 (Lady Franklin Point), she watched the glory days of the radar lookouts to the end of the Cold War and afterwards, to the system’s fall into obsolescence, contamination, remediation and near erasure. The only constant was the food.

“Turkeys, prime rib, roasts, hams, you know, with the bone in,” she remembers, dunking a pink tail into melted butter. “We had lobsters then too, and king crab, even swordfish, but I didn’t try it.” For the most part, Inuit maintenance workers and their families kept apart from the American military personnel, and the Americans kept apart from the Canadian technicians, except for in the kitchen. Inuit stocked up on southern staples in the commissary, and in the family photo album, Gordon and her four sisters and brothers invariably pose plumply around tables piled high with chicken wings, grapefruit halves, biscuits in tins and walls of condiments. For Christmas, locals joined the seasonal workers for turkey dinner, and a 15-year-old Gordon once sat through the entire 12-hour Roots miniseries on 35-mm projection, gorging herself on chocolate bars. When, at 12, she married John Sheldon in a mock ceremony, BAR-2’s kitchen provided the broccoli bouquet.

When Gordon left the DEW Line for Stringer Hall, a residential school in Inuvik, she says, “I was really small, really shy. I always had my head down…I was used to the quietness of the DEW Line.” In the hostel, she learned she could make 25 cents a day washing pans and helping out with the evening meal. “So I used to work there on weekends, and by junior high, I’d already saved a lot of money. So I went to cooking school.”

In her early career, Gordon experimented, moved south for a while and tried out cooking in the oil camps of the Beaufort Sea. She had a daughter with a welder who worked at Dome Petroleum, but when her boyfriend accused her of cheating and raised his hand to hit her, she says, “I never looked at any man again.”

And she went back to the DEW Line. In the first years of remediation, while labourers piled waste barrels and scrap metal into berms and dismantled the radar domes and white alice communication towers, Gordon worked out of temporary kitchen tents, feeding the Canadian workers. “At BAR-2, I remember it was 150 steps from the kitchen to the dome. I didn’t have to bring the food out there, but I liked to bring them coffee and sit by myself, watching them work.” In the tents, she tried her hand at country food cooking when the workers caught jackfish in the nearby lakes.

Now that the DEW Line’s clean and fewer than half of the original sites staff year-round personnel, Gordon has less choice of worksite. “I’ve been back in the kitchen at CAM-MAIN for two years now,” she says. “I know what the guys like, what they don’t, when they’re in and when they’re out. I feel like I’m home here, at the camp. But there’s not as many people here as there used to be, and people don’t hang out together as much.” She scrapes her plate. “So somehow I’m homesick.” She piles the dishes into the dishwasher and lays out a few lobster platters in Saran wrap for the odd worker who drifts in hungry in the middle of the night. She’ll have a few smokes in the lounge, work on her third puzzle this month, and when it’s finished, she’ll hang it up on one of the silent worker’s doors and head to bed.