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Impressions of the Inuvialuit

By Paul Shenher 

I made my first trip to the Arctic in March and the sky stopped me in my tracks each day of the trip. The dawn and dusk lasted for hours, and the clouds and open sky were lit with massive sheets of blue, magenta, purple, and gray. When it snowed after sunset, I would walk out into a world that had turned deep blue as the snow and the sky had become one color. When the sun shone during the day it approached the land from low angles, casting long shadows behind the homes and buildings that speckled the towns. 

The land beneath the skies was huge and stretched off into an almost endless horizon. Whether seen from land or ground it rolled on and on.

I was struck by how the people of Canada’s Western Arctic, the Inuvialuit, were constantly reaching out in an effort to reduce the sense of  distance. They work hard to maintain their traditional ways of life on the land while using modern technology and government whenever it seemed to help. 

This past winter I participated in an annual Canadian government tour of the Arctic. The tour was hosted by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the umbrella organization for the Inuit in Canada. We visited the Western Arctic, located in the Northwest Territories just north of the Arctic Circle. It was a chance for those in government to learn from the Inuit, and for the government to show its presence in the Arctic. 

We flew first to Inuvik, a town of about 4,000 people on the shores of the Mackenzie River. Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, is more than seven hours away by air. 

We met with the leaders of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in their headquarters, which was filled with Inuit carvings and wall hangings. A stuffed musk ox stood guard over their boardroom. In a presentation they outlined the business holdings and companies under their direction as well as startups that have been funded by earnings received for lands and minerals under the Inuvialuit Settlement Agreement. This agreement outlining the terms of their self-government with the Government of Canada was signed in 1985 and is a cornerstone of the national government’s efforts in the region.

In Paulatuk, a village of about 350 people on the Arctic coast, we met with locals to talk about health care, food security, schools, and the management of the nearby and massive Tuktut Nogait National Park. The park was created in 1998 after the local Inuvialuit decided that a park was best way to protect the West Bluenose caribou herd. The park managers meet regularly with elders and the local youth on the junior parks ranger program to reach consensus on their wildlife management strategy. Almost 20 years later, they are proud of thir work in protecting the herd together with the park managers.

We went to Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet of 500, which is also located on the shores of Arctic Ocean. Here, fishing boats and barges sit in the snow on the frozen bay. There are large camps left over from the days when the oil companies sent workers to search for oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea. A radar tower sits above the town, part of the Distant Early Warning system, which was built during the Cold War to monitor the presence of Soviet aircraft and missiles. 

Tuktoyaktuk will soon be connected to the rest of the continent by an all-weather highway that will span the tundra from Inuvik. This far north, pavement doesn’t work because it would sink into the permafrost in the warm days of summer. Instead, a road of frozen gravel is being built in layers across the tundra. The idea is that the road will freeze and reach “thermal equilibrium” with the tundra, essentially becoming the same temperature as the frozen ground but remaining uniform enough to drive on. 

The road is expected to bring big changes to Tuktoyaktuk. Cars and trucks will soon be able to reach the town year-round, which will improve access for people in the region as well as the availability of supplies. It’s a change that most welcome, but some worry the road will also bring troubles from the south. More tourists will come visit the community where there are not enough accommodations. It could also become easier to bring drugs and alcohol into the community, raising worries about substance abuse.

Despite the incomplete road, in many ways the rest of the world is already reaching into these small Arctic towns. 

Climate change is one of these ways the wider world is impacting the North. Much of the land is permanently frozen, or, as the local call it, permafrost. Now, the shores of Tuktoyaktuk are melting in the warmer summers, eroding and tumbling into the ocean as waves driven by stronger storms wash higher and higher. The hamlet is already planning to construct new buildings on higher ground, and the walls of the administrative offices are covered with flooding projections for emergency use. 

Tourism also reaches the region. As the Arctic ice melts, more and more cruise ships arrive each summer. But this influx leaves the locals wondering how small coastal villages will service ships stopping by with 500 or 600 people, and what happens if there is an emergency with one of these ships? The answers are not readily apparent. 

Tourism reaches the Arctic other ways, even in winter. There is an ice road between Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik. When the Mackenzie River freezes to the right depth, a road is plowed down the river and across the ocean. The road primarily allows for cars and trucks to travel between the two places during the cold winter, but it also allows adventure tourists to race in what is billed as the world’s toughest ultramarathon. 

As we drove up the ice road on our tour, we stopped to cheer on two runners: one from Romania and one from Singapore. It was hard to know who was more surprised, us at the runners in the middle of the Arctic or the runners at a mini bus full of Canadian bureaucrats cheering them on.    

Perhaps less surprisingly, the Arctic is also a good place to capture satellite signals from polar orbiting satellites. So in the forest on the edge of Inuvik, there are close to a dozen satellite dishes from countries around the world picking up information from space. By 2017 fiber optic cable will come to the region and allow high speed internet to link these signals to scientists around the world.       

Above all, I found the people in the places we visited to be friendly and hospitable. We had feasts of caribou and Arctic char at local gymnasiums and halls where we were introduced to local traditions. During the feasts we were invited to join the locals as they danced along with traditional drum dancers and the men who set the beat with their hand drums.

But as the Inuvialuit celebrate their traditions, they also see the challenges they face. My lasting impression was one of respect for the Inuvialuit people living on this vast land, under vast skies, and reaching out to the rest of the world, even as changes from the rest of the world rush toward them. 

*****

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Paul Shenher is a lawyer and senior manager for the Aboriginal Affairs Portfolio in the Department of Justice Canada. He has worked as a lawyer for over 25 years and has managed in both the private and public sectors. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely his own and do not represent the Government of Canada.

[Image courtesy of Flickr]

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