In 2004, I completed two Inuit art buying trips to Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay), the capital of Nunavut, Canada's newest territory. For both trips, I flew out of Ottawa on Canadian North airlines. The other airline that services Nunavut is First Air. Only the last half of the jets was allocated for passengers as the entire first half was for cargo. Being so remote, Canadian Arctic Inuit communities pretty well have to have everything shipped up there by plane or by boat during the summers since there are no roads connecting to the rest of Canada or even between each Nunavut community. The Arctic landscape from the air was desolate, hilly and barren. As the plane got closer to Iqaluit, the airport's small terminal building stood out with its bright yellow color.
The airport itself is within walking distance to the rest of the town. There are taxis that charge a flat rate of $5 per trip anywhere in Iqaluit. Interestingly enough, these taxis also pick up and drop off other passengers along the way so shared rides with others are common here. There are several hotels in Iqaluit and rooms are generally clean, comfortable but quite basic. Accommodations and dining up north in Nunavut are both expensive. All food items with the exception of local Inuit fare must be flown up from the Canadian south. A carton of milk will cost about $10 in Iqaluit. Most Inuit locals cannot afford to buy overpriced fruits, vegetables and meat from the south. Many local families still rely on Inuit hunters who bring caribou, seal and whale to the table.
There is only one high rise building in Iqaluit and it is used mainly for local Nunavut government offices. All other buildings are low rise, including the hospital. The vast majority of the residential housing is similar to cabins that are raised off the ground because of the harsh Canadian Arctic winters. Many look a bit run down with junk and disposed items piled outside. With the fact that there are no lawns or trees possible this far north, the neighborhoods are certainly not the prettiest sights around. But one Inuit art carver told me that his government subsidized rent is only $36 per month. There are some small clusters of nice homes on the outskirts of town. Some houses have husky dogs tied up outside and many have snowmobiles. In fact, the roads, most of them unpaved, are shared by cars, trucks, snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles and people. During the summers, Iqaluit can get quite dusty with all the vehicles turning up the dirt on the roads. As a result, Iqaluit did look a bit nicer during my first trip which was during the winter when the city was in white snow rather than brown dirt. There is new construction going on since with the creation of the Nunavut territory, Iqaluit is growing as more Inuit from other Arctic communities are migrating to the city.
One thing that was very noticeable in Iqaluit was the large numbers of children everywhere. Nunavut has a very young population with 56% under the age of 25. I saw many Inuit mothers wearing traditional Inuit parkas with large hoods in the back where their babies are carried. The Inuit youth is one of the Canadian Arctic's untapped resources and its future. They have access to satellite television and dress just like their counterparts in the south. However, at present only about 25% of high school students graduate so a big challenge for the Nunavut government is to encourage the Inuit kids to stay in school. During my second trip, there was darkness for only a few hours each day so it was very strange to be walking around town at 10 pm in the evening with daylight still present. Even at this hour, there were still quite a few young Inuit children playing outside.
The locals, Inuit and non-Inuit alike were very friendly. I got the impression of a tight community perhaps because of the isolation of the Canadian Arctic. However, the local Inuit were also very open to visitors and willing to share a bit of their lives. During the daytime, I went up to a few Inuit art carvers who were working outside their houses. Each turned off their power saws when I approached them and seemed happy to talk to me. I met most of them later during the evenings when they showed me their finished works of Inuit art.
I had the opportunity to walk about 30 minutes to the outskirts of town past the airport one day. I climbed up a hilltop with a satellite dish facility overlooking an expansive valley. There was nobody else around and it was incredible how silent the area was. It was like a vacuum where I could hear only my own breathing. It was a very peaceful and even spiritual moment there. While sitting on this Arctic hilltop, I was suddenly startled at one point by a noise and it turned out to be the flapping wings of a large raven flying by.
There are tours offered by local outfitters to see the northern wildlife and experience some of the Arctic tundra further out. I hope to take one of these tours on a future visit. A trip to Nunavut is not cheap since everything, including flights are so expensive. However, I will definitely return not only for more Inuit art, but also to experience more of the local Inuit culture and the Arctic land.
Clint Leung is owner of Free Spirit Gallery http://www.FreeSpiritGallery.ca , an online gallery specializing in Inuit Eskimo and Northwest Native American art including carvings, sculpture and prints. Free Spirit Gallery has numerous information resource articles with photos of authentic Inuit and Native Indian art as well as free eCards.