Observations in the North

I recently returned from a two week trip with Students on Ice traveling the Canadian and Greenlandic north. The arctic remains a beautiful part of the world that too little people get to experience and I’m very fortunate to have done so.

Our group totaled around 200 people, half high school and college students and half staff. About half the students were Inuit while the rest were mainly Canadians from small towns from places like Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan. It was interesting getting to spend time with kids who live vastly different lives than I do and humbling to be reminded of the dizzying vastness that is the human experience.

Below are some observations during my short visit—all of which are my own opinion and should be taken with a grain of salt. Pictures are sprinkled throughout and at the bottom.


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Seagulls at midnight. Summer in the north means the sun never sets

Weather Makes the Plans

In the arctic, the most important variable to contend with is the weather—which can easily be said to be more unpredictable than most other places on Earth. Therefore, atmospheric conditions are the main arbiter of all “things one can do”. The prevalence and severity of sea ice determines whether sea access is possible, while wind, rain, and temperature regulate the available activities. For the tourist, this means that the itinerary on the brochure becomes a suggestion at best.

One thing that was hammered into our heads throughout the trip was: “Flexibility is the key. Weather makes the plans.” For students that come from the world’s urban cores, the lack of flexibility and choices was unsettling and perhaps anxiety-inducing. The local Inuit kids, however, were masters at living with randomness. In many ways, they live a healthier life relative to the—self-induced—hectic and stressful lives most of my peers have. They are able to focus and enjoy transient moments better than we do. Partly—I’m guessing—is the lack of constant and overt external stimulation one gets in a city, but a large part is undoubtedly due to their lack of resistance to relinquishing control. This trait, though, does give way to a lack of timeliness and ownership—arriving on time for briefings were always a struggle. A couple kids I spoke to refer to the city as having “too much”. Too much noise, too many rules, too much order, too busy. Sometimes it’s just easier to leave it to the man upstairs.

While we usually try and cram as much as possible into our schedules in hopes of greater “productivity”—either actual or signaling—the Inuit are content with going with the flows of nature.

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A cloudy morning in Itilleq, Greenland

Poverty in the Canadian North

A couple of communities we visited in Nunavut were artificial, in the sense that they were not ancestral settlements. Instead, they were the result of the High arctic relocation, a government driven migration in the 1950s. There are arguments that the move reintroduced the Inuit to land where they could better pursue their traditional ways of subsistence living. However, the underlying political implications to reinforce Canada’s sovereign claim to the north are undeniable. Sixty years after the relocation, the consequences have—in my opinion—been overwhelmingly negative.

The largest community we visited was Pond Inlet—a little over 1,600 people—where they had a medical facility staffed by two nurses. Doctors come on a monthly basis, but more serious procedures require a flight out to Iqaluit—the 7,740 people territorial capital—or cities in the south like Montreal. For smaller communities such as Arctic Bay and Resolute Bay—populations were in the hundreds—would probably require a trip to the larger towns for any health issue that requires some medical attention.

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The landing at Pond Inlet, Nunavut

Pond Inlet has K-12 schooling, but from what I gathered, communities like Arctic Bay only go up to middle school. Kids are then sent to larger towns to live with relatives to attend high school.

Banking options, like schools in hospitals, depend on the size of the community. Physical branches exist mostly in larger towns, but mobile banking is possible given that the communities have 4G. However, if one needed to interface with an actual banker then travel would be necessary.

Cigarette use is rampant across all ages and genders. The stale scent of secondhand smoke is present everywhere in the communities. It is not unusual to see kids—the youngest I could confirm was eight, but I did see others that seemed even younger—smoking . Nicotine-stained teeth was the norm.

From second-hand accounts, alcoholism and related violence are prevalent. Despite prohibition efforts in the north—some communities are nominally dry while others raise barriers for purchasing—it seems that access is not an issue. For many kids, alcohol, like cigarettes and drugs, are an escape from boredom. Other kids drink—and do drugs—to forget childhood trauma and abuses from alcoholic boyfriends.

The drug of choice—from what I could tell—is marijuana. How it gets all the way up north, I have no idea. There probably is also a hefty premium over the Canadian market price. But as the saying goes: if there’s a will, there’s a way.

Basic infrastructure such as paved roads and sewer drains were non-existent. Piped water was present in larger towns while smaller communities relied on water truck deliveries. The most important facilities in the north were oil storage tanks where the entirety of the communities’ energy supply is stored. For Pond Inlet, an oil tanker arrives every year when the sea ice has melted to top off the tanks. 4G and Internet infrastructure were present in all the communities we visited, but I was told that blackouts were not uncommon, especially in the winter.

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An oil tanker resupplies Pond Inlet on a yearly basis

Hunting is still a mainstay and seems to be the preferred activity among most kids. Caribou, whale, narwhal, polar bear, seal, and muskox are the most common sources of food. On the first day, I ran into a kid wearing a necklace with a claw hanging on it. I asked about it and he casually replied, “Oh, it’s polar bear. Killed it last week. I’m going to make new pants with the hide.”

All communities had at least one grocery store—the Co-op—and larger ones had two. For most communities, this would be the extent of their retail options. Thus, they sell everything from groceries and daily necessities to snowmobile parts and Canada Goose parkas. Groceries are subsidized by the government, so vegetables, preserved foods, and meats are market price. Liquids such as milk and juices are still expensive even after subsidies because liquids are inefficient to transport. Non-necessities such as soft drinks and junk food are not subsidized and thus very pricey. Daily items such as diapers, toilet paper, batteries, etc. are also very expensive relative to prices in the city. Small population equals no scale and the remoteness means transport costs are astronomical. Since most of these communities’ sea routes are iced up during the winter, groceries need to be flown in—a flight from Resolute Bay to Iqaluit is almost 5 hours—from larger towns in the south.

If weather is the greatest variable for daily activities then distance—and in turn, mobility—is the most important factor for life in the north. People in the communities only have a couple of options to travel: dog team, snowmobile, plane/helicopter, and ship. The first two are used mainly for hunting and are inefficient at traveling long distances. Moving by air is prohibitively expensive. A ticket—there is no tiered service—from Resolute Bay to Montreal costs around CAD3000 to CAD5000. This includes multiple transfers and total travel time of up to two days. Travel by sea is only available during the summer months when the sea ice has receded. However, even then, sea lanes are often closed off by ice brought over by wind and current. Sea travel would also entail routing all the way east into the north Atlantic before heading south.

Just as there are no paved roads within town, there are no roads—paved or otherwise—connecting the disparate communities. Railroads are, likewise, not present. The lack of infrastructure is probably due to the high costs associated with building in the north, in addition to the small amount of people that it would service and therefore justify the investment. There are also environmental factors to consider. The harsh winters will mean that not only would potential corridors not be in use for a large part of the year, but that the summer months—when usage peaks—would be spent mainly to patch up the damage caused during the winter. Thus, the activity space for Inuit are largely confined to their own communities and surrounding areas.

This limiting factor has also given way to an interesting perspective. When talking about my travels, an Inuit student asked, “Have you been places?” I thought the choice of word was quite interesting and upon further investigation I realized that their mobility is so localized that rarely do they encounter political borders. While my peers might phrase the same question along the lines of “What countries have you visited?” or “Where have you travelled?”, to the Inuit student, traveling to an identifiable place outside of her own community already constituted a memorable event.

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The heart-shaped rock of Uummannaq, Greenland

One amusing observation amidst the poverty we saw was that a majority of the Inuit kids had top of the line electronics. The government provides them a monthly check. This results in the purchases of iPhones, AirPods, brand new Canon and Nikon DSLRs with multiple lenses, etc. In some sense, I get that there aren’t many entertainment options available outside of using the Internet and taking pictures. Nevertheless, it was still quite shocking to walk past decrepit houses and wondering if money would’ve been better spent on improving standard of living. Or, as my Canadian friend—from Vancouver—bluntly put it: “It’s not that we don’t give them any money, it’s that they don’t know how to spend it.”

Counting both staff and students, the entire trip probably had less than 15% of people arriving from a city greater than 500,000 people. When asked about my hometown, I told a group of students and staff that Taipei had greater than 2.5 million people. Most of group were simply overwhelmed by the number and one student had an exceptionally difficult time understanding the social dynamics that come with so many people. “So… does everyone know everyone? Is everyone related?” The kids who grew up in tiny communities had no conception of the complex social systems we take for granted and are in fact frightened by the idea that one might not recognize a single person on the street. Even after explaining that there were in fact thousands of families, most of whom are strangers, he still couldn’t grok the possibility of such an arrangement.

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Enjoying the simple things. Children play on the zodiac Aquila in Arctic Bay, Nunavut

A number of staff were Inuit elders from different communities. They provided invaluable insight into their culture, history, and experiences from the relocation. Nonetheless, I felt that there was always a curious disconnect lying under the surface between the hopeful messages of Inuit solidarity—which sometimes crept into the territory of nationalism—from the elders and the stories and plans of the younger generation. While all the kids cheered and clapped when the elders gave rousing speeches, a healthy majority told me things along the lines of “I can’t wait to leave the community”, “I’m going south the first chance I get”, and “I don’t think I’ll ever return”. Granted, these attitudes did not surprise me after having seen the conditions up north.

What is especially noteworthy was the gender disparity between those who wanted to stay and leave. Girls were the overwhelming majority in the leave camp while boys showed more interest in staying. The gender bias was quite pronounced, as elders—and non-Inuit staff—were more prone to showcase young men as the “future” and had them take the lead in giving presentations or serving as the main focus of a media piece.

A number of girls said that family attitudes towards marriage—many still arranged—and having kids—some communities’ average pregnancy age is fourteen—are the main driving forces. In some instances, the family pressures their daughter to be wedded and have kids before heading to college—effectively cutting off their opportunity to go off for school or work. A couple girls—sixteen and eighteen—felt ostracized by community members for not having bared a child yet. Other cases are abuse and trauma related. One girl said that she only felt comfortable talking about the past because her boyfriend was in jail. Without future economic prospects, it is doubtful the pride of being Inuit can convince future generations from moving south.

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Cannibalized ATVs in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. The harsh conditions, low population, and remoteness mean little economic opportunity

Climate Change

Funnily enough, I felt that it was easier to see the results of climate change back in the south. Stronger storms, more extreme seasons, etc. are all more easily apparent than looking at a glacier with little context. However, I did feel that things were not optimal. The weather was surprisingly warm. The only times outerwear was really needed were when we were on the zodiacs or when we were near an iceberg or glacier. Plants are growing to be much larger thanks to the longer summers. Trash was everywhere in the communities, and surprisingly during an excursion to some random inlet in Greenland I came across a large piece of—well eroded—tarp. A lot of the ice was dirtied by soil and sand—exposed from the lack of snow cover—blown from the nearby mountains, creating a marbling effect as dirt gets stuck in crevices on the surface.

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