By Patricia Lightfoot
I thought about the Jerry Cans’ song “Northern Lights,” as I flew into Iqaluit in March, and the line “Don’t you never ever forget the ones who live there,” when “travelling among the Northern Lights.” I did not see the Northern Lights, even when locked out of the place where I was staying at 11:30 pm after “steak night” at the Legion, which had been an entertaining evening, though at that point my priority was not to spend a night in the unheated area just outside the front door. I also did not forget the “ones who live there,” the Inuit, who account for about two-thirds of the city’s residents and are, of course, the descendants of people who adapted to life on the land in what is often a particularly hostile physical environment and could navigate their way across hundreds of kilometres of snow-covered tundra and sea ice by the stars. Current Inuit residents of Iqaluit may still hunt and spend a lot of time on the land and/or have government jobs, or are politicians, teachers, artists, lawyers and/or political activists, among other contemporary options, and in some cases struggle with the continuing consequences of colonization. I felt privileged to visit their world, even if briefly and in the most urban of Nunavut settings, though even there one sees women in the street carrying babies and young children in their amauti, which are parkas with a special pouch.
One morning while I was setting off to the office with my laptop in my backpack, I was struck by the contrast of seeing a man in camouflage gear on the other side of the street who was getting ready to go hunting. He was loading jerry cans of gasoline and other supplies onto a wooden “qumatik” or sled that would be pulled behind his snowmobile.
Flying into Iqaluit in early March, the city did seem to be set into the ice world of Hoth, but it has an attractive appearance, partly because of its setting on low rolling hills around a bay full of rock-like ice formations.
There are some very attractive buildings, including the territorial legislature, with its igloo-shaped chamber; the Anglican cathedral, also igloo-shaped; the new Aquatic Centre, which is the most beautifully appointed municipal recreation centre that I have ever seen; the museum; and buildings belonging to various government departments and Inuit organizations.
These buildings and the brightly coloured houses create a striking and pleasing impression against the white background of the snow-covered hills and the sea ice. The beauty of the light on the snow helps even the most amateur cellphone-photographer. The collection of shacks and other more marginal housing in certain areas of the city, not pictured here, are considerably less cosy-looking and provide evidence of the social inequalities of Iqaluit.
I was fortunate with the weather when I was there, in that the daytime highs were a balmy –14C with little wind, and the sky was often a vivid blue.
In the core of the city, there were sidewalks, but mostly the only option was to walk along the side of the road. Fortunately, drivers were thoughtful about pedestrians. There are streetlights, but no traffic lights. At the “four corners,” which is the four-way stop beside the legislature, there is a daily build-up of traffic, usually at about 9 am and then just after lunch as everyone returns to work. The same ubiquitous yellow school buses as in the south are seen ferrying children around town. There is quite a lot of snowmobile traffic, both along the sides of the roads and cross country. The roar of snowmobile engines and the “glock” noise made by the ravens were the typical sounds of Iqaluit during my visit.
There are two main grocery stores, and prices are not surprisingly much higher than in the south, which is vastly problematic for residents on low incomes. For the well-off, however, there was a much better selection of goods than I had imagined. The broccoli was yellow, and not a deliberately yellow variant, but the tomatoes and clementines were as good as those that I’d seen in an Ottawa grocery store a few days before.
Houses and buildings have unique numbers, so you may live, for example, in the 400s area, whereas street names don’t seem to be used all that much. Cabs cost $7 and are quick to arrive, though you usually share with other passengers, which is part of Iqaluit’s small-town quirkiness, as is the fact that dogs can run free, which tends not to happen in other cities.
These are just some quite superficial impressions of a city few southerners get to visit. There are certainly serious social problems, many of which have deep roots, but Iqaluit also has a small-town friendliness and a vibrant cultural community that takes pride in its Inuit heritage, and it has attracted outsiders with a spirit of adventure. It’s a mix that makes for a very interesting place.