Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Inuit watch and remember by Noah Richler New Statesman December 17, 2007

A winter's day as Igloolik knows it. The cold is crisp, the sky dark andclear. Outside, it is ­40°, a temperature at which it does not matter ifthe scale reads Celsius or Fahrenheit. It is December in the southerncalendar, but the beginning of Tauvikjuaq in the Inuit one. This smallNunavut community in northern Canada, established in the 1950s - when theInuit were encouraged, and sometimes coerced, into moving off the land andinto permanent settlements - sits at the north-eastern side of theMelville Peninsula and across the water from Baffin Island, just inside69° latitude. The snow-encrusted land around it, bluish and untrammelled,stretches out flatly in all directions like an upside-down plate. Thehorizon, its distant rim, is an incandescent, silvery white. Before the arrival of Qallunaat - the white man - Tauvikjuaq was the timewhen the Inuit were likely to be assembled in camps, the weather inclementand their supplies often running out. The sun, which fell below thehorizon at the end of November, would not be seen again for several weeks.In the old days it was a time of storytelling, when Elders would amuse thechildren with games, and long hours passed in the handing down from onegeneration to the next of Inuit lore, history and folk knowledge. AfterTauvikjuaq, the Inuit nervously awaited the return of the sun, which meanta return of the light and that the year was starting afresh. Today, science trumps Inuit lore and the old ways are renderedincreasingly useless, not just by the trappings of modern living, but byclimate change and the soaring value of the territory's resources. Now thenarrow strait that separates Igloolik from Baffin Island freezes later, sothat the caribou herds roaming there cannot reliably be hunted untilJanuary, and GPS systems have replaced stories that were used to navigatethe land and speak of its properties, guiding not just hunters, but shipsand prospectors through. When the Inuit do hunt, this is what they find: the work ofdiamond-mining, uranium, hydroelectric, oil and gas pipeline companiesaltering the migration of the caribou herds from Mackenzie to Labrador,affecting the organisation of the land as dramatically as whalers did acentury ago. Now, as then, there is a competition of governments eager forresources: the Russians claim the seabed, the Danes plant flags, andChinese vessels visit. Canada's north is no longer open. Now it is"territory", and the country's prime minister, Stephen Harper, has setabout defending it - planning a deepwater port where frigates can stop atIqaluit and sending in military patrols. >From the settlements, the Inuit watch. Zacha rias Kunuk is the director ofthe remarkable film Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner. When I met him in hisIgloolik office, he spent most of the time staring out the window acrossthe frozen water, to Baffin, where his father was hunting. "Is our storylost?" he asked. "I look around and it's still the same world, still thesame animals, still winter every year, but now there's all this talk ofglobal warming and PCBs [persistent industrial pollutants], there'smercury in our fish - why, why?" Igloolik is a "dry" community: its temperance has contributed to itshealthy social ties and cultural flourishing. But still it must contendwith change - and the forgetting. "Today, in Igloolik, there's TV andradio, there's hockey and there's light," said John MacDonald, a residentof the Arctic since 1959. "There are more distractions - a different tempoand different obligations. The very nature of the community is changing." "All the hunters take radios with them when they go," said anotherneighbour, Louis Tapardjuk, "so everybody is constantly informed. There'sno good stories coming back from the land any more." Tapardjuk sighed."Memory is so different now." When I visited Igloolik, a nurse's van parked outside one Elder's houseindicated another death and more of the old knowledge irretrievably lost.A plume of smoke rose from the chimney of the late woman's home, andwended its way through wires tying her house to a world thousands of milesaway - but disconnecting her from her community. [Noah Richler's "This Is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas ofCanada" ( McClelland & Stewart) won the 2007 British Columbia Award forCanadian Non-Fiction and is available through

No comments: