Friday, May 16, 2008

Arctic Ethnic

About a month ago, I discovered that there are Armenians in the North. I was in Yellowknife buying a bottle of wine at the liquor store. At the checkout, I thought I heard someone speak Armenian, though I imagined it was more likely Turkish or Arabic and I had just misheard. The women at the checkout were pale, with dark hair. I'm not sure if it was the accent, the dark eyeliner, or the red lipstick. I asked where she was from. "Armenia", she responded, not even pausing to look up from the cash register. "Hayren khosoom ek?" I asked. Both she and the woman at the neighbouring cash were completely amazed. Never, they told me, had they encountered another Armenian at work, though there are apparently many Armenians in Yellowknife. These women were wives of diamond-polishers who worked in Yellowknife. One of them gave me her phone number and insisted I call her the next time I was in town. They want to have me to their homes for dinner. When I called my sister to tell her what happened, she said "canum, I have been waiting for the day you called me from the Arctic to tell me that Hayastansis invited you for dinner." She's good that way.

While Nunavut's Inuit traditions provide a unique cultural backdrop for life here, visible minorities and ethnic experiences are not as abundant as they were in Toronto. According to the 2006 Census, there are 420 persons of visible minority living in Nunavut, almost half of which are in Iqaluit. Contrast that with the 1,162,630 individuals in Toronto, and you can understand how it's a bit of an adjustment. At the same time, the Arctic is a place for "missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits"; I guess opportunity does not discriminate amongst those who chose to take it.

There are ethnic experiences I would not have had unless I lived here. It can also be very personal. I doubt I would have attended a passover seder in Toronto, or a traditional Hindu dance performance, or muddled through the traditional lahmacun recipe I have so I could share it with my friends at Easter (see below). People take the time to explain why a tradition exists and how it's developed, whereas at home it might be taken for granted. We also look forward to "theme" dinners and lunches at the Francophone Centre in a way that we never would in Toronto.

I return to Yellowknife next month and plan to give my new Armenian friends a call. I wonder if we'll spend time talking about the differences between Eastern and Western Armenia, Nunavut and NWT or if we'll just be amazed to speak Armenian in a place so far from anywhere any of us expected to hear it.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Nunavut has rather less diversity than Yellowknife. You should try and be here sometime for the Canada Day parade, when all the cultural groups decorate "floats", i.e. cars and trucks. We have 22 or 23 groups at last count, Somalis, Phillipinos, Nigerians, Vietnamese, etc. as well as the Armenians. It's quite something for a town of 20K.