Charlie Bird arrives at the top of the world
For 26 days Charlie Bird will live among the Inuit people of Grise Fiord, in Arctic Canada, one of the harshest environments on Earth. While there he will document its daily life, natural wonders and fast-changing climate
From the air it is hard to pick out the tiny hamlet of Grise Fiord. The small Twin Otter plane is flying over a frozen wasteland. Below, you can spot what look like a jumble of giant ice cubes trapped in the grey landscape. We are crossing Jones Sound, between Devon Island and Ellesmere Island, names that are etched in the history of Arctic exploration and the search for the Northwest Passage.
Later I discover that what I am looking at below are icebergs the size of houses trapped in the frozen sea, an ocean of ice that stretches for hundreds of kilometres.
We are on our final approach to Grise Fiord, the only permanent settlement on Ellesmere Island, high in the Canadian Arctic. We took off a couple of hours ago from Resolute, another Inuit hamlet, whose history also stretches back over hundreds of years, and which today is one of the main bases and training stations for explorers trying to reach the North Pole.
Ellesmere Island, the 10th-largest island in the world – almost the size of Britain – is one of the closest land masses to the North Pole. Its Inuit name is Umingmak Nuna, meaning Land of Musk Ox.
Alert and Eureka
Two other parts of Ellesmere Island are inhabited, but neither has a settled population. One is the Canadian air-force station at Alert, the northernmost of any base. Established at the height of the cold war, it sits a little over 800km from the pole.
The other is Eureka. It too was established during the cold war, and still has a military-communications staff, but is now mainly used by scientists for polar and atmospheric research.
Landing in Grise Fiord is not for the faint-hearted. As you get closer to the hamlet you see that it nestles below a sheer cliff face – a face that the plane appears to be heading directly for. Then, suddenly, it turns to land on the rough, icy runway, and it’s welcome to Grise Fiord, home to the 130 or so people who live on top of the world in one of the coldest places on the planet.
My fascination with this part of the world goes back to the spring of 2008, when I was filming a documentary about the Arctic. In May that year, in what’s called the season of light, I spent almost two weeks in the community.
Like many people of my age, when I was young I read about “Eskimos” and saw pictures of people living in igloos and fishing through holes in the ice. But on that first visit to Grise Fiord I came to have a better understanding of the Inuit people. (Outsiders used to use “Eskimo” to describe everybody who lived in the Arctic, but some Inuit consider it an offensive term.)
Today there are about 60,000 Inuit people; about 4 per cent of Canada’s aboriginal population and just 0.2 per cent of its total population. Their ancestors are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait from Asia thousands of years ago, to inhabit the North American Arctic and Greenland. They also have close relatives in the Russian Arctic.
In the past some Inuit have had a fraught relationship with the Canadian government. Although the mistreatment of the first-nation peoples of Australia and the US has been well documented in recent times, that of the Inuit was hidden from scrutiny for many years.
In the early 1950s the Canadian government relocated small numbers of Inuit families 2,000km north of Port Harrison (now known as Inukjuak), in Quebec, to remote parts of the High Arctic, including Resolute and a location near Grise Fiord.
At the time Canada was worried that Russia and the US were considering laying claim to swathes of that part of the Arctic – despite the region’s inhospitable climate, mineral rights and exploration have always been hot topics – so the government in Ottowa relocated the families at least in part to assert its sovereignty.
The small band of Inuit were left in appalling conditions. Families were separated and given flimsy huts to live in. Worse, although they had been successful hunters in the tundra they had come from, they found it difficult to hunt in their new surroundings. Many starved.
In the late 1980s, after almost 35 years of asking, about half the population of Grise Fiord and Resolute were moved back to Quebec.
In 1991, a royal commission was set up to investigate the original resettlement fiasco. As a result of that inquiry, in 1995 the Canadian government paid the Inuit communities 10 million dollars. Most of this compensation went into community funds and infrastructure. In 1999 the Inuit were given a legislative assembly and the territory of Nunavut was established.
But despite numerous calls from many quarters, including the Inuit themselves, the Canadian government dragged its feet in apologising for the High Arctic relocations. In August 2010, almost 60 years after the event, the government finally said sorry. “We deeply regret the mistakes and broken promises of this dark chapter of our history,” it said.
Although it makes up almost a fifth of the country’s land mass, Nunavut has a population of only 35,000 people. To the credit of the Canadian government, it is the only self-governing territory in the world established for the benefit of indigenous people.
Arriving in Grise Fiord, one is stepping back in time, to a unique place, to meet some of the survivors of the controversial relocation policy of the 1950s. In Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, the hamlet is known as Aujuittuq, or the Place That Never Thaws. (It was given its European name by the Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup, who said the walruses in the area sounded like grunting pigs: Grise Fiord means Pig Fjord.)
The 132 residents describe themselves to the outside world by saying: “We’re mainly Inuit, with family names like Akeeagok, Ningiuk, Pijamini, Kiguktak or Audlaluk, and we’re Canada’s most northerly citizens. Living on the frontier of Nunavut, the Inuit-majority Arctic territory, we take pride in supporting Canada’s claim to the High Arctic region.”
But Grise Fiord is not just an isolated hamlet sitting on top of the world. Its people have a ringside seat to what is happening to the world’s climate. The changes in this environmental barometer have a crucial bearing on all our lives.
Much of the world’s industrial pollution is finding its way into the atmosphere of the High Arctic. Almost all recent scientific studies show that climate change means there’s far less sea ice now than there was a few decades ago.
The decline in pack ice means the historically impassable Northwest Passage, which links the Atlantic with the Pacific through the Arctic Ocean, has been navigable by large ships since 2007.
And the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that, despite a cold 2013, the trend of the past 30 years is that “the Arctic is warming rapidly, becoming greener and experiencing a variety of changes, affecting people, the physical environment, and marine and land ecosystems”. Most computer models predict that by 2040 the Arctic could be free of ice each summer.
With the reduction in sea ice comes the opportunity to search for minerals. According to the US Geological Survey, about 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil deposits and 30 per cent of its gas reserves lie within the Arctic Circle.
Drilling for them is controversial. Last year Russia detained 30 Greenpeace activists who were involved in an attempt to board a drilling platform owned by the state-owned energy company Gazprom. There are likely to be more protests, as Canada, the US, Norway, Denmark and Iceland all intend to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic, too.
On my first visit to Grise Fiord, Jaypetee, my Inuit guide, brought me to remote glaciers to show me how fast they have been disappearing. He has also been alarmed by the steady decline in polar bears, which he says is the result of the industrial pollution from elsewhere in the world.
Hunting on the ice
There aren’t many places where people have moved from almost the ice age to the computer age in just over half a century, but that’s what has happened in Grise Fiord.
Today, people here eat what they call shop food – and its cost is a major issue. Prices in the remote High Arctic can be double or triple those in Ottawa or Toronto.
Fifty years ago shop food was rare here. Inuit ate what they call country food, after travelling on the ice sometimes for days on end. Hunting for seals, narwhals and polar bears is part of life in Grise Fiord.
On my previous visit we came across an Inuit family, young and old together, out hunting. Some of the children had been eating a baby seal. Jaypetee, who could see the surprise on my face, smiled and said, “But don’t you eat spring lamb in Ireland?”
The Inuit are acutely aware of the need to protect the wildlife around them. The people of Grise Fiord know better than perhaps anyone else the importance of conserving the dwindling population of polar bears. They set strict quotas on the number they hunt for food and fur.
The sun returns
I’m arriving in Nunavut just as the dark season ends. From October to mid-February the sun never rises. The light season is on its way back, and from May to August the sun will never dip below the horizon. February and March can be the coldest time of the year here, with temperatures dropping to minus 30 or minus 40.
Over the next month I will experience life on top of the world.