Why buying alcohol in Nunavut is a unique experience

It's hard to believe I've been in northern Canada for more than three weeks. I spent the first one in Iqaluit, capital of the Inuit territory of Nunavut, and in the hamlet of Resolute, then moved to the even smaller Arctic hamlet of Grise Fiord, as part of an Irish Times project to document life at the top of the world.

I’m on first-name terms with many of the community and am coming to grips with the extreme temperatures. The next month or so is the coldest time of year in Grise Fiord. When it’s minus 42 degrees (minus 47 with wind chill) it’s hard to think about climate change. People who live here aren’t preoccupied by the issue either, but when I raise the subject it gets an instant response.

Two of the elders in the community, Jopee Kiguktak and Aksakjuk Ningiuk, tell me that local glaciers they have been visiting since they were young men have been getting smaller and smaller.

It’s a point echoed by Vicki Sahanatien, who runs the Canadian WWF operation for the territory of Nunavut and is a leader of its Last Ice Area project, which is working out how to manage this part of the Arctic as a home for ice-dependent species as the summer sea ice continues to recede each year.


She says that in recent times “there has been a two-month delay in the freeze-up of the sea ice and a steady increase in air temperature”. Climate change is to blame, she says. In Canada “there is no big push to reduce carbon emissions . . . While there are lots of good things happening, Canada as a country is lagging behind, and we’re jeopardising our future,” she says. “The whole world has to get its act together.”

Mental health
As in the rest of the world, in Nunavut there's always another issue that seems more pressing than climate change. One of the main issues in the Inuit territory is suicide, which last year was 10 times more common here than is average for Canada. Among a population of just over 30,000 people, 45 of them – almost all young men – died by suicide in 2013.

“In the past,” says Jenny Tierney of the Embrace Life Council, “a suicide may have occurred by an elder having seen themselves as a burden to the community – one more mouth to feed. Because they might have been ill or couldn’t contribute back, maybe they walked off on to the land.”

It was seen as “a sacrifice to make sure the rest of the community and family survived” with one less mouth to feed. But “we don’t have it now among the elders in the same way we are seeing it amongst the youth”.

Tierney says the main factors are childhood sexual abuse, undiagnosed mental-health disorders and substance abuse, including of alcohol and cannabis.

You won’t find a bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer or indeed alcohol of any description in the store in Grise Fiord. Buying alcohol in Nunavut is a unique experience. It is normal in Canada to have to buy alcohol, particularly spirits, from a state off-licence.

Nunavut has none, however, and any alcohol for private consumption must be ordered and brought in by plane or ship, which adds enormously to the cost, according to Frank Norman, manager of the co-op store in Grise Fiord.

When I ask if anyone would fly in a case of beer he laughs. “A sixty ounce [1.75-litre] bottle of spirits can cost you as much as 125 dollars [€85],” he says. In another community, which bans alcohol, “you can pay as much as 800 dollars [€545] for a bottle of black-market spirits”.

Alcohol education committee
There are different rules on having and drinking alcohol, depending on which of Nunavut's 25 communities you live in. Seven of the communities prohibit alcohol. In five others, including Grise Fiord, you can bring in certain amounts without a permit. And in most communities anyone who wants to bring in alcohol must get permission from the local alcohol education committee.

There are limits on the amount of wine, beer and spirits a person can bring in, but, as in other parts of the world, you can get your hands on them without going through the normal procedures. As one local puts it, “It’s very expensive, but there are always ways of getting around the rules.”

I am staying with Raymond Mercredi and his extended family in Grise Fiord. Mercredi is a Cree Indian who came here almost 30 years ago, with his then common-law wife, Mary Flaherty, a granddaughter of the Irish-American film-maker Robert Flaherty, who directed the documentaries Man of Aran and Nanook of the North . The latter was a graphic account of the lives of "Eskimos," as the Inuit were referred to then.

While making the film, in the early 1920s in the settlement of Inukjuak, on the east coast of Hudson Bay, Flaherty had a brief relationship with a young Inuit woman, and they had a son named Joseph. Today Joseph’s son Peter lives with Mercredi.

Country food
Mercredi does a number of jobs in Grise Fiord, but his first love is hunting. This year he has already shot a polar bear and a musk ox. He slow-cooks some musk ox for dinner. He has hung it for about a week, to allow it to age. The recipe is simple: add garlic and pepper, and place in the oven for five or six hours. Though the dark meat is very tender, Mercredi says many of his Inuit neighbours prefer caribou, as reindeer is known here.

But the best thing about what locals call country food is that it’s free, says Mercredi, although he emphasises that “we do stick to the quotas that we have. It’s important not to overdo it.”

He has also treated me to home-cooked caribou ribs and seal stew, which I found not so tasty. Polar-bear meat, he says, is “different, greasier, and is better boiled”. So far it hasn’t appeared on the menu.