Christmas in the Arctic

The Canadian Arctic is vast, unexplored and utterly fascinating. Welcome to Iqaluit, the capital of the Inuit-owned territory of Nunavut


Christmas day in Iqaluit in the Canadian Arctic lasts four hours and 22 minutes. The sun starts to set just past noon and then night comes and with it a sky of undulating, green Northern Lights; more stars than you knew existed sprawl across the infinite sky.

A walk along frozen Frobisher Bay takes you past shacks and fishing boats that are iced-in for the winter. Fat ravens fly overhead, feathers plumped against the cold. These birds do not migrate; this is their home and they make it known with their imposing presence. Huskies live along the edge of the bay too, tied up waiting for the snow to come so they can get to work in teams pulling sleds across the tundra. Behind them aeroplanes sit, the only real ticket out of this land, sea and ice locked place.

The red and blue lights of the airport runway cut a neon slash across the edge of town. Formerly known as Frobisher Bay, after the explorer who found it in the mid-16th century, the town was established as a US airbase during the second World War. The Inuit people campaigned for their own territory for decades. When the land claims agreement was signed in 1999, Iqaluit became the capital of the autonomous territory of Nunavut, Canada’s Northern-most territory. Since then, its fledgling federal government has faced numerous struggles in developing the 30 communities that are home to just 35,000 people. This vast expanse of land is the size of Western Europe, and most of it lies within the Arctic Circle.

Logistics in Nunavut are tough: no roads lead here from anywhere else or between the communities. Unless you stow aboard a freighter from Montreal during the four months the sea ice allows, you must fly from the south and between communities. There are cruise ships but no passenger ferries. If you are an intrepid snowmobiler, it is possible to travel the 100km between Iqaluit and Kimmirut and its community of 410 when the snow is thick enough.

But Iqaluit is very much on the map. Queen Elizabeth paid a visit in 2002 to see her newest territory; the White Stripes played in the Arctic winter games arena in 2007; and, the G7 Summit was held there in 2010.

Tourism is not big. Yet. Most travellers come for business and others come during the summer when the temperature can reach the comparatively sweltering mid-teens and the days are long.

The majority of the population is Inuit. The nomadic hunter-gatherers existed peacefully for generations until missionaries and other westerners came to “civilise” them, forcing the indigenous people to live in communities. The newcomers brought disease, alcohol and a litany of abuse seen most devastatingly in the Christian residential schools where Inuit were forbidden from speaking their language or hunting.

Visitors who come from the rest of Canada are called “Southerners” who come for the adventure, to avail of the enviable “Northern wages” or because there are so few trained professionals that it’s possible to gain more experience quickly. It is part frontier town, part ghetto and part gateway to something quite incredible – a pristine Arctic wilderness.

Iqaluit, a three-hour flight from Ottawa, is a city of some 8,000 people, the big smoke of the region . There’s a cinema, two large supermarkets and several hotels with bars. It is not as cosmopolitan as neighbouring Greenland. People in Iqaluit speak wistfully about the quaint brick houses and chic coffee shops of Nuuk, the Danish Arctic’s capital.

There are no Christmas trees. In fact, there are no trees at all – we are above the treeline. In December the average temperature is minus 30 degrees. Windchill can bring the temperature as low as minus 60 degrees. It is an alien, dry desert cold. Your cheekbones ache, the tip of your nose burns and your eyelashes stick together, tears frozen. Blizzards can shut communities down and, cosy inside, you watch vicious winds whip, ghostlike across the land.

The original Inuit settlement that grew around the airbase is now the suburb of Apex. A Hudson Bay trading post can be seen on the beach, where furs were traded for Western goods until European tastes changed and Arctic fox was no longer the fashion du jour.

The region has opened up immensely over the past few years, mainly because of climate change. As ice melts, it is becoming more accessible and new mineral deposits are being discovered, bringing it back on the political agenda of all the Arctic countries.

The Northwest Passage, for centuries the bane of intrepid explorers who vied to find a way via the Arctic Ocean to circumnavigate the globe, has been navigable since 2009.

Unfortunately, the effects are mostly negative: animal habitats are being destroyed and stories of polar bears foraging further into settlements for food are common. The permafrost is melting and the traditional hunters’ routes are changing.

Hunting is not a sport in Nunavut, it’s a way of life. The Inuit survived off the land eating seal, whale, Arctic char and walrus, using every part of the animal for food, clothing, fuel, tools and decoration. Muktuk, the skin of the narwhal with some blubber attached, is cut into tiny pieces, dipped in soy sauce and chewed.

Iqaluit means “many fish” in Inuktitut. During the warmer months, the tundra blooms in multicoloured moss and lichens and berries sprout and are harvested. A short walk into Sylvia Granell National Park will take you to the river where locals sit with rod in hand. You need a permit to fish in these waters and supplies are in serious decline. For a few sunlit months of the year, locals set up tents on the land to return to a traditional way of life.

For tourists in winter, the appeal is to get out on to the land and to the outlying communities on snowshoes, cross-country skis or snow mobiles. They race across the land in the dark, a single quick moving line of lights can be seen disappearing beyond the hills.

Supermarkets are surprisingly well stocked with expensive supplies flown in from the south. You won’t get alcohol though. As with many uprooted indigenous communities around the world, drink has been the scourge of generations. Following several tragic incidents of people freezing to death when drunk in the 1980s, strict bans were enforced. Vanilla essence is kept behind the counter because of its alcohol content. Hand sanitiser is not. Frostbitten old men sheepishly take their cleaning product home to mix with Coca Cola.

The cold has built a unique community here. People stick together. Solomon, a local elder, recalls that Christmas used to be all about community. Entire villages would get together for a feast of country foods and play traditional games, he says, “arm pull, arm wrestle, leg wrestle, running, wrestling, man carrying a woman and running down the hallway”. The festivities end on New Year’s Eve with midnight mass followed by a dance until the early hours of the morning.

However, traditions, even Christmas ones are changing here. New traditions are emerging and music thrives.

Kelly Fraser, an aspiring pop star, has become famous across the region for translating Rihanna and Pink into Inuktitut. Joshua Qaumariaq and his blues band the Trade Offs are known to start jams at house parties. Every Sunday afternoon, an open mike is held at the Francophone Centre where, over free cups of coffee, you can listen to local musicians play. “Wings Night” at The Storehouse Bar and Grill is the other social event of the week.

With its pool tables and stuffed animals on the walls, it’s reminiscent of a bar in the old TV show, Twin Peaks. Queues of people crowd in to get baskets of greasy wings. Everyone is there, from local TV reporters and construction workers to groups of jolly Inuit women, and there’s always a lot of laughter.

This is where to get the best carvings in town. Local artists go between tables selling their wares, including soapstone polar bears, walruses, and antler earrings. Many Inuit now earn a living from art. Cape Dorset is the centre for colourful Inuit prints; Rankin Inlet for its pottery.

Christmas mass will be held in Inuktitut, the Inuit language, as well as in English at the Anglican and Catholic churches. Many Inuit consider themselves Christian, their traditional beliefs gone, along with countless other traditions.

Leaving town by the only way out – aeroplane – you understand how isolated this place is. After the last row of houses ends, there is nothing, only rock and ice. It must be seen to be believed.

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