The Very Short History of Nunavut

It may be cold, it may be impossibly vast and empty, but in its first hours of existence, Canada's newborn Inuit territory proves that there's nothing so liberating as home rule.

  On the first of April, 1999, I had the privilege of watching as a new territory came into being, for most of the right reasons. The birth happened at midnight, in Canada's far north, with fireworks instead of bloodshed. I had just returned from Kosovo, and while I was watching the bright detonations over Iqaluit, the new capital of the new Nunavut,

NATO bombers were busy over Yugoslavia. I could not help thinking of the faraway blossoms of those incendiary shells as I stood at the edge of the sea-ice that night when Nunavut became real, with Inuit children calling and roaring with happiness at each explosion. The fireworks hung like palm fronds around the full moon, offering green comets instead of leaves, and the silhouettes of gloved and parkaed people standing in the snow took on noonday life for a moment, until the light faded. Snow scuttered like gravel underfoot. There came more and more bursts, celebrated by fur-ruffed kids sitting on a high hillock of snow that had gone glassy with ice. With the windchill it was 40 below; my face was numb; my pen froze. I'll never forget the dark figures on the pale snow, the rapturous cries, the fireworks' remarkable purity and clarity in that cold air. Every fiery star seemed as solid as a shard of glass in a kaleidoscope, and we could see its slowly dimming fall to the ice. Witnessing all around me the joy of the Nunavummiut, who had regained some control over their nation at lastùafter all, Nunavut means "our land"ùI was moved almost to tears.

If you look at a map and take in the vastness of that balsamic paradise called Canada, you will quickly see why Nunavut, huge as it is, remains outside the ken of so many Canadians, let alone the rest of the world.

"Nunavut? What's that?" said a taxi driver in Montreal when I passed through on my way north to Iqaluit. "Le Grand Nord," I tried to explain. "ðle de Baffin, ðle d'Ellesmere, ðle de..."

He shrugged. He didn't really care. Because Nunavut lies so far away from almost everything! We're speaking of one-fifth of Canada's landmass, it's trueù730,000 square miles with one paved road, only 25,000 people, and 27 times that many caribou. But Canada, like Russia, can scarcely see and count herself in her entirety. Two square miles or two million, it's all the same to Canada. And so until now the conception, the idea, of Nunavut has lain neglected, misunderstood. But the actual ground of Nunavut itself? Well, for centuries explorers, whalers, merchants, politicians, and soldiers have been coming here to the frozen edge of the worldùfirst only to where the ice began as they crept and surveyed, clinging to the safety of water, the safety of summer's final channels, dark blue and corduroyed with sunlight, with the white cloud-puzzles overhead, past overhung ice-puzzlesùand then the white people calculated, gambled, stepped onto the ice.

Pretty soon some were doing well, like a Quebecer taxi driver I know in Iqaluit who stops by the Navigator Inn late at night when Inuit carvers sell their greenstone animal figures cheap because they crave drunkenness; my acquaintance pays $60 per piece and sends them to his sister down south, who sells them for $400, keeps a ten percent commission, and returns him the rest, so he clears a tax-free ten grand a year from that racket alone. Decades of cigarette smoking have awarded him the voice of an Inuit throat-singer, and in those ragged tones he always promises to lead me to the best carvers or, if I don't go for that, he can score me drugs, or anoint me a member of a top-secret club whose purpose is to help me get really close to Inuit girls.

I rarely stay in Arctic towns on my visits north. I come with my shelter on my back; I get off the plane and I start walking. Two or three miles outside of town I pitch my tent. I come in a few times and try to make friends. I go to church on Sundays and listen to the Inuit pray for the Queen of England in Inuktitut. But mostly I leave them alone. I am here to listen to wind and water.

What does Nunavut look like? This is difficult for me to say, not only because deep down I don't want you to go to the Arctic, and I feel guilty about going myselfùNunavut should be left to the Nunavummiutùbut also because so many happy images and memories swirl behind my eyes whenever I think about this land. I wrote a novel set in the Canadian Arctic landscape, and I could write many more: pods of whales, polar bears, caribou running on ridge tops, summer moss, summer berries, mosquito crowds dense enough to blacken your face, cold that hurts, a sun that goes round and round in the sky like a clock without ever setting, long days and nights of winter moonlight bright enough to read a newspaper by (if you could stop shivering), the low elongations of the land, the blues and purples of the frozen sea, the sulphur-smelling crags of Baffin Island, waist- and shoulder-high rivers to ford, herds of musk oxen gathered (their spiked horns pointing out) in circles like immense wagon wheels, fossilized ferns and pine needles in valleys of icy shale, light, closeness to the sky, and above all, solitude.

I love that land, but it is not mine. It can never belong to me. When I was younger I once thought about settling here, in which case I would have become a member of the 15 percent of the Nunavummiut who aren't of Inuit extraction. Few of those people stay for long. So the land is truly not even mine to describe. To do so is to describe the Inuit themselves, because the Inuit are the land and the land belongs to them.

An Inuit woman named Elisapi has been my translator on several visits to the far northern settlement of Resolute; she is gentle, quiet, and plain, a serious, fortyish woman to whom I have always felt I could say anything. What word can describe her better than pure? But then I am always saying this about Inuit. To borrow from some idiot's remark about pornography, I can't define purity, but I know it when I see it. In Elisapi's case I think of kindness and patience and an unassuming spirituality. I hate even to write this much; I don't want to invade her soul with my conjectures and blundering definitions. Once, when I asked her what she thought was the most beautiful place in the Arctic, Elisapi looked at me in surprise and said, "Why, the land, of course. All the land."

What Elisapi loves above all else is to be "out on the land"ùa phrase of almost mystic significance to Nunavummiut. Out on the land! On one of my trips to Iqaluit I met the wife of a carver, a slender woman who engraves brooches of walrus ivory. "I love to hunt anything," she saidùthe same words I'd already heard uttered by so many. "I've killed caribou, seal, walrus. I never killed a whale or a polar bear but my niece killed both already." She spoke with immense pride.

Elisapi, her husband, Joe, and their children have spent many a summer in a hunting camp on the ice. Even non-Inuit get infected. I've heard a Quebecer schoolteacher here use the same words: She was going to take her children out on the land for Easter, if the wind didn't prove too cold for the little ones. A young Anglo man I met in Apex, a little offshoot of Iqaluit, was always saying, "Man, I wish I were out on the land. Man, I wish I had a machine."

I remember the day Elisapi told me about the way she feels about the land. There was a strange light upon the hills and hollows, the armpits and throats of the white country, with the snow-covered sea pale blue like open water, and when Elisapi spoke, a feeling between love and sadness came over me, the same feeling I have year after year in the Arctic when I'm alone with mountains or musk oxen, far away beneath the sky.



More Travel

Love to Travel?

Thank you!