DATELINE: ELLESMERE ISLAND

A town at the edge of the world

Michael Gerard April 22 1985
DATELINE: ELLESMERE ISLAND

A town at the edge of the world

Michael Gerard April 22 1985

A town at the edge of the world

DATELINE: ELLESMERE ISLAND

Michael Gerard

From the air, the village of Grise Fiord looks like an exclamation mark. It stands on a rocky ledge between the sea ice and the glacial mountains of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian High Arctic: two rows of simple wooden houses, about 30 in all, in shades of brown, ochre and beige. The houses cluster at one end of the strip. A satellite receiving dish provides the punctuation mark at the other. Situated 1,100 km north of the Arctic Circle, Grise Fiord is Canada’s most northerly civilian community. It was created 32 years ago when the Canadian government moved seven Inuit families from Quebec and Baffin Island to settle an area at that time beyond the limits of human habitation. Now the village’s population has grown to almost 120 people, but their roots are still as shallow as those of Arctic grass in the permafrost. And some residents are lobbying the federal government to return them to their original homes.

Indeed, some Grise Fiord Inuit, like Sam Willy, have already moved back with their families to northern Quebec. And on Feb. 26 Willy joined five other Inuit spokesmen in an Ottawa meeting

with Indian and Northern Affairs Minister David Crombie to seek compensation for Grise Fiord’s residents, acknowledgment of their contribution to Canadian sovereignty in the High Arctic and a pledge that the government would return them to Quebec should they wish to relocate. Since then, Crombie has been studying housing options in northern Quebec should relocation take place. “Nobody else is saying that they definitely want to go back now,” explained Willy’s brother, Larry Audlaluk, one of the original settlers and, at 35, an articulate spokesman for the town’s new generation of Inuit. “A lot of us are happy to be here. But I think many of the older people are getting homesick, and some of them are ready to move back whenever the government can arrange it.”

When it established the settlement Ottawa said that it would provide a better hunting area for native families then living in a depressed and overcrowded area around Port Harrison, now called Inoucdjuac, Que. But Grise Fiord natives say that they suspect the government had an ulterior motive and that the move was also an attempt to use them to support Canadian sovereignty claims in the High Arctic Islands. Prior

to their arrival there had been only a remote Royal Canadian Mounted Police outpost to claim that corner of the frozen North for Canada. Intermittently since the 1920s, successive pairs of Mounties, working in two-year shifts, had doubled as weathermen and postmasters, although there was no one to send or receive mail but themselves. They flew the flag and acted less as police than as living survey stakes in the southeast corner of Ellesmere Island.

Then, a government supply ship, the ice-strengthened C.D. Howe, slipped through the blue pack ice to deposit the seven Inuit families on a ledge of rocky land on shore. The setting was spectacular: mountains towering above the sea ice, capped by glaciers and gouged by long fiords, a land as beautiful as it was desolate and empty. Audlaluk was just three years old when he stepped ashore with his mother, father, two sisters and two older brothers on that late August day. There were no homes for them at first and no lumber to build any. The family passed its first bitterly cold winter in a tent covered with buffalo skins provided by the RCMP. The transplants were as ill-informed as they were unprepared: they did not realize that the sun would disappear below the horizon for

almost four months. Recalled Audlaluk: “My parents were very surprised. The days got shorter and shorter, and finally the sun just disappeared and it became completely dark.”

But as the creator of the community, Ottawa was committed to both supervise and take care of the population. As a result, a village gradually coalesced around the RCMP post and co-op store. In the early 1960s the government established a nursing clinic, an electrical generating station, storage tanks for water and fuel oil and a school. By the mid1960s, when the government constructed new housing, Grise Fiord began earning a reputation as a remote but attractive place to live.

Said James Herman, the RCMP officer currently assigned to the post: “I don’t think there are too many guys in the division who would turn Grise Fiord down. It is about as close as you can come to being the old-style traditional mounted police detachment, like back in the old days.” Herman lives with his wife, Barbara, in a small white bungalow. In late June, when the snow melts, neat rows of boulders will appear outside its front door, painted white by bored Mounties’ wives to mark the perimeters of an imaginary lawn. There is no real crime in the community, and Herman has little actual police work to do. Declared the corporal: “I just try to be more of a helping hand to the people here, help them out with any problems with the government.”

For its white inhabitants—Herman and the co-op store manager, the schoolteacher and the nurse—Grise Fiord is only a temporary place to work: home is always somewhere else. For nurse Kathlyn Semple, 59, home is Brampton, Ont., where she left a husband and grown family to pursue a career and satisfy her spirit of adventure. “For one thing,” said Semple, “there are no houses for us people up here, only those that are supplied by our job. If I quit my job, I have to quit where I am living. So we are only here on a working basis.” In her combined home and clinic Semple handles such routine health problems as sniffles, cuts and vaccinations. But with the nearest doctor 1,500 km away in Frobisher Bay, she also has to handle emergencies—and she once performed minor surgery by taking instructions over the telephone from the doctor in Frobisher Bay. Said Semple: “It sounds romantic, but most of the time we are just submerged in our own little existence here. And there is no road out.”

In fact, whites and Inuit alike feel the isolation. Only summer breaks the long monotony. And in recent years summer has also brought visitors—European game hunters, Japanese film crews and even those tourists wealthy enough to afford the “North Pole Tour” of Elles-

mere Island offered by a travel agency at the airport at Resolute, a village 400 km southwest of Grise Fiord. Once a week about 14 guests arrive by chartered plane to sightsee and to bunk down at the new, chalet-style Hotel Grise Fiord for $125 a night. They snap a few photos of ice floes and dog sleds and then fly home again. Then the residents face yet another long winter in an adopted land.

Meanwhile, the government has made an effort to provide them with at least the trappings of home. Most houses are now equipped with an oil furnace, running water, septic tank, electric stove, refrigerator —and a television set. “They just fancied it up,” said Audlaluk, grinning as he described the improvements to his own home. He added,

“Compared to about 30 years ago, it’s just like living in a white man’s house.” Indeed, Audlaluk’s daughters sprawl in front of one of the family’s two televisions, watching rock video broadcasts from the south. But some things do not change. His wife, Annie, now cooks with electricity instead of kerosene, but the traditional pot of stewed seal still simmers on the back of the stove.

Most of the community’s food and supplies are ordered from Montreal, using an annual shopping list which the co-op manager painstakingly draws up. The goods are then delivered once a year by icebreaker. Apart from that, the airstrip one kilometre out of town provides the only link to the outside world. Twice a month a Twin Otter airplane arrives

from Resolute with mail and a few more overpriced items for the co-op: eggs at $4.46 a dozen, milk at $4.16 a litre, lettuces at $3 to $3.25 a head and bread at $3.16 a loaf. At those prices financial hardship has replaced physical survival as the major challenge. “I have only a low-paid job,” explained Audlaluk, who delivers the home heating oil in the village. “Without hunting I do not know how I would feed my family.”

But it is that combination of modern wage employment and traditional Inuit hunting life that makes Grise Fiord work. Its isolation is its drawback but also its salvation. The influence of the south has been tempered by the land itself, while Inuit customs have been preserved to a greater extent than in the communities of northern Quebec. Still,

that does not make Grise Fiord home for some of its older residents, who continue to press Ottawa to move them back to their relatives and original homes near Port Harrison.

But Port Harrison is no longer the home they remember. “They came from outpost camps,” said Audlaluk, “but those northern Quebec settlements have grown very large, so maybe the older people will find the change too great there too.” For the time being, he, for one, is staying in Grise Fiord. In the long run, the village’s future will be determined not by those who leave but by those who stay. For them, and their children, the settlement on the outermost edge of Canada may finally become home.&44t;£>