Life in a Northern Town
In October I travelled to Iqaluit with Global Vision as an Arctic Council Youth Ambassador to take part in a summit aimed at discussing arctic issues. Sixty youth took part in the Summit, 30 from the north and 30 from the south of Canada. The running joke was that we were unsure of where I, coming from Fort McMurray, fit in. Was I from the north or the south? Truth is, Fort McMurray is somewhere in-between. We share similarities with both. I never truly appreciated how many similarities our town shares with the North until I spent a week in Iqaluit.
B efore the 1950s, Iqaluit was not a town. There were communities nearby the present-day Iqaluit, but no one lived in that particular place on Frobisher Bay. Not until the military set up a DEW (Distance Early Warning) Line military base in the 1950s. DEW Line bases were built across Canada from east to west during the Cold War. At the same time Fort McMurray was host to a Mid-Canada Line military base, which worked with the DEW Line bases. Both of my grandfathers came to Fort McMurray in the 1950s for jobs that were created as a result of the military base. The setting up of the Mid-Canada Line was one of the earlier population “booms” in Fort McMurray’s history.
Since Nunavut became a territory in 1999, Iqaluit has served as the capital city of the territory, resulting in many public sector jobs. Iqaluit, like Fort McMurray, has had rapid population growth in the last 10 years. Iqaluit rising from 6,000 to 8,000, Fort McMurray from 60,000 to 115,000. A man I met, originally from Ontario, has lived in Iqaluit for seven years. He considers himself a local of Iqaluit. Those of us in Fort McMurray can relate to that sentiment.
Both of these northern towns receive a constant flow of “southerners” coming up to bestow their wisdom on the north. Fort McMurray greets celebrities who have “token photos” to make an environmental point. Iqaluit hosts mainly political figures that go to make a point about Canadian Arctic sovereignty by using the locals as a backdrop to their political agenda. The feeling of having others routinely travel north to our hometown steels us in our solidarity in defending our hometown.
The defense comes against the visitors who sweep in for a day or a weekend and leave again with their heads full of judgements on the issues of the north. Both towns have a natural resource industry that is constantly coming under fire. Ours is the oilsands, theirs is the seal and polar bear hunt. Truth be told, the Inuit have been far more creative than us in coming up with rebuttals to critics. I saw t-shirts in Iqaluit that had a bold write up on the front that said “SEAL IS THE NEW BLACK.” Another trend that caught on last year when Ellen DeGeneres spoke out against the seal hunt after her Twitter-crashing Academy Award selfie, was the “sealfie.” Hundreds of northerners posted photos of themselves proudly wearing, hunting or eating seal.
There are issues worthy of criticism in both towns. Some of our issues couldn’t be more polarized. Our schools are busting at the seams, new schools cannot be built fast enough. There is a different problem with education in the north. The students do not crowd the hallways in the schools of Nunavut. Nunavut’s high school graduation rate is just 54 per cent. The incentives for attending school are high. There are monthly school trips to just about everywhere: nearby national parks, Ottawa and New York, and yet my weekend roommate, Avery from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, is one of two graduates from a class of 52.
Some serious issues facing Canada’s north that we discussed at the Summit include: food costs that are more than double what we pay in the south, rampant alcohol and drug addictions, high levels of sexual abuse, and the highest suicide rate in Canada (7 times the national average). Those issues do not tell the full story of Iqaluit, just as the issues of Fort McMurray do not tell the whole story. Across Nunavut throat-singing is more popular than ever, with an increasing number of youth learning this culturally important expression. The vast majority of the hand sewn seal skin and mitts I saw being sold were sewn by women in their 20s. There is a real sense of hope for the health of Inuit culture in the younger generations. Like Iqaluit, the pulsating energy of Fort McMurray’s generous, entrepreneurial population is proof that there is much hope for us to overcome the issues our town faces. The people of Fort McMurray can be proud that we share characteristics with the north.