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Celebrating Spring at Toonik Tyme

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Hot air balloon in a cold climate.

Iqaluit’s Toonik Tyme celebrates the end of winter’s harshness and gets people out like bears from their winter dens! In Nunavut communities there is always some form of spring celebration, often called Hamlet Day, but in Iqaluit, the territorial capital, the community runs a festival for a week to 10 days every April, with one weekend particularly packed with events.

Started in 1965, Toonik Tyme has become a fixture in the local diary with a reputation for cross-cultural activities, which attract people from all over Nunavut as well as from Greenland, the Western Arctic, southern Canada and elsewhere, often lured by reduced price travel packages which are attractive enough that hotel vacancies are hard to find for a few days and eateries are always packed.

Run by a volunteer committee who work with local sponsors, Toonik Tyme provides a concentrated package of North-South events, many of them free and catering to all ages, providing local residents and visitors alike with a healthy mix of activities delivered in Inuktitut, English and French. Each year an Honorary Toonik is chosen to oversee the week’s events (the Tuniit were people who lived in the Eastern Arctic before the ancestors of today’s Inuit). In the past, the Toonik was a distinguished person such as John Diefenbaker or Prince Charles who was given the award but nowadays the preference is for a local individual who has contributed to the community in some special way.

Other than the big opening and closing ceremonies, which are always popular, the events have tended to fall into three groups over the years, reflecting traditional Inuit practices, more modern Inuit activities or those laced with more southern tastes, providing an intriguing and unique contrast of lifestyles, mirroring life in Iqaluit today. By way of traditional Inuit activities, one might see competitions both on the land and in town in the form of dog team races, igloo building, tea and bannock making, seal skinning, harpoon throwing or ptarmigan and seal hunting. In the more modern vogue, there are events such as snowmobile racing, either up hill behind town, drag racing on the sea ice or the marathon race to Kimmirut, a small community about 100 km away. The latter is perhaps the prestige event, lasting less than four hours for some, featuring a course over sea ice, mountains and very rough terrain but with a handsome monetary prize, much of which is likely spent afterwards on repairs to the winning machine!

And then there are the cross-cultural activities, spearheaded by the huge craft fair, popular for its variety of goods for sale but in particular for the opportunity to buy items reflecting Inuit culture and craftsmanship made with local materials such as carvings, fur clothing, ulus and jewelry. The program can vary from year to year; from giant bingos, and community feasts in the schools to the ever-popular Fear Factor, from golf on the ice or mini golf in town to bands from both North and South of Sixty. As if that were not enough, there may be hot air balloon rides, bicycle dress-up contests, under-the-net races, fashion shows or chariot races. For the young there are sliding competitions on seal skins, sheets of plastic or even garbage bags, while those inclined to move more slowly have their own activities in the Elders’ Centre.

Fashion show, Nunavut-style.

At one point, usually on a weekend afternoon, it would not be unusual if one drove out onto the sea ice to find today’s ever-changing Inuit world come together in an Arctic collage, with golf being played on a nine-hole course on the ice, a dog team trotting by taking visitors out for tea and bannock at a nearby island, while a jet plane roars low overhead, heading towards the nearby airport with its new $300 million terminal. Iqaluit is no longer viewed as a neglected outpost of the British Empire. It is the capital of the territory of Nunavut, the place where Inuit have lived for centuries, whose people run their own affairs but put on an event each spring which not only brings the community together but welcomes others to enjoy their culture and homeland.