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Nunavut Day: The Nation Tunes In


Text and Photos by Lee Narraway

In 1999, the largest land claim agreement negotiation in Canadian history was finally signed, sealed and delivered. Nunavut officially became a bona fide Territory of Canada, sending geographers back to the drawing board to change the map of Canada for the first time since Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949. Now 13 years later, I am here in the territory’s Capital city, Iqaluit, excited to participate in the 2012 celebrations of that historic day.

It is a statutory holiday throughout the territory and in Iqaluit everyone is ready to party. I hear the music first. Irresistible bouncy tunes that wrap around my soul. In the parking lot behind the Legislative Assembly building, people begin to smile, move and dance as the Simeonie Keenainak band from Pangnirtung starts to warm up. It is impossible to stay still and within moments, the whole crowd is up and dancing, shifting partners, forming groups and swinging around with arms linked.

This beguiling music has Celtic roots and its origins can be traced to the jigs played on accordions by Scottish seamen when they came North to hunt whales in the early 1800s. This style of music has become so ingrained in the hearts of Inuit that now it is often referred to as traditional Inuit music and the dancing that accompanies it as Inuit round dancing.

My day starts at 4 am. I silence the persistent rattle of the alarm clock with a hard whack, then peer out my bedroom window. Despite the early hour and overcast skies, it is already as bright as noon. All at once I remember: Today is Nunavut Day! I dress quickly, grab my camera gear and head out for the long hike to the Legislative Assembly building. For the first time ever, the iconic CTV national network morning show, Canada AM, is broadcasting from the North and I do not want to miss a minute of it.

It had rained overnight. As I splash through puddles along the beachfront, ravens gargle their strange melody; a blend of rasping croaks, intermittent squawks and random kerplunks. At low tide the air is filled with the scent of salt water and mud flats and I pause for a moment to inhale deeply. Ahh, the smell of the sea. Halfway across the bay, an iceberg squats in the mud, stranded there until the flow of Frobisher Bay’s high tide. Dogs bark as I hike along the deserted streets. Perhaps it is a tad too early for most people to be up and about, I almost shout out “Happy Nunavut Day!” just for practice.

I pass a few apartment buildings, then numerous small houses with their yards crammed full of an assortment of snow machines, qamutiit, bicycles, and tarps, scraps of wood and chunks of metal. How far Nunavut has progressed into the modern world in such a short period. With no large hardware store in town, it is important to keep a supply of parts and possibilities on hand and the Inuit are still very well known for their ingenious and creative repair jobs.

When I arrive at the parking lot, it is a scene of organized chaos. Electrical cords snake across the pavement to power up large remote television screens that hang from tall posts for the crowds. A videographer experiments with the telephoto range of his big camera suspended on the end of a long boom. He swings it high over the parking lot to zoom down onto main street while below people scramble to adjust lights and focus them on a small stage that has been erected with the Legislative building as a back drop. The back of a panel truck has been converted into a temporary control room.

Over the last several days, 17 pallets loaded with 4,450 kilograms of equipment have arrived in Iqaluit. Now the 25 staff of Canada AM face the logistical challenges of broadcasting live from the Arctic. Not only do they have to maintain an uninterrupted satellite communication link with the master control at their Toronto-based station but also deal with ravenous mosquitoes and the possibility of more torrential rain.

I move along with a crowd of enthusiastic supporters and we stream into the staging area to enjoy a free breakfast and wait for the action to begin. After a short rehearsal, hosts Beverly Thomson and Jeff Hutcheson graciously come over for a chat and then they are live on air. Their broadcast over two mornings runs 6 am to 9 am and each fast-paced segment features an eclectic group of guests and a variety of topics.

The Mace of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut has been moved outside onto a table draped with sealskin sewn in the design of the official Coat of Arms. The Mace is an exquisite piece of art made from the tusk of a narwhal and decorated with Arctic mammals carved from stone. The elaborate head features silver loons enclosing a large ball of blue lapis lazuli surrounded by gemstones and topped by a 2¼-carat diamond. It was first presented at the inaugural opening of the Legislative Assembly in 1999 and today, three of the original six artists who worked on the project — Paul Malliki, Inuk Charlie and Mathew Nunqingaq — are being interviewed. It is fascinating to hear that all the gems on the Mace are from Nunavut and that it was designed to represent the connection between the land and the sea and the source of food.

I manoeuvre my way around the cameramen to find a good spot to watch the next segment. Johnny Issaluk and Thomas Anguti Johnson have set up a stand to demonstrate some traditional Inuit games. Johnny is one of the most outstanding Inuit athletes in the world, winner of numerous gold medals in the Inuit games and featured in the award winning film “Inuit High Kick”. Thomas, also an athlete, is also the dancing celebrity of “Feel the Inukness” a You Tube sensation with over 150,000 hits.

Jeff Hutcheson looks at the two fit young men standing before him then gamely challenges them to beat his score on the Inuit high kick. The target is a small sealskin ball that presently dangles from a string about three feet, six inches from the ground and the goal is to jump up, kick the ball and land again balanced on the same foot. With some helpful hints and a lot of encouragement, Jeff manages to kick the target on his second try, does a personal happy dance, shares some high fives then makes a teasing comment, “See if you can beat that one Thomas!”

The ball is raised to the top of the bar and now hangs at an astounding height of seven feet, two inches. Thomas slowly walks forward; his eyes never leave the target. He crouches low then springs upward and kicks the ball. The crowd goes crazy. And then he tells Jeff that the world record is an unbelievable nine feet, eight inches!

An array of food from the local grocery store has been laid out on the table with a comparison of prices between northern and southern Canada. Some of the differences are shocking. Beverly Thomas talks with Mary Simon, former Canadian diplomat and former president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s National Inuit organization. Mary explains that these prices are even higher in the more remote communities further north and points to a person in the audience who is holding a sign showing the price of one can of frozen orange juice in Arctic Bay at $11.29. There is now a movement in Nunavut called “Feeding my Family” that is trying to draw attention to the issue of high food prices.

Speaking of food, a barbecue has been set up and Jeff questions Josef Szakacs, Executive Chef at the Frobisher Inn, about his method of cooking Arctic char, which is to keep it simple; brush with olive oil, salt and pepper, place on pre-heated grill and cook a few minutes on each side until done. He serves it with a baked potato dressed with caribou sausage and the aroma and final presentation of his meal are mouth-watering. I am hungry again. Thank goodness it is nearly lunchtime.

The crowd is expanding and people are here to celebrate. Children rush their parents over to stand in line for a chance to play in the huge inflated jumping castle, running back to the end of the line again and again when their turn is finished. Face painters are kept busy and a hodgepodge of kittens, butterflies, flowers, Spiderman and aliens shyly parade around the grounds. A long line of people weave their way through the parking lot, drawn there by the delicious aroma of free musk ox burgers and hot dogs that sizzle on the barbecues. In another area a feast of traditional country food features raw seal, caribou, maktaaq (whale skin with a layer of fat), Arctic char and fresh homemade bannock.

With some caribou in one hand and bannock in the other, I head over to the back stairs of the Legislature. Twenty-one people are being honoured today for their significant contributions and achievements in Nunavut. One by one, they are presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. This medal was created to commemorate the 2012 celebrations of the 60th anniversary
of Her Majesty’s accession to the throne.

I hear the excited chatter of small children and look over to see six dead seals lined up on a blue tarp. Curious children crouch down beside them to peer into eyes, poke fingers into ear holes and touch the bristly whiskers. A little girl reaches out tentatively to feel the fur.

“Mummy, its weally, weally soft,” she says in awe.

A large crowd gathers. One woman and five men walk onto the tarp and stand beside their chosen seal. Each person holds a large skinning knife. At the starters signal, the “seal skinning” event is underway. We all watch intently as contestants work quickly and carefully to remove the skin in one piece with no nicks or tears so that later it can be scraped, dried, softened and used to make sealskin clothing. The meat is trimmed and the carcass cut up and put in a bag. This country food will be shared at the elder’s’ residence tonight. The winner completes the task in less than 10  minutes. Amid applause and cheers he is awarded first prize: a drum of gasoline.

Playing games with a multi-generational gathering of people from a mixture of backgrounds and cultures is a delightful part of the Nunavut Day celebrations…and it’s game time! More than 60 people have formed a circle and all are focussed on the roll of the dice. Anticipation builds every time a die is thrown onto the ground and immediately seized by the next person and flipped again. Each hopes to roll the elusive number three. An Inuit elder dressed in a beautiful beaded amauti — a traditional Inuit hooded parka — grins at me as she snatches the dice, leans forward and rolls a winner. She darts into the centre of the circle, grabs a yellow bundle of nylon rope and quickly starts to untangle it. The ten foot piece of rope has been tied and re-tied into a mass of knots that have left it about two feet long. Within seconds, a young boy, face painted like Spiderman has also rolled a three and runs in to take the rope from her. As the dice fly, more and more people race into the centre to detangle the rope before they are ousted by the next player. With at least 10 die circulating, the action moves quickly. People laugh and joke as they are jostled out of the way. Amidst the laughter and encouragement, the rope gradually becomes untangled and finally there is a winner.

Thirteen people kneel in a circle for the “duck pluck” event. In front of each of them lies the carcass of an eider duck. The winner will be the first person to strip the duck naked, leaving feathers only on the head, wings and tail. The countdown begins. Three…two…one…GO! Immediately, fingers and feathers start to fly. Plucking has to be done rapidly but carefully as the duck’s skin is thin and tears easily. One overzealous competitor soon learns this when he rips the skin near the wing and is eliminated.

Underneath the feather layer lies thick soft eiderdown. Eider ducks are renowned not only for the superior insulating qualities of their down but also the large quantity each bird produces. It quickly becomes evident that the down is also light and fluffy and floats away easily. When a small child leans over an elder’s shoulder and seriously points to a spot she has missed, the woman begins to laugh and inhales a mouth full of down. Coughing and laughing she continues to pluck. Inspired, two children begin to pick up handfuls of eiderdown and blow it into the air. The crowd draws closer and laughs at their antics. More down fills the air but at last there is a naked duck and a winner.

The sound of music signals the start of the next game. People pair off, each with a rope tied around their waist. Then another short length of rope ties them together. Before the music begins again the connecting rope is undone from one of the partners. Similar to musical chairs, everyone begins to dance and mingle, weaving in and among the masses of people in a circular manner until the music stops. Immediately, we try to find our partner and tie up again. With over 100 people crowded together, this is almost an impossible task. Everyone is shrieking with laughter, calling out names, jumping up and down and waving their hands. It is absolute bedlam. We all win in this game and by the end my stomach is aching from laughing.

The party is over. I can still hear folks calling out “Happy Nunavut Day!” as I head home, exhausted but invigorated by the fun, the crazy antics and the camaraderie of the day.