Arriving in Far Northern Canada, where nearly every landmark possesses two names: one given by colonial explorers and one, older, indigenous, linked to Inuit history.
There were things I did not know as I looked at the place we call the Northwest Passage but whose real name is known only to itself. Before I walked onshore, the land lay like a dreaming body whose dream emanated, brushed against me, and infused my body. Its eloquence and message remained quiet and mysterious as our ship approached. I couldn’t believe we were really about to walk upon the blue, white, and gold vision itself. It seemed impossible but was not impossible. I’d been given the key to enter, to lie down and listen, to breathe its exhalations and hear it speak, and nobody does this without being changed.
In 2010, bestselling author Kathleen Winter embarked on a journey across the storied Northwest Passage, among marine scientists, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and curious passengers. From Greenland to Baffin Island and all along the passage, Winter bears witness to the new math of the North—where polar bears mates with grizzlies, creating a new hybrid species; where the earth is on the cusp of yielding so much buried treasure that five nations stand poised to claim sovereignty of the land; and where the local Inuit population struggles to navigate the tension between taking part in the new global economy and defending their traditional way of life.
Boundless is a haunting and powerful homage to the ever-evolving and magnetic power of the North.
But what I felt in the magical entrance to Pond Inlet was eclipsed, on our arrival, by a different reality. In fact, Europeans had named the body of water we now entered “Eclipse Sound,” after a British whaling vessel hunting bowheads decades before Franklin’s disappearance. “Eclipse” was a good word for what happened to my vision here. Things were not as they appeared, and there was more than one reality at play: layers superimposed on other layers.
The place names hint at this: we’d arrived in a land where nearly every landmark or settlement possesses two names. One name given by colonial explorers; another—older, indigenous—linked not to European, but to Inuit history. The British name “Pond Inlet” referred, not to ponds or lakes or any other real aspect of the place, but to an Englishman named John Pond who’d been the royal astronomer when British explorer John Ross named the area for the English in 1818. The Inuit name for Pond Inlet is Mittimatalik.
Ships don’t often land at Pond Inlet: like most settlements in Canada’s Far North, there are no dock facilities to accommodate them. Yet we soon saw that our vessel was not the only one visiting. Anchored in the waters near us loomed another ship: a large vessel whose occupants were visiting the inlet, as we were about to do—but for very different reasons.
We put on our rubber boots for a wet landing, which meant departing the ship in Zodiacs and wading toward the beach. I was excited at the thought of entering Canada after Greenland. I was my father. I was the immigrants who’d come to Canada before him. Here were the mountains, ice, and cold remoteness that had called to my dad since he was young. I’d come to Newfoundland passive and involuntary at age eight. But reaching Mittimatalik, I touched Canada for the first time with my own intent.
I felt a strange combination of newness and belonging: the North was the idea of Canada as perceived by the collective unconscious of the world. I was a newcomer, yet had a passport and was allowed to stay. Approaching Pond Inlet became a ceremony, like the rites by which a child is brought to a spiritual path by parents and then chooses, at an age of reason, to confirm this is where she belongs. In Newfoundland other kids had sensed I was a stranger; I’d not known my grandparents or experienced rootedness. But on Mittimatalik’s beach I felt land’s gravity reach and speak to me in no one’s terms but mine and its own.
Mountain, rock, and beach were substantial; there was nothing vague about the gesture I perceived in their substance. It was clear to me I was undergoing a ritual created by the ground itself, here in the Far North of a place some called Canada, a place that had not been my birthplace but was offering now to accept me. This acceptance I had not expected to feel and it moved me greatly: I felt the land’s strength enclose the energy of my own being as soon as I put my feet on it. I’d never known a visceral connection with ground, but felt one now. It was not a thing I’d imagined might happen, and I felt wonderment.
But as we approached the beach I realized we would be far from the only people interacting with the land. All along the shore, crawling over the rocks and occupying the beach, moved men and women in military gear: guns, badges, camouflage suits. The ship anchored near ours was an Arctic war ship deployed by the Canadian Department of National Defence. The Canadian military was visiting here in order to carry out cold-weather tactical exercises as part of the federal government’s latest push to assert sovereignty north of the Arctic Circle. This was not just a cadet exercise like many I’d seen in the outports of Newfoundland, or in my children’s schoolyards and gymnasia in a province where the army was perceived as one of few sure career choices for rural students. The troops covering the beaches of Mittimatalik were not cadets but soldiers, and with them strode Peter MacKay, then Canada’s Minister of National Defence, clambering around the beach with an aura of great purpose.
The troops had overtaken a good part of the community, including the arena, where we were supposed to have played a friendly game of soccer with the people of the village. The building was now the soldiers’ temporary dormitory, and our soccer game was not their kind of exercise. I’d been assigned as a cheerleader and was ready to wear a caustic green wig and a pink bikini over my woollens. Earlier, on board the ship, our players had chosen faux-Italian versions of their surnames and painted them on their shirts: Macgillverio, Martinello, and the like. Nathan Rogers had been taken aside and advised he’d gone too far and must not be spotted in a shirt proclaiming him as Fellatio. There’d been an all-night prayer vigil to ensure our team would lose respectably. We were looking forward to it.
Official word came through the grapevine, as we straggled up the beach, that the National Defence Minister would not be joining our team as star defenceman MacKaglio, nor would the soccer game go ahead at all, since his military personnel were busy conducting intensive naval exercises with the U.S. and Denmark, making much of Mittimatalik now out of bounds for civilians. MacKay did not have time to visit our ship, eat dinner with the captain, or take a virtual tour of the stunning new Geological Map of the Arctic with our geologist. Instead, we were now free to explore the non-militarized part of the community in disbanded form.
Some of our passengers chose to stay on the beach and take photographs of the younger soldiers—the sun lit their faces and they appeared proud and excited to be part of the government’s military plan for the North.
“Have you been in the Far North before?” asked a passenger. “It must be exciting work.”
“I admire what you’re doing,” said another. “We appreciate your hard work, the dedication of all the troops. May I shake your hand?”
I moved away from the uniforms and guns as quickly as I could. It had surprised me to see the beach occupied like this. I wanted to get away from it. I wanted to see Mittimatalik’s daily life, its natural self, without any military ownership superimposed on it. But I realized that might be more difficult than I’d thought. The Canadian North has a long history of commercial, police, and military presence and, often, interference in the lives of the Inuit. I knew that from the 1920s through the 1950s and beyond, many Inuit had been coerced and even forcibly displaced from their traditional communities to satisfy a variety of outside interests—most infamously, perhaps, being forced to serve as “human flagpoles” in remote regions for the sake of Canadian Arctic sovereignty.
Southern governments appeared to share a view that it did not matter where Inuit people lived. To them, the North was all the same: featureless, frozen, and undifferentiated — a supposition born of ignorance and neglect that caused tragedy for untold displaced Inuit people, both in Canada and in the circumpolar regions of other countries. What seemed like an identical tract of land to white officials proved to Inuit to have unfamiliar contours and different animals or fish—sometimes no animals and no fish. Why did no one but the Inuit themselves understand that a person’s homeland is sacred, sustaining, and irreplaceable?
As I retreated from the soldiers on the shore, I felt the line dissolve between what we call history and the present: the line between then and now impressed itself on me as an illusory boundary, like national borders and measurements of time. Everything about this gateway to the Northwest Passage, including its military occupants, spoke of a present moment firmly connected not just to the land’s own intrinsic life, but to a strikingly evident geopolitical past and future.
Structures here were very different from houses and businesses in Greenland. Here stood no red, yellow, or green houses flanked by daisies or purple cottonweed. There was no café with a sign offering smoked seal or caribou with juniper berries. Pond Inlet’s houses were either unpainted or shaded in muted greys and greens. Building this far above the treeline came at exorbitant cost, as it did in Greenland. But these structures held none of the aesthetic cheerfulness of the Greenlandic houses we’d sketched or painted or photographed. They were like the government-issued prefab units I’d seen when filming documentary work and teaching in Shetshatshiu, Labrador. This is the case in much of Canada’s North: the Nunavut government’s 2010 Housing Needs Survey found 49 percent of homes in the territory to be substandard—often overcrowded and in need of major repair. The difference in atmosphere between the social conditions here and in Greenland was immediately apparent, and passengers talked about it, especially those who weren’t Canadian and had little knowledge of how Canadian indigenous people’s lives have been reshaped by government policy issuing from the urban south.
“Why are the houses so derelict?” asked Mary, an American.
As I walked the grey road I saw, ahead, an Inuk with a handmade doll. It was a mother doll in an embroidered, fur-edged amauti with a child doll in the hood, and it was for sale. In Greenland we’d meandered uphill and down, past curtained dwellings and outbuildings, and we did the same here.
I remembered summers in Newfoundland when I’d been a person living in a town others visit. On Water Street in St. John’s, and on a ferry from Woody Point to Norris Point, Americans had wanted to take photographs of a Newfoundland woman with her red-haired child. “Oh, she looks just like Anne of Green Gables! Do you mind if we take your photo to show our friends back in Pennsylvania that we met little Canadian Annie?”
The Woody Point ferryman had played Newfoundland jigs: visitors wanted fiddles and accordions. He made detours for the visitors so the trip, which normally took 15 minutes to ferry locals to work or the doctor or the store, glittered with dolphin pods and shimmering mackerel and the history of an abandoned settlement. It could cut into the local people’s day by an hour and a half.
When I was living near Brigus, I took care to go into the village only when the blueberry festival tents weren’t up and the horse and cart rides were finished and Meg Ryan and Daniel Radcliffe had stopped hanging incognito around the house with the sign that said Esther’s Homemade Bread, and one autumn day I visited Brigus Public Library and heard:
“I’m elated they’re gone.”
“Tell me about it. Traipsing six inches in front of your window, poking their noses right through your curtains and then doing it again backwards.”
“I’m asphyxiated with it.”
“‘Asphyxiated’ is the right word, Madeleine. You hit the nail on the head there. I don’t care if I never set eyes on another stranger as long as I draw breath. And me with two sons who can’t afford to live in their own hometown because the tourists don’t want to see trailer homes in any of our fields. I’d like to wrap a few trailer homes around their necks and see how they like that.”
As an outsider myself I’d felt interest and amusement as I listened, but here in Pond Inlet, as I watched everyone pass by the woman and her handmade doll, I wondered how she felt.
By the time I reached her, I was surprised that still no one had bought her doll. Maybe someone had promised to pay on the way back down to the ship.
“Has anyone said they’ll buy your doll?” She shook her head.
“How much is it?”
“A hundred dollars.”
I knew a hundred dollars was a good price for the doll. Someone coming up behind me would buy it, one of the Americans, maybe, who’d know they couldn’t get such a doll anywhere else on earth. I continued uphill, leaving the maker behind. She had a little girl with her. I wanted time to walk alone and think about how I was feeling in this first stop on the Northwest Passage. How unsettling that the military entourage of the Minister of National Defence should be here just as we arrived. It seemed an unlikely coincidence, yet I knew the Prime Minister himself now made an Arctic trip yearly, making a point of creating media buzz around his presence and his intention to build on past Canadian governments’ use of northern settlements as markers of ownership. These trips were signals to other countries: signals that Canada planned to stake aggressive claim to its Far Northern shores and all the sapphires, oil, and other geological riches they contained, especially now that ancient barriers of ice were melting.
I walked to the Co-op store. Outside on its wooden rails someone had scrawled the kind of message my teen daughter had graffitied in her school bus shelter in Newfoundland:
I’m tired of this town
I wish I
can go some where
In the lobby a young mother hunkered down at the bubblegum machine, her baby in her amauti and her older son clutching his fireman doll and deciding between Dubble Bubble and Rascals fruit chews. She wore sunglasses and until I took her photo like the tourists in Newfoundland had taken mine, I didn’t notice her bruises.
Inside stood shelves of corned beef and baked beans, tins of ravioli, acrylic yarn and plastic flashlights and white bread, all at exorbitant prices. A fridge bore green peppers and iceberg lettuces strangled in plastic. I saw the Kit Kats and Mars Bars, chips and sodas I’d seen in convenience stores in southern towns where the mills had shut and no one had registered children for kindergarten in a long time. Celery and wieners sat criminally priced and way past their best-before dates. A bulletin board bore notice that next month a dentist would fill cavities, fit dentures, and treat mouth diseases. I knew a nurse who’d come here to treat tuberculosis, a disease my mother nearly died of in England when she was young, but which my world now considered a thing of the past.
But my reference points didn’t belong here. Anything I might assume about life in the North was based on knowledge from a different way of being. It was easy enough for me to see a threadbare version of southern cultural coordinates: a can of condensed milk at seven dollars, a drafty bungalow priced far out of reach. But this wasn’t the whole picture.
I thought of fish and wild meat in rural Newfoundland and how it represented all that might be invisible about a place to a person who was just passing through. There were outports in my province where a visitor might look in the convenience stores and wonder how anyone there ever got a decent bite to eat. They might go to a restaurant around the bay and think Newfoundlanders lived on corn dogs and deep fried mozza sticks and in some cases they might be right. Food sovereignty has been and is becoming a crisis in the rural places of the western world: here in Mittimatalik just as in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland, and Green Bay, Wisconsin and places all over the world, food crimes are being committed by multinational producers and distributors, by governments, shopkeepers, and educators—some of it unconscious, but much of it a direct result of corporate greed and a collective cultural somnambulism. Yet underneath the corporate food system in small-town Newfoundland, and more so in the Canadian North, remains a connection to real food from local land and water. I remembered how in Greenland Aaju Peter had rejected the commercialization of wild food. I sensed in her view an unease I shared, at how harvesting and sharing wild, nutritious food has become imperilled by economic forces sweeping the globe.
In Newfoundland I’d known an old woman who ran an outport post office from her house. She ate herring and partridgeberries and seabirds whose local names are found only in Newfoundland’s own dictionary. But this was in the 1980s, and the next generation wouldn’t even look at wild food. I wondered if such a transition was afoot in Mittimatalik.
In Innu communities in Labrador I’d seen that a lot depended on whether people were holed up in government housing or out on the land. I visited houses then saw tents on the land and knew these were two worlds. I listened to grand- fathers who kept old ways, then heard their adult sons and daughters who lived in a hybrid world—between old, wild wisdom with its hardship, and a new simulation of southern suburbia with electric heat and factory bread, disorientation and emptiness. Children went to school wearing Disney Pocahontas backpacks.
Now, at the top of the hill, a few passengers gathered around Aaju, asking questions about the difference between Pond Inlet and the villages we had seen in Greenland. Aaju was visibly relieved to be back in the north of Canada, and this puzzled some of the passengers, who’d seen the Greenlandic people as more prosperous than the Inuit here.
“Why,” they asked her, “did you choose to live in the Canadian North, when you already had a homeland that seems so much more economically and socially stable?”
“I could never leave Nunavut,” Aaju said. “I lived as a Greenlandic woman for years, then as a Canadian Inuk woman, and I would never go back.”
“I can never leave Nunavut after learning their teachings.”
“People here relate to people, and not to titles, degrees, or importance.”
“But what about the economy?” asked Yvonne, an American. We’d all seen the Greenlandic butcher shop, with its sparkling tubs of fresh wild seal, reindeer, halibut, and caplin. “Here in Pond Inlet we see no sale of wild meat or fish.”
“That’s because in Greenland, unlike here, hunters and fishermen sell their catch,” Aaju said. “It is part of a cash economy. They are allowed to sell it.”
Everyone nodded as if this were a great idea. We understood licenses that allowed people to exchange goods. We liked quality control and free market prices based on supply and demand. Wouldn’t something like that be better here in Pond Inlet than a not-so-super market mirroring others in Canada’s Far North—frozen, breaded chicken at ten times the cost of buying it in Etobicoke? For a hundred bucks you had yourself a full-meal deal just like in the movies, except it was freezer-burnt and you had to thaw it yourself. Surely the Kalaalimineerniarfik fish markets in Ilulissat and other Greenlandic villages were an improvement?
“Yes,” Aaju said, “Greenland towns have fresh markets where fishermen and hunters get a fair price for their wild catches. But Inuit people in Canada do not sell their catch. They share it.”
Header image of map of Canada courtesy Shutterstock.