The first-ever cruise through the Northwest Passage has set sail

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A tourist vessel outside the hamlet of Kimmirut in Nunavut, Canada. Photo: Mike Beauregard/Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 License.

In 1969, the first commercial cargo ship sailed through the Northwest Passage.

In 2013, the first bulk carrier traversed those same icy waters.

And today from the southern Alaskan port of Seward, the luxury cruise vessel Crystal Serenity set off on its historic 32-day voyage through the Northwest Passage. If it successfully completes the journey, Crystal Serenity will be the first-ever cruise ship to ply these waters. You can keep track of the ship’s location hereCrystal Serenity has sailed on cruises around Antarctica before, but this will be it’s first time heading to the northern polar region.

The 69,000-ton, 820-foot ship is ferrying 800-odd guests, all of whom paid at least $21,855 for their ticket (except maybe the lone travel journalist, who will be blogging about the cruise). The fact that Crystal Cruises, a luxury outfitter if there ever was one, spells out a dress code for its passengers should give you an idea of the type of well-heeled passengers they hope to attract. Here’s one sampler warning: “After 6 pm, casual daytime attire is not appropriate. Shorts and baseball caps are not permitted for men or women.” In other words, please keep all those “ALASKA: THE LAST FRONTIER” baseball caps you picked up at the airport in Anchorage in your suitcase for the next month.

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Crystal Serenity in Antarctica. Photo: Crystal Cruises

The envy-inducing Northwest Passage itinerary includes stops in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and New England and will wrap up in New York City (where it’s been swelteringly humid lately). Passengers will have the opportunity to go out to shore in zodiacs with biologist guides, listen to lectures by the likes of University of British Columbia Professor Michael Byers, an expert on Arctic affairs, and yes – even watch a ventriloquist perform. (His name is Mark Merchant, in case you were wondering.) In case that isn’t enough, there will even be a gemstone trunk show while on board. All while those icebergs glide silently by.

Here are some photos of the types of vistas passengers will enjoy.

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A fjord on Baffin Island, where Crystal Serenity will sail on September 5. Photo: Adam Monier/Flickr. Creative Commons License 2.0

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An iceberg in Disko Bay off Ilulissat, which Crystal Serenity will visit on September 7. Photo: Sarah Cooley

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The town of Sisimiut, Greenland, where Crystal Serenity will dock on September 8.


Escort ship RMS Earnest Shackleton will guide the luxury yacht through the icy waters, while onboard, two experienced ice pilots will help the captain navigate. Crystal Serenity will also be using a higher grade of fuel than mandated to do its part to be green.

Still, despite the three years of preparation that have gone into making this voyage, a lot of concerns remain. First of all, just because the ice is melting doesn’t mean the waters are that much easier to sail. In fact, the opposite could be true since shifting sea ice makes for more volatile and unpredictable conditions. The Northwest Passage is already quite shallow and narrow in parts, and making matters worse, several parts of it have not been charted since the early 1900s. During my fieldwork in the Northwest Territories earlier this summer, one person told me that he thought Crystal Serenity’s crew would have to rely on old maps for some parts of the voyage.

Second, there is not a single hospital along the shores of the Northwest Passage. Children in Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, spend a day and a half flying 2,000 kilometers to Edmonton to get a mere tooth filled. There is a good hospital in a Inuvik and scattered medical facilities in the small towns that dot the Canadian Arctic, too. But in the event of a serious catastrophe in which hundreds of passengers require medical attention, the region just simply doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure.

Two years ago, after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, I examined what would happen if a jet plane went down in the Arctic. That situation sounded scary, but those planes usually carry somewhere in the ballpark of 300 passengers. This cruise ship has over three times that.

For most people, a cruise through the Arctic is not going to be within a lifetime’s reach. But there is a way to sail through the north on the cheap.

Four years ago, I paid $73 for a 17-hour journey onboard a Hurtigruten ship from Tromsø to the Lofoten Islands. Hurtigruten ships are far more pedestrian than Crystal Cruises affairs. After all, they’re still pretty much working boats that ferry mail and supplies, along with tourists, up and down the coast of northern Norway. My ticket explained, “Our ships carry goods, vehicles and foot passengers between ports, during day and night, as an integral part of Norwegian daily life. Our ships are calling at ports around the clock. You may expect some noise and vibration in a few cabins during loading of goods.”

In hindsight, yes: I would willingly save over $21,000 to sail through the Arctic if it just meant that I had to put up with some noise. My cut-rate student fare didn’t buy me a room, but it did get me a blanket that I could cozy up with in the commons area once everyone else had retired to their cabins.

Once daylight broke, I stood outside on the icy deck with a group of German tourists, who all wore matching misshapen beanies that said “Hunting the Light.” This sort of kitsch is probably not what Crystal Cruises, enemy of all baseball-cap wearing Americans, has in mind.

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Beanie-wearing German tourists on board a Hurtigruten vessel off northern Norway. Photo: Mia Bennett

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A Hurtigruten ship: essentially a working vessel that carries tourists. Photo: Mia Bennett.


With Crystal Serenity focusing on the icy and pristine, it obviously won’t be taking tourists to see the blight that exists throughout the Canadian Arctic. Amongst the ruins of bygone development are untethered oil rigs, and perhaps soon, the Port of Churchill. Canada’s only deepwater Arctic port was shut for good earlier this month and is now hoping for a government bailout. These are the type of rusty, gritty places that you’d have a better chance of getting to with a good pair of boots than wingtips.

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An abandoned oil drilling platform off Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo: Mia Bennett


Although it’s unclear what will happen to the forlorn Port of Churchill, if all goes according to plan, Crystal Serenity will dock in New York City on September 17 and its passengers will waltz into the bejeweled night. If Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration doesn’t decide to rescue the port, perhaps Churchill could look to the Chinese. That first bulk carrier that sailed through the Northwest Passage in 2013 is owned by a Chinese-state owned company, the first cargo ship to make the trip in decades the following year was Chinese-chartered, and I’d venture that a fair number of tourists on Crystal Serenity are from China, too.

So the first-ever cruise through Canada’s fabled passage is headed northwest, but really in the Arctic, all signs are pointing east. I guess those people five hundred years ago who thought the Northwest Passage would lead to the riches of Cathay have finally been proven right.

***

“We were the first that ever burst
into that silent sea.”

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1797)

What does the sudden closure of Canada’s only Arctic deepwater port mean for Arctic shipping?

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The Port of Churchill has seen better days. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons License, Martin Lopatka.

Arctic shipping is not off to a good start this season.

On July 25, the privately owned management company, Omnitrax, announced that it was shutting down the Port of Churchill, giving some 40 workers the dreaded two-week notice. Shipping usually runs from late July to early November, meaning that this year’s shipping season will barely even get started before being drawn to an abrupt close.

Churchill exports grain, minerals, and timber from Manitoba and Saskatchewan while importing ore, minerals, steel, and petroleum products for markets in Central and Western Canada and the U.S., according to Omnitrax‘s website.

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Palmer, F. Hudson Bay Route Possible Port Terminal at Churchill [map]. In: F. Palmer. Report on the Section of a Terminal Port for the Hudson Bay Railway. London: Harrison & Sons, Ltd., 1927. Image Courtesy of University of Manitoba : Archives & Special Collections, from Flickr/Creative Commons, Wyman Laliberte.

The port has a storied history, too. In the 1930s, the Canadian government built the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay railroad to improve import and export possibilities for Western Canada, promote northern industrial and community development, and enhance Canada’s northern sovereignty. Somewhat under the radar, it also played its part in improving relations with Warsaw Pact states during the Cold War, too. The port exported wheat and barley to Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, as this Montreal Gazette newspaper clipping from 1981 reports.

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In 1992, building on these little-known but longstanding trade ties, Canada and Russia signed the Arctic Bridge Agreement to promote shipping between Murmansk, a port city in northwest Russia, and Churchill via the Barents and Norwegian Seas and Davis Strait between Greenland and Canada. According to the plan, Murmansk would export mineral and timber products, and Churchill would continue shipping out grain.

That plan never really came to fruition. Today, concentrating on the decidedly unglamorous world of bulk and grain shipments, the Port of Churchill doesn’t rank high on many Arctic cruise itineraries. Most visitors come by rail or air rather than by sea. Located on the southwest shores of Hudson Bay, the town offers one of the closest and most accessible Arctic experiences for the many Canadians who live in central Canada and Ontario. Fluffy white polar bears, spawning, chubby beluga whales, and the colorful northern lights are the main draws for tourists.

At the bottom end of Hudson Bay, however, Churchill is far from the Northwest Passage. As such, it likely won’t benefit from any increase in cruise tourism along the Canadian shipping route. Crystal Cruises’ landmark luxury Arctic voyage this summer, for instance, will call on Uluhaktok (Northwest Territories) and Cambridge Bay and Pond Inlet (Nunavut), but not Churchill, Manitoba.

A micro and macro-level shock

The closure of the Port of Churchill comes as a blow for the local economy. It’s the largest single employer in the town of 800 people, and approximately 50 port employees have received pink slips.

And at a macro level, the port’s shuttering may deliver an even bigger shock to plans to build out Northern Canada’s transportation infrastructure and develop the regional economy. For all the talk of building deepwater ports in Canada’s Arctic from Tuktoyaktuk to Nanisivik it appears that the Port of Churchill, North America’s sole existing deepwater Arctic seaport, is not even viable. Why would companies or the Canadian government want to invest in building additional deepwater ports in the Arctic when they can’t even keep the only operating one afloat?

Still, it will be surprising if the Canadian government lets the port be closed for good. Given its high symbolic status, it’s possible that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government may move to nationalize the port and buy the port back from Omnitrax,  one of the largest private railroad and transportation companies in North America. Omnitrax will be able to keep chugging along even with the Port of Churchill’s closure given its continental-wide operations (a map of its ports and railroads is available here), and it has actually only operated the port for fewer than 20 years. Previously, a crown corporation owned by the Canadian government called Ports Canada operated the port. The government also sold the Hudson Bay Rail Line that extends to the Port of Churchill to Omnitrax in 1997.

Re-nationalizing the port may reveal that a great deal of northern infrastructure, and perhaps even Arctic shipping, simply isn’t economically viable in this day and age – even with climate change and longer shipping seasons. On land, thawing permafrost poses problems for the railroad leading up to Churchill. The issue of shifting ground is common throughout much of the Arctic, making intermodal transportation (smoothly integrating shipping, roads, and rail) more complicated than in the South. And at sea, even though there is less ice in places like the Northwest Passage, there isn’t much more demand in northern markets for goods, while growth is better in the more southern reaches of Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Arctic deepwater ports: a house of cards?

The dismal economic viability of a lot of Arctic infrastructure means that it is important to carefully scrutinize plans such as the recently announced memorandum of understanding signed between the Government of Nunavut and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KIA). They wish to construct a 227-kilometer road to a proposed port at Grays Bay in the Northwest Passage. The road could potentially open up a number of mining regions and provide all-weather access to the Northwest Territories’ diamond mines.

Together, the Government of Nunavut and KIA hope to lobby for federal funding to cover three-quarters of the port’s $487 million price tag – over $365 million, in other words. This would be even more money than the $300 million spent on the 140-kilometer highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, in the Western Arctic. Construction on that road is nearly finished, and locals and government officials alike there are anticipating a deepwater port to follow. Some have even taken to calling the road “the world’s longest boat launch,” suggesting that even if Tuktoyaktuk erodes away into the ocean as is already happening, there may still be a port up there.

But when Arctic shipping appears to be drying up in Canada – first with the bankruptcy of Northern Transportation Limited Company, which provides resupply by barge to communities in Northern Canada, and second with the closure of the Port of Churchill – spending hundreds of millions of dollars on roads to the ocean with no real hope for viable ports in the near future seems foolhardy. Even though the climate is changing, the philosophy, “Build it and they will come,” still doesn’t necessarily apply in the Arctic.

Decades-long concerns

Today, the Port of Churchill only ships two percent of Canada’s grain exports. Todd MacKay, Prairie Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said it well: “If customers are choosing other ports to ship grain, the reality is that more taxpayer dollars won’t solve the problem.” Throwing more public funds to construct big-ticket roads and ports in the Arctic will not result in Hong Kongs, Singapores, or  even Reykjaviks sprouting up from the tundra, no matter the appeal of glossy brochures promoting Northern development.

This has been true even prior to the current blitz by members of the media, governments, and corporations who are heralding a new era in Arctic development thanks to climate change. In 1994, politicians were already worried about the Port of Churchill’s viability and shelling out of money on the Arctic Bridge project between Murmansk and Churchill. The following is a transcript from an oral question period from the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba in 1994 (full transcript available here).

Mr. Daryl Reid (MLA – Transcona, Manitoba): I would like to ask this government: In light of the fact that we have spent taxpayers’ dollars here in the order of several hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ dollars on the consultants for this Arctic Bridge agreement, what do we have to show for those hundreds of thousands of dollars that we have spent?

Hon. Albert Driedger (Acting Minister of Highways and Transportation): Mr. Speaker, the initiative was initially taken in terms of trying to see whether we could assist CN, the Port, everybody in terms of doing more trade through the Port of Churchill. That is why the Arctic Bridge concept was developed. The reports have been coming forward. We are still hopeful that there is going to be activity taking place.

The federal minister Axworthy has said that he himself will also be working in that direction to see whether we can get new enhanced business coming through the Port of Churchill.

So it is not a matter that we are trying to keep the Port of Churchill down. We have been and will continue to do everything we can in terms of enhancing it, including the aerospace thing, the national park out there. If we can get some activity going through the Port of Churchill, I think we have a positive thing going.

Over the years, it seems like polar bears are actually the main thing that have kept Churchill’s economy afloat. The development of the local tourism industry, as Ed Struzik detailed in a story for OpenCanada recently, has helped Churchill from being a one-trick pony completely reliant on the port. Now that the port’s future is up in the air, Churchill may turn into a one-trick polar bear.

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Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Gary Ullah.

How two towns in the Canadian Arctic get their food

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Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

The other evening, I was sitting in a typical house in Tuktoyaktuk enjoying a meal with an Inuvialuit family as the waves crashed outside. This small hamlet in the Canadian North faces the Arctic Ocean and will soon be the terminus of the only public highway in North America to extend to the coastline of the world’s northernmost sea. Inside the cozy, multigenerational home, mom, dad, children, grandparents (daduk and nanuk), auntie, and uncle sat in the kitchen and living room tearing freshly cooked caribou meat off the bone. Some garnished the dark, grassy meat with sea salt while others doused it in ketchup. I enjoyed my portion salted while sitting across from a young girl who put a whole fistful of tender caribou meat on a slice homemade bread. This being “Tuk,” as locals refer to the town, there are no year-round road connections to the rest of Canada, so store-bought loaves that are fresh rather than frozen are hard to come by. Around town, the yeasty smell of baking bread mixes with the salt tang of the ocean and the dust of the dirt roads.

Over dinner, the girl ate spoonfuls of cornflakes with milk in between bites of her open-faced caribou and ketchup sandwich. The combinations of processed food and country food symbolize the complex ways in which people in the Canadian North eat. In the past fifty years, Aboriginal diets have changed enormously, from relying solely on the land and sea for sustenance to now combining wild foods with store food in sometimes curious ways (think HP sauce with beluga whale). With food insecurity already a widely debated issue in the region, I was intrigued by how people actually do manage to put food on the table.

In Tuk, which has a population of about 900 people, most of whom are Inuvialuit (an Inuit people), there are basically four ways to get food: from the land or sea, the grocery store, the greenhouse, or the food bank. In the 3,000-person town of Inuvik, the government center of the Western Arctic, the options are much the same even though it has a year-round connection via the Dempster Highway to the rest of Canada.

By land or sea

When I asked one man what percentage of their protein comes from the land or sea, he responded, “80 pecent.” In Tuk, a large number of people still hunt, fish, and harvest. Early July is prime time for hunting beluga whales, with the Beaufort Sea population being one of the most stable in the world. A group of men will go out in a boat, travel the 25 kilometers across open water towards Hendrickson Island, and then hopefully catch a beluga whale. The snow-white cetaceans are usually butchered on the island before being brought back to Tuk in more manageable pieces. So far this season, the biggest beluga whale caught measured 14 feet long. Three whales around this size can help meet a large family’s protein needs for a year.

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Muktuk – beluga whale skin and blubber – cut up before being boiled.

I got to help lay out boiled squares of muktuk – the blubber and skin of a whale – on pieces of cardboard to dry overnight after being boiled. We protected the meat with a tarp to keep the peckish seagulls away. While setting out the muktuk, I watched one man set a fishing net from shore into the harbor and pull it back a few minutes later, already full of nine whitefish and one crookedback. Two family members gutted and filleted the fish and gave me a taste of raw whitefish roe. Meanwhile in the nearby smokehouse, thin black pieces of beluga whale meat were being smoked over an open fire. The air smelled briny and foresty.

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A man and his fishing hut, with the Cold-War era DEW Line visible in the background.

The next day, I joined the same family for a “fish fry.” The whitefish caught the previous night were cut up, battered, and deep fried to a crispy perfection. We dipped the fried fish in HP sauce and tartar sauce with mashed potatoes on the side. Not to be forgotten was the beluga whale muktuk, which is also very popular with HP sauce, a condiment originally from the UK that seems much more popular in Canada than in the U.S.

If beluga whales are the taste of summer in Tuk, then salmonberries, or aqpiks, are the taste of fall. Women, and some men, go out to the tundra just south of Tuk to gather the orange berries by the hundreds. One man told me one of his favorite country foods is “aqpiks with cream” – again, a combination of country food and story food only possible in the post-contact era, after Europeans arrived.

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Frozen aqpik (salmonberries) and goose eggs in the background.

At other times during the year, the land provides goose eggs (richer than chicken eggs), geese, ptarmigan, grizzly bear, and polar bear (boiled grizzly bear paws, I’m told, are a real delicacy, while polar bear is overly rich, but bear in general is less widely eaten than it once was). The land also provides caribou, which are best in fall. In summer, one woman told me their sweat makes the meat less tasty, so it’s best to wait for the cooler months to hunt them. Yet caribou hunting has become harder for people living in Tuk due to new boundaries established by the government in an attempt to stabilize the herd’s size, which has been declining recently. Many townspeople I spoke to were angry about the boundaries, claiming that the biologists whose research informed their demarcation didn’t know as much about caribou as the Inuvialuit.

With caribou meat proving harder to obtain off the land, some people have instead turned to buying reindeer meat from the region’s sole, privately managed herd. Buying food – particularly country food – would have been unheard of in previous generations. Even today, sharing remains the norm. The man who brought in Tuk’s first beluga whale of the season told me that he didn’t get to eat much of it because he shared most of it with other people in town. It’s this generous philosophy of helping each other out and sharing meals that allowed me, as an outsider, to essentially strike up a conversation with a person in the street and the next day be invited to a wonderful fish fry with their family.

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A cozy family fish fry in Tuktoyaktuk.

The grocery store

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For soda pop, chips, and all the other conveniences of modern food, locals shop at one of two grocery stores in town: Northern or Stanton’s. One local complained to me that Northern makes all their money off of “pop” (soda), with one can costing CAN $1.99. Obesity and diabetes are two modern diseases that have hit Tuk and other Aboriginal communities hard for two reasons: first, the prevalence of high-calorie, high-sugar, high-carb food, and second, a genetic predisposition among Aboriginal peoples to diabetes.

The locally beloved ice cream machine at Stanton’s, which functions when the mix has been delivered (it goes fast on hot summer days, which can reach over 30°C/86°F), and the deep fryer that spits out french fries and chicken strips do nothing to improve access to healthy food. While apples, bananas, and green beans are sometimes impossible to obtain (unless the Fruit Man, who drives a truckload of fresh fruit and vegetables from Vancouver every few weeks, makes an appearance), soda pop and slushies are in no short supply in the Western Arctic. One friend who carries out research in the Mackenzie Delta told me that slushy cups can be found all across the region’s swampy lakes and rivers.

The bulk of Northern and Stanton’s food items have to be flown in during the summertime. Stanton’s charters airplanes sometimes to fly in deliveries. A lot of non-perishable items are brought in over the ice road in winter or by a barge in summer, but that hasn’t come so far this year for a number of supposed reasons. First, the Inuit-owned company that runs the barge, Northern Transportation Company Limited, filed for bankruptcy last year. Second, water levels on the Mackenzie River are low, prohibiting smooth passage for the barge as it makes its way to numerous communities along the river in the Northwest Territories. Some locals rumored that the low water levels are due to the oil sands production in Alberta, which overlaps with part of the Mackenzie River Basin.

Ironically, high water also poses a problem for getting delivery in and out of Inuvik, and by consequence, Tuk. The Dempster Highway connects Inuvik by land to the rest of Canada via a 12 hour drive to Dawson, in Yukon Territory, from which point it’s possible to continue on to Whitehorse and then Edmonton. Most of Inuvik’s groceries come up from Edmonton by truck, and the long and arduous journey by road means that milk costs close to $10 a gallon, while a package of cold cuts is $22.00. And if you want your Cheez-Whiz, you’ll have to dig deep for one jar, which costs $19.29.

Making matters even more difficult for transport, the Dempster has two ferry crossings. The ferry across the Peel River is particularly susceptible to closing due to high water levels. The other week it was closed for five days, meaning that the availability of fresh fruit and produce in Inuvik and Tuk dwindled to a measly amount since trucks couldn’t get through. Worse, yet were the conditions for people stuck on the south side of the Peel River, where it is a two-hour drive to the nearest facilities with a restroom and running water, in Eagle Plains. While traveling up the Dempster towards Inuvik, some friends and I got stuck on that side for 26 hours and had to camp by the road, and that was bad enough.

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Not much to do when the ferry is closed on the Peel River in the Dempster Highway.

Still, eventually the ferry re-opened and the produce came up the road to Inuvik.

In Tuk, a lot of individuals I spoke with hope that once the new highway is opened, the price of groceries will drop, helping to reduce the high cost of living. Yet when the road opens, the government will likely stop identifying it as an “isolated northern community.” This means it could lose access to the Canadian government’s Nutrition North (formerly Food Mail) program, which helps to subsidize the high costs of nutritious, perishable items. Whether grocery prices go up or down, then, is anyone’s guess.

The greenhouse

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Flowers and kale growing in the small greenhouse in Tuktoyaktuk.

A few years ago, Tuk opened its own greenhouse in front of an abandoned RV park, which itself might be renovated and reopened in anticipation of the forthcoming highway. I peeked inside the quiet greenhouse, where numerous heads of kale were sprouting up robustly from the soil. Although the greenhouse is well-built, it’s about a 15 minute walk from the center of town and residents have to carry or truck their own water in since it has no connection to the utilidor. One local resident told me that instead, the greenhouse has inspired people to start their own mini-greenhouses in their own backyards.

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The enormous greenhouse inside the old hockey rink in Inuvik.

Whereas Tuk’s grocery stores are surprisingly comparable to those in Inuvik despite the lack of a permanent road connection, Inuvik’s greenhouse dwarfs Tuk’s. Housed in a former hockey rink, the greenhouse sports a huge number of plots. During the short summer growing season, they provide a critical source of fresh fruits and vegetables for people living in a town where these are in short supply. Even when lettuce or tomatoes do arrive from the south, they’re often wilted or overripe. The local school has four plots, while the homeless shelter also has one in addition to the numerous families and individuals around town who take advantage of the greenhouse. One plot costs $75 for the season. It includes water and soil comes from the nearby golf-course, though it’s not the most nutrient-rich. Upstairs from the ground-level plots on the forming viewing level of the hockey rink, the greenhouse grows colorful flowers, vegetables, and other plants for sale. Some of the products are sold at the weekly Arctic Farmer’s Market in the center of town. From time to time, yoga classes, volunteer dinners, and even a rhubarb social have even been held up on the former viewing deck.

With the 24-hour daylight in Inuvik, which is north of the Arctic Circle, plants grow in record time. This helps to compensate for the short growing season, which lasts from May to September. People grow everything from 40 types of tomatoes to purple cauliflower to rhubarb in the greenhouse, and nearly all of them appear to sprout before your eyes.

I asked one person who works in the greenhouse whether climate change and warming temperatures have had any effect on plants’ ability to grow. She said that more important has been the new roof, demonstrating the underlying importance of solid infrastructure in the modern Arctic. Since the greenhouse has no insulation, it has to shut down in winter. If this were remedied, one volunteer said, “It would be a dream to have the greenhouse year-round.”

The food bank

Both Tuk and Inuvik have food banks, which help fill in the gaps in people’s food supply. One volunteer I spoke to says that sometimes, people drive up in shiny new Ford F-150 trucks and ask for a box of food. But you can’t say no to them, for you never know what their situation is. In Tuk, the food bank is run out by the local Roman Catholic church, which has an active community in town. In both instances, the food bank also provides a nice weekly gathering spot for people. At the food bank in Inuvik, I stood inside as people came in to pick up a box filled with a can of Irish stew, a box of pasteurized milk, potatoes, an onion, and a couple of other cans of vegetables. In Tuk, I watched a woman exchange a large bag of whole-wheat flour for all-purpose flour.

All of these rather basic items which we take for granted in the south can be exorbitantly expensive in northern grocery stores. Below are a few examples of the prices of various items at a grocery store in Inuvik. Some southerners may wonder why they have to subsidize the cost of milk, cheese, and cold cuts going to the North. But when the Canadian government forcibly settled many in the North in the name of sovereignty decades ago, it was likely inevitable that Northerners, moving into insulated homes and driving motorized skidoos, would develop a taste for dairy, sugar, salt, and all the other foods we enjoy in the South.

If the Canadian government wants to continue to claim sovereignty over the North, supplying fresh milk at reasonable prices is just one of the costs it must bear. “Bread and circuses” is no trivial matter in the Canadian Arctic. It might just be rephrased as “milk and jamborees,” in reference to the festivals that communities throw every winter.

Plus, there is a misconception that hunting and gathering is free: it’s not. Gas costs money, bullets cost money, boats and quads cost money – and most of all, hunting takes a lot of time. If Aboriginal peoples are gainfully employed in the wage economy, they have less time to devote to traditional hunting and gathering activities. The grocery store instead forms part of the routine, just as it does for people in the south. If anything, Northerners are more resilient and flexible than many of us living in the south. While we search for coupons to reduce our costs, they go out and hunt and gather and fish, grow their own plants in their greenhouses, and turn to the food bank in time of need.

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Strawberries grow in the Inuvik Greenhouse.