Where is North?
It’s a matter of direction and degree. The north pole at 90⁰N (north latitude) is as far north as it gets on earth. The treeline, beyond which trees don’t grow because of ice, snow and cold, is at 50⁰N in some places. Above 60⁰ the land is pretty well all frozen all winter long.
To Americans, Canada is a northern country because it runs north of the United States. The U.S.-Canada border dipsy-doodles around 49⁰N and below (Toronto is at 43⁰N, Montreal and Ottawa at 45⁰N). Most Canadians by far — more than nine out of ten — live within 100 miles or about 1.5⁰ of this border. We hug our big neighbour very tightly.
Canadians are a northern people we say, guardians of the True North our anthem sings. We’re proud that the tiny hamlet of Alert at 82⁰N is the place furthest north on the planet that is continuously occupied. Alert’s motto, Inuit Nunangata, means beyond the land of the Inuit. The permanent population of Alert is zero but there are always a few dozen people there on a rotating basis because it’s a weather and military signals monitoring station and a short-term destination for northern researchers. Umiujaq, where Pammy’s great4granddaughter Kerrin and her Inuk foster daughter live, is just above 56⁰N.
But the real truth is we’re a northern people in name only.
Our North measures 4,650,000 square kilometers (46% of Canada) and has a total population of 110,000, more than half aboriginal (about 50,000 Inuit and 15,000 other indigenous peoples, including Dene, Metis and Cree.)
The North for the United States, Alaska, is the largest state in the union by area, with a population of about 750,000, just 15% aboriginal, largely employed in gas, oil and government, including the U.S. military. Disconnected from the lower 48, Alaska lies mainly between 60⁰N and 70⁰N.
I won’t belabour Helsinki, 1.5 million people at 60⁰N (all of Finland’s 5.5 million people live between 60⁰N and 70⁰N), Stockholm with 1.3 million and Oslo with 1.4 million at 59⁰N, Narvik, Norway with 19,000 people just above 68⁰N.
But the real rival claimant to northern pre-eminence is Siberia. At just over 13 million km2, approximately 10% of earth’s total land area, Siberia is 77% of Russia, with a population of 40 million. Very few (~6%) are indigenous, although some Mongols and Tatars were Siberian before the onslaught of Russia started in the 16th century. There are big cities in Siberia. The regional admin centre Novosibirsk is at 55⁰N with more than 1.5 million inhabitants.The longest railway in the world is the Trans-Siberian.
Canada has no cities of any size above 55⁰N. Edmonton, with a population of 800,000, is at 53⁰N. North of Edmonton, stretching east and west from the Pacific to Hudson Bay, you’d have to look hard to find a total of 250,000 people, whites and Inuit together. About a quarter of these are at Fort McMurray (56⁰N) stripping the Alberta tar sands. Another 60,000 are pushing paper and serving drinks to tourists in the territorial capitals of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories (60⁰N), Whitehorse in the Yukon (60⁰N) and Iqaluit in Nunavut (63⁰N). The rest are dispersed through dozens of settlements and traditional villages, most with fewer than a thousand inhabitants. Nunavut, carved from the Northwest Territories in 1999, has the most land and the least people of all 13 provinces and territories. In an area larger than all but the biggest dozen of the 249 countries in the world, including Canada itself, there are just 32,000 people, more than four out of five of them Inuit. There were 445 people in Umiujaq when Kerrin arrived in 2011. Umiujaq is one of 14 villages in Quebec’s northern territory of Nunavik, with a total population of just over 12,000 of whom 90% are Inuit. Nunavik is tiny beside Nunavut but larger than California.
On the other side of the pole a different North is found. Moscow, the capital of all the Russians, sits at 55⁰N latitude, with a population around 11.5 million. St. Petersburg, with five million people, is at 60⁰N. More than half the area of Russia is still further North, with cities such as Archangel, with 350,000 people at 64⁰N, Murmansk, with a population of 319,000 at 68⁰N, Vorcuta, with 75,000 Vorcutans at 67⁰N and Norilsk, 165,000 at 69⁰N. Canada has only three hamlets at this latitude, with a total of 1,182 mainly Inuit residents.
There’s a lot more experience of the North around the world than Canada is any part of. Canada’s North is lightly occupied, scarcely developed and virtually unknown to Canadians themselves, Inuit excepted. We just have lucked into a huge slice of the planet that the rest of the world hasn’t had any use for until now.
And there’s the rub. Now the North is coming into its own. Now it is the focal point and early warning beacon for global climate change. Now international capital and technology are mobilizing to extract its almost limitless resources. Now shippers see an ice free passage open longer each year in the northwest, with its promise of faster times and lower costs to move commodities between Asia and Europe. The benign neglect that has kept the pride of Canada a private preserve won’t do for tomorrow. It is time to re-assess our interests in the North and the rights of its original people, the Inuit.
The Throne Speech of October 2013 boasted that, “Canada’s greatest dreams are to be found in our highest latitudes. They are the dreams of a North confident and prosperous.”
Do we really have any right to such a claim? Not judged by our accomplishments. A current prime example is the final extension of the Dempster Highway, which starts near Dawson in the Yukon and runs 736 km across the Arctic Circle to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. This was part of Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s northern vision. He got the all-season road underway in 1958 when he was in office but high cost and disputes between Ottawa and the Yukon made it very much a start-and-stop project that took 21 years to get to Inuvik. The vision dimmed as Dief did. It wasn’t until 2013 that construction started on the 140 km link from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, a project half a century in the talking stage.
That’s the big one. But “building the Canadian North is an essential part of building our nation” are the first words of Canada’s northern strategy, introduced by the present government of Canada in 2007, so of course there are some other initiatives.
Rangers are a particular pride of the Inuit community. Some of the strongest young leaders become Rangers. There are 5,000 Rangers. Note the number. It’s about 10% of the Inuit population. Not entirely a coincidence. Rangers are important to the Inuit and the hundreds of communities through the North where they live. They are role models and their patrols through remote communities and areas serve a number of ends. Sovereignty is among them, but search and rescue or emergency assistance are more practical and better appreciated. They have no real military role. Ten days of orientation is all that’s required to train new Rangers. They are each employed a few weeks each year. Their 60-year old Lee Enfield rifles were supposed to be replaced last fall (2013), but that upgrade has been postponed by at least three years.
Search as hard as you can, you won’t find as much as $250 million spread over four or five years as evidence of this “building our nation”, money to be spent on everything from housing to adult education to species protection and harbour and hydro developments. To put that amount in context, it’s what was spent recently to renovate the Canadian Museum of Nature on the street where I live in Ottawa.
We have talking the talk down perfectly, despite the woeful record. “The Government of Canada has made the North one of its top priorities. Through our northern strategy, we are working to ensure Canada’s North achieves its full potential as a healthy, prosperous region within a strong and sovereign Canada.”
In response to this persiflage, Yevgeny Lukyanov, the deputy secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, explains what’s meant by walking the walk. “For the Russian economy, there are no alternatives for the majority of resources extracted in the North,” he says. “These resources provide Russia’s strategic security and will be a determining factor in lifting and modernizing its economy.” The Russian Arctic produces 11% of the country’s GNP, 93% of its natural gas and 75% of its oil. A good deal of the infrastructure required to further exploit Russia’s Arctic is already in place. Russia is actively promoting its northern sea route as an alternative to the fabled but elusive Northwest Passage.
“For the majority of Russians, the Arctic and everything connected to it is not an abstract concept or romantic exotica, but a practical and vitally important reality,” says Lukyanov. For most Canadians it is precisely the reverse, a romantic vision, a place dreamed of but difficult to get to. Most but not all. For the Canadian Inuit the North indeed is vitally important. This is their home as it has been through millennia. These magnificent people alone have the skill of survival at the frozen edge of existence. On their strength Canada must rely through the difficult northern century ahead.
But let’s be serious. There are 50,000 Inuit in a land bigger than India, which has 1.2 billion people. Canada’s North doesn’t come near India. But it touches two of the world’s most aggressive superpowers, both with northern investments that far outstrip Canada’s and populations above 60⁰N trained in the industrial economy that outnumber our Inuit vanguard by roughly 700 to 1.
Got to find a way to better these odds for Kerrin’s Inuk foster daughter. And soon.
The following links will bring you to Part 1 of this series, Yellowknife, Part 2, Kangiqsualujjuaq, and Part 3, Umiujaq
It was good to visit with family in the south for a while. Ottawa is south for anyone from the territories. But Kerrin knew she’d be going back. Pammy’s great4granddaughter hadn’t experienced Canada’s true north yet, the land of the Inuit. There are many northern peoples. There are nine aboriginal languages recognized officially by the NWT government that sits in Yellowknife. But the most northern of all are the Inuit, the original and enduring people of the polar region, who for countless generations until less than a lifetime ago endured privations and a nomadic existence in an unforgiving land. Kerrin wanted to know what Inuit village life was all about, the hunting and fishing, jobs, social life, entertainments, what the people ate. She was Qallunaat, to be sure, an outsider. But she hoped for the best. It started with a memorable first day at school, recorded in the diary she began when she got there but abandoned not long after when the art bug bit her.
January 26, 2007
I’m going to teach again, this time in a small Inuit community on Ungava Bay. It is a very remote settlement – the only one on the east side of the bay. [Ed. note: Kangiqsualujjuaq, population 874, also known as George River, is in Nunavik, which is the virtually self-governing far northern region of Quebec.]
Flight from Ottawa to Mtl – Mtl to Kujjuaq to George River by Twin Otter. You really know you are flying when in a Twin Otter. It is cold, dark and very loud. The snow is blowing when we arrive. It is blowing, not snowing. This is something I will have to get used to. The wind is howling and whipping the outer lining of my western arctic parka about me. My coat snaps like a flag in a gusting northern wind. It is dark and relatively mild for this time of year, -8 when it should be -40.
The weekend is spent hunkered down in my dismally bare apt. It may take up to two weeks to get the meagre decorations and food supplies I have had sent up. I brought only what I would be willing to abandon if necessary. I have no intention of leaving before the end of June but some people only last a day and the school board won’t remove any belongings unless you’re here six weeks. I’m on a term position for the rest of the year. The students have been without a teacher for almost a month and I hurried to get here.
I am pretty much the last option though the last candidate. All others backed out soon after being hired, opting for less isolated settlements. But this is what I want to see — the communities. I regretted after being in Yellowknife fourteen years that I had never seen the communities. But I was thinking of the western arctic.
The wind howls eerily all weekend. I can see only rock and snow outside my window. Occasionally a snowmobile roars down the street. There are packs of beautiful looking but hungry dogs roaming constantly. When the wind dies and the town sleeps and the furnace stops, and the refrigerator, the silence is so complete your ears hurt for straining to hear a sound. Desolate is the only word for my first impression.
It’s Monday and my first day at school – though I have been given till Wednesday to prepare. After lunch Mark comes with unwelcome news. There was a suicide at lunch. I never met her though she will always remain in my memory as my introduction to life here. Her name was Celina. She was 17.
The quality of the snow here is unlike anything I have ever seen. Last night a wind came up and blew huge drifts of snow to new locations. I had finally found a solid path through to the school but it is now gone. It is impossible to tell where one might walk safely. My solid path of yesterday may be knee deep today. Even the Inuit are unsure. One asked me just yesterday if my path was solid and had his daughter follow me to school. Like desert sands the snow dunes shift. One foot from the path lies the possibility of a wrenched knee or twisted ankle. But when the path is set it is hard as packed earth. The force of the wind and the lack of moisture leave no space among the solid crystals and the snow is the density of cork. The children use machete type knives to build igloo type snow forts cutting and shaping snow blocks as easily as southern children shape plasticine.
I played poker with the cops and a few teachers on Friday night. It will be difficult to play with them as they care nothing about winning or losing. The cops are a young couple. She likes to do paint by numbers while he likes to cook. Neither of them were trained or had any experience when they were hired though he had worked for a time as a prison guard. They came up, were given guns and the way was pointed to the station. They are all alone working 24 hours a day seven days a week. Only one is on shift at any time. When a call comes in, the other joins in for the call. The officer not on duty gets paid three hours for the call. There have been none for a few weeks now – but they come in waves. There are supposed to be three police officers here but no one wants to come. After the game I saw noone from Friday evening till Monday morning.
Monday Feb 5th
My students are helping me piece together the story of the town. Their parents were born on the tundra in tents 40 years ago. Now half of the adults in the community are on welfare and half of the teenagers have dropped out of school. The few remaining students have little good to say about their former classmates. They are home watching television, drinking and smoking pot and neglecting the babies they start having in their teens. The students who have stayed will be the future leaders in the community.
C. drove me to the municipal building after school to get my modem. She is young – maybe twenty and has an admin job at school. She went to school here all her life. “And I graduated.” She is proud and holds a good job. She missed work today. Giselle, in the classroom next door, made a drinking sign. Sunday night there had been a big booze delivery.
The town is restricted, not dry. Booze can be ordered from the south. One case of beer and four bottles of wine per month. Hard liquor was banned a month ago. The bootleggers are ecstatic. They will get $200 for a bottle of alcohol. A single beer regularly sells for $10 though $20 is not unheard of. Mostly everyone takes advantage of the lack of spirits when they have the opportunity to go south. Montreal is the port of call and a doctor’s visit is a gold mine when you can return with a suitcase of liquor.
Road safety is not a concern here. Seatbelts, child seats, helmets are all of the south. Children as young as 11 drive snowmobiles pulling others on sled behind. Mothers and fathers drive kids to school on snowmobiles with cousins and neighbors piled 10 to a kamatik. Teens fly by in trucks with friends sitting on the sideboards in the bed. Today a truck pulled up beside two youngsters. They hopped up onto the rear bumper and held onto the tailgate and the truck moved off down the road. There are eight stop signs in town. These are new and result from an accident a few years ago at an intersection. These are the only street signs or traffic regulating devices in town.
Crystal upstairs is having a hard time with one young boy – she teaches grade five. This guy – who is bigger than her – punched her in the face in the yard at school. This was after pushing her on the stairs, throwing boots at her, yelling at her constantly in class and in the halls to fuck off and die, you’re a whore, you’re a cunt etc. Crystal is upset. She is afraid to go out and now keeps her door locked.
Don’t get me wrong, most of the students are really great. The usual problems with teenagers exist of course but for the most part the students are lovely. However Philip was telling me that a month into school this year the kindergarten students were so out of control that the entire class was suspended for two weeks. A month later it was the grade twos. And there have been incidents of extreme violence – which is scary in a community where two year olds have access to unlocked guns and plenty of ammunition.
Of course it isn’t really the kids fault. Many of them have very bad home lives. The parents are up gambling all night and sleep all day. They will gamble their whole cheque away in one night. There is no food and often times no one to take care of them. Two sisters are off school right now taking care of the house while their mother is away giving birth to yet another baby. They are the 15 and 16 year old caregivers to a house full of kids. They’ll be out of school for two weeks. It also keeps most of their friends from attending as everyone is over at their house all night.
I have finally made an Inuit friend. Daisy. She is a janitor at the school and the mother of Louisa, one of the 3-4-5 class. She came to the door to see if I wanted to buy a broach Louisa made, an embroidered broach adorned with a hanging pair of sealskin mucklucks. It was well crafted and I bought it for $25.00. I thought it a good enough deal. It was a good thing I was on the phone or I might not have invited her in. She is the third person, though the first woman, who has come to the door trying to sell things. She was in and as we were chatting I invited her to stay for tea. She was here about an hour. She is delightful and we will go shopping on Saturday to the Co-op. We are going to shop for material and she is going to make an amouti type pouch for me to carry Molly in. I’m sure it will be expensive but I need one for her. I also need a kettle Daisy said. It will be my first shopping expedition to the Co-op though it is only five minutes walk at most.
Felix is in charge of maintaining dog control in town. Felix is actually in charge of lots of things. He is a big man around here and one of the best looking men I have ever seen. Every few months Felix will get a dog in heat tie it in the back of his truck and drive slowly through town luring the loose male dogs out to the dump. He then shoots them. Sometimes he takes the fur. Apparently the fur from black shiny dogs is quite good. According to his grandfather it is the best for wearing close to your face – it doesn’t freeze and stick to your skin.
The kid who was hassling Crystal attacked her on the street last night. He ran up and punched her in the face as she was leaving the Northern store. Mark came and the cops (her best friends) but they say there is nothing they can do as he is only 11. I think they can. It is assault. If he had a gun or had set a fire they would have taken him in. But they say they need permission from the parents to try scare tactics and the parents – well they just shrug.
I guess anyone can have access to guns. Yesterday I went to the Northern and there were two snowmobiles running outside both with shotguns leaned up against the seat. I wonder if they were loaded. No one needs permits here and two of my secondary4 students were out shooting ptarmigan at lunch on Friday just behind the school. I guess if ptarmigan are spotted they can go to the IPL teacher downstairs and get guns. I will be meeting one of the more violent students tomorrow. Monday week three. Apparently he was in my class the first day I taught it but didn’t stand out. He has been suspended ever since. We will see.
The kids are having a hard time with socials. English can be made relevant to almost anyone. And some kids are just really good at and enjoy math. But socials? Well. It is hard to make European Inventions and Exploration during the Renaissance relevant to grade nine and ten Inuit students many of whom are AAD or FAS. They just don’t care and I don’t blame them. And what does it matter to most of them if they graduate or not. This is where 97% of them will spend the rest of their lives. There is 50% unemployment and most of the boys want to drive the water truck when they grow up. The girls want to work at the daycare. There is certainly no need for an early-childhood education degree to work at the daycare here.
School is tough. The kids are capable but for the most part lazy. Two out of 13 did their family time-line project. But, they have been spoon fed for the past 8 years – and they are working in a second language and I must remember that. I am going to try to change my methods to more fun activities and attempt to be more project based. I can start with projects on different First Nations groups with the sec1’s. More movies, etc. etc. I am not going to do the math in Economics as I don’t know it and they don’t need it.
Daisy has had four children. The two girls she raised I believe – Nancy is 21 and works with the elders. Louisa is still in school. One of her boys died from meningitis at eight months – she said she let him go because the doctor said she could have more children. And she has a son Elijah. Daisy was in the avalanche and mentioned it three times while here. She is obviously still having a very hard time dealing with the tragedy. Jan 1st, 2000 I think [Ed. note: 1999]. An avalanche slammed into the school gym collapsing the wall. Eight people were killed and dozens injured. A chair flew at Daisy and hit her in the stomach – she has had problems ever since though there is nothing the doctors can do. I think she has been to Montreal numerous times – she mentioned the hospital a lot. She is 47 – same as me. What different lives we have led though she did attend Algonquin school at one point – she didn’t pass she told me. What with the culture shock and difference in schooling levels it is no wonder. When she was young she would travel by dog sled from Kujjuaq to Kangiqsualujjuaq with her parents. It would take two days and was lots of fun. Her parents are both dead now. She is from Kujjuaq originally but likes it better here. There is a bar there where she lost two brothers. One was murdered and the other sustained severe head injuries – from the way she talked the second is worse off than the first. I feel Daisy will be my needed link to the people here. And she said I will really like the fishing. The char are thick as flies in the spring and jump from the water after the bait. They are renowned for putting up a really good fight.
It is not unusual for kids to be wandering around the streets in the wee hours of the morning. The parents are partying or fornicating and they kick the kids out or don’t let them into the house. And there is no one to help.
Of course this is not always the case. Some are luckier. I met Susan’s mother at parent teacher interviews a week into my journey here. She saw my tattoo and asked if it hurt. I said not really. She immediately pulled off her coat and showed me her arm which was covered in bruises. It looked bad. I asked her how it happened. She said she was drunk and fighting. But she is kind and caring and at least makes it to parent-teacher interviews. Though, as she approached down the hall the teacher next door hurried over to me and whispered to be very careful about what I said about Susan. If the mother hears anything bad she will yell and yell at her. I was glad to be warned though as far as I was able to tell at that point Susan was a lovely girl. On task and trying hard at school.
I moved to the beach – there is a view to die for. It is on a bay just up the George River from Ungava Bay with mountains in the background – spectacular is the only word that comes to mind. There are lots of kids around and I like that. What I don’t like is them looking in the windows and trying to get Molly worked up. They bang on the window and bark at her and ask to come in. And they bang on the door and run away. Kids! But I am not going to let them in. I will ask my kids down at times perhaps but not all the kids off the street.
They are a very pretty people – for the most part. The kids are really cute but at this time of year their noses drip snot and they often have sores from being so chapped. Their lips are terribly cracked and peeling.
Life is very tough for a lot of the kids. Many are adopted by grandparents or aunts and uncles. Many are abused either physically or emotionally. The top priorities are drugs and alcohol. Families on welfare are given food coupons to ensure not all the money is spent on gambling and drugs. The houses are supplied but many are without beds, fridges etc. though every home has a television. A young man came to the door the other day selling a pendant of a dancing polar bear. He said he was from out of town and staying at a house where there was no food. He said the kids were hungry. My students said he was lying – he just wanted a joint. Nice pendant though. I am going to give it to Chris if he likes it. I am also going to try to get a market going for some of the kids’ artwork – ulus and carvings.
There used to be a meat factory here. Isabelle said they killed all the caribou. They thought it was the George River herd but it turned out to be a sub herd. They are all gone. Too bad – caribou is a specialty high-end product down south and in Europe. They could make a small fortune if they worked it properly.
A. and C. are the biggest challenges in terms of behaviour.
Once she caught the beat of the place, Kerrin got a kitchen going to provide hot, nutritious meals to staff and students, as well as cater special events for the town. This CanTeen raised thousands of dollars for school and community activities, including a grad trip to Montreal, food baskets for needy families at Christmas and T-shirts featuring the new school logo for all the students.
As in Yellowknife, where she took turns as clown and face painter at festivities and actor/director in community theatre, she was an after hours dervish. In some ways, this extra-curricular activity touched youth who were not making it in a system imported from the south, modified though it was for Inuit cultural imperatives. Nine out of ten Inuk students in Nunavik are behind grade level when entering high school (the rate for the rest of Quebec is less than two out of ten). Four out of five will not graduate.
At the edge of the earth where global warming strikes first and foremost, with strategic world players all staring intently at resources and passages in places where none but the Inuit have ever lived, scenarios for the future become monumental and complex. But in real time, on the frozen ground, it’s the kids who can take it and make it through who will make a difference, one Inuk at a time. Some will make the thousand year leap from where their grandparents were to where their own children and grandchildren must live. These are going to be increasingly important people as the century moves on and the world closes in. The Inuit will need them. Canada will need them.
Kerrin remained in Kangiqsualujjuaq for five years. She then took a turn as den mother in a group home for foster children in Kujjuuaq, the principal town of Nunavik. She was interested and involved in looking after Inuit children who fall through the usual safety net of parents, family and friends. These are the neediest among a people struggling to find a way between a harsh life at the edge of survival and whatever is coming with the Qallunaat. After her grown daughter, Olivia, returned to Yellowknife, where she’d been brought up and educated, Kerrin took in a seven year old girl who’d had a frightful beginning involving parental murder and serial abuse through more than a dozen uncaring placements.
It’s not a legal adoption. Qallunaat don’t get to adopt Inuit children. Yet in everything but law she’s part of the family now (11 years old in 2013), an Inuk great5granddaughter for Pammy. And more fuel for Kerrin’s northern passion. After a year in Kujjuuaq, a rough and unruly frontier town, the two of them and Molly were off to the other side of Nunavik. She’d be teaching there in Umiujaq, a village on Hudson Bay. On arrival she wrote, “Kangiqsualujjuaq is a metropolis by comparison.”
The following links will bring you to Part 1 of this series, Yellowknife, Part 3, Umijuaq and Part 4, True North
Muskox strip loin, Mushrooms and Pearl Onions simmered in Red Wine
Ground Caribou and Mushrooms simmered in a Garlic Sour Cream Sauce
Northern entrées by Pammy’s great4granddaughter
The Canadian Museum of History is built as a grand curvilinear that grasps the Gatineau bank of the Ottawa River opposite Parliament Hill. In the museum’s Canada Hall a great journey is simulated through many centuries and over vast distance via icons of Canada’s social history. Under the ceiling’s super high dome the adventure starts at a sod longhouse, part of a Viking settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland around 1000 AD. Basque ship, whaling station, Métis settlement, Voyageur camp, Ukrainian church, grain elevator, Chinese hand laundry, the many turns and tides of the Canadian historical experience are replicated. Finally, at the far end of the trek through Canada’s history, the visitor is invited to sit, sip tea and listen a while to tales of the frozen northwest in the warm welcome of the Wildcat Café.
The Wildcat is faithfully reproduced and featured at the museum because it was at the core of the pioneer community of Yellowknife and remains a symbol of identity in the Northwest Territories. In this expanse of more than a million square kilometers of the Canadian northlands just 41,000 people face tremendously challenging climatic extremes. (Nunavut, which was carved from the Northwest Territories in 1999 and stretches to Alert, 800 kms from the North Pole and the northernmost permanently inhabited point in the world, has twice the area of NWT, just 31,000 people and even more challenging conditions.) In the harsh northern frontier, prospectors, bush pilots, miners and trappers created places where they could exchange information and stories. The Wildcat was a popular gathering spot, part of the core and colour of Yellowknife. Built in 1937, an early owner also ran one of the two taxis then operating in town. His was the bigger car and he contrived a head-on collision with the other cab to drive his competitor out of business.
The Wildcat was popular but not always prosperous. It served at various times as an eatery, a Chinese restaurant, an ice cream and soda stand. Once it featured steam baths next door. Each new venture told of a previous failure. Finally, in the 1970s a volunteer group undertook to restore the log cabin, now one of the last remaining buildings in what had been the commercial centre of Yellowknife in the 1940s, and reopen it in 1979 as a restaurant featuring northern fare such as caribou and char.
It was this enterprising revival that caught the interest of the Museum of Civilization, which was itself re-housed in the sweeping cantilevered vision of Métis architect Douglas Cardinal in 1989, though it traces its origins as one of North America’s oldest cultural institutions back to 1856 (and was renamed the Canadian Museum of History in 2013).
Icon it might be, but the Wildcat wasn’t protected by any heritage or museum budget. Enthusiasts for heritage restoration proved over time not as adept at restaurant management. What the museum didn’t know – Yellowknife is a long way off and there are no direct flights – was that the restaurant had fallen on hard times again even as they were building the full-scale replica in Canada Hall. There was a danger that the Wildcat would be closing just as the Canada Hall exhibit was opening.
Then Pammy’s great4granddaughter took a hand. Kerrin had lived a decade in Yellowknife. A single mom with a fresh teaching degree from McGill, she’d come to teach at the school named for John Franklin. Her ancestor had once encountered the famed northern explorer. Returning in 1827 from two years of exploration in the Arctic, Franklin stopped at Bytown (now Ottawa) and presided at a ceremony at the entrance locks of the Rideau Canal on August 16. Pammy was among “as large and respectable gathering of spectators as had ever been witnessed at this place” for Franklin’s show. The intrepid adventurer, who would later return on a fourth expedition to the far north and disappear completely, laid the first stone of the great work that Colonel By and his men, the sapper Pammy among them, would strive mightily to build over the next five years.
Kerrin’s address — Trail’s End, Northwest Territories — spoke of vistas in the Canadian landscape that few have witnessed. Born and bred in Montreal, a big city girl, she came to know the midnight sun, the great life forms, the northern lights, the huge expanses and ice floes. “The north grows on you,” say those who know. “Eventually you have to decide whether you will spend the rest of your life there or get out.” Kerrin sank roots. She would stay.
Teaching was her vocation, cuisine her passion with some strong family antecedents. A grandfather owned one of the signature restaurants in mid-twentieth century Montreal. Her stepmother acquired the Grande Diplome of the Cordon Bleu Paris Cooking School, still on Kerrin’s kitchen wall.
The Wildcat was a summer project, mostly months she was off from her primary occupation teaching art and drama to mostly Inuit high school students. Arctic summers are much like those in the rest of the country, with the exceptional delight that the sunlight and the days often stretch twenty hours or longer. Yellowknife has more sunshine each year than anywhere in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, or the Maritime provinces.
The distance from the replica tea room at the Museum to actual operation of the Wildcat is captured in this monologue from Kerrin’s unfinished play about food and family, Wildcat Capers. The lights come up on Cook. She is pounding caribou and occasionally swatting flies. She is wearing the patch. It’s 4:00 at the Wildcat and the restaurant is prepping for dinner.
Cook: “Veg! Veg, veg, veg! Damned ferry. Damned veg. Always a problem. Friday afternoon, four o’clock, the food order shows up – no potatoes – no corn. Brunch tomorrow and no potatoes for home fries – no veg for tonight. Fucking produce guys. Only a lunatic opens a seasonal restaurant during break-up. Where does one find 100 lbs of potatoes at four o’clock on Friday afternoon in Yellowknife? Co-op! Not supposed to shop for the restaurant at the Co-op. Costly. But what’s a girl gonna do? Boy the flies are bad today! Anyway, Danica has the car again and she’s not answering the phone. Again. It’s nice she’s still here but why does she always have my car? I am not taking a taxi to the Co-op for potatoes and veg. Twenty dollar taxi for a twenty dollar grocery bill. Well it would be down south but this is Yellowknife and the ferry isn’t in. Fucking ferry. I can pick up potatoes at Extra foods tomorrow morning and get down here before . . . No. No I can’t. Shit! Veg, veg, veg! Ok – I got carrots, celery and onion for sure. A nice mira-poix for the dinner veg? Could stuff peppers. Never been a pepper person, only in chili and spaghetti sauce. Anyway peppers stuffed with rice and served with rice and fish won’t wash, not for 16.95 a plate. God it’s hot in here. Turnip! There’s turnip left from Gord’s stew. Turnip and carrot mash. I love that. A Christmas staple at home. My favorite thing on the plate – besides the beet salad. Best thing about Christmas is the cold turkey and mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread the next morning. Plain, just salt, pepper, mayo. Marcus puts stuffing and cranberries on his, which I personally think is a mistake. (Calling backstage) Tara – could you please bring in those turnips (pause) they’re in the bag in the produce cupboard? Turnip and carrot mashed with butter salt and pepper. And beets. We have beets. A mound of turnip and carrots with beets on top. Beets warmed in melted butter with salt, pepper and . . . dill. Great! I’ve gotta use up that dill. I have a car load of the stuff. It will be tasty and look great on the plate! Bridget always said we eat first with our eyes. Dad always said it better taste good too. I can please both. But he’s right. Nana judged restaurants on how clean their bathrooms were. Daddy by the bread. Now I can pee in a dirty latrine but I insist on fresh rolls. (Again to backstage) Tara could you bring the beets too? They’re in the box under the rotten onions. Fucking produce guys. I want a credit for those onions! And the romaine!”
Kerrin ran the historic Wildcat for four seasons, for another year had her own eponymous eatery, then set off to a new frontier. Yellowknife is a pioneer town still, with a population just shy of 20,000. Only Whitehorse in the western Yukon Territory is larger, by a few thousand people, in the whole of the immense Canadian north. But Yellowknife is the NWT capital and by far the largest city in the eastern territories. Kerrin was ready to experience traditional Inuit communities. True north.
She gave notice to John Franklin, sold the house at Trail’s End and Kerrin’s Restaurant. Danica and Marcus helped stow fifteen years of accumulation and Molly the dog in a convoy of north-beaten vehicles that took the four of them almost 5,000 kilometres over seven days to near the parental home in the Nation’s Capital.
The following links will bring you to Part 2 of this series, Kangiqsualujjuaq, Part 3, Umiujaq and Part 4, True North.