The whales of Nunavut
Good and bad tidings from a new found landBy John Ryle • 22 February 1999 • City of Words • The Guardian (“What country are we in?”) • Revised • Posted 2016 • 1,107 words
A jetliner on a transpolar night flight develops a mechanical fault. Forced to land in a snowstorm on an ice-bound landing strip, it touches down and taxis to a halt on the frozen runway. Members of the cabin crew open the doors gingerly, as though they’d arrived in another world. Freezing gusts of snow swirl into the cabin from the darkness outside.
Out of the darkness and into the plane climbs a man with Asiatic features, in fur-lined boots and fur-trimmed hood and gloves. One of the passengers, still half-asleep—his body in Frankfurt and his brain in Tokyo—stumbles to his feet and asks, in trepidation,
“Where are we? Where have we landed? What country is this?”
The man in the fur-trimmed hood replies with ambassadorial solemnity.
“You are in Iqaluit,” he says. “The capital of Nunavut.”
The passenger is perplexed; he wonders if he is dreaming. He scans his mental gazetteer. Iqaluit? Nunavut? He draws a blank. Nineveh? Lilliput? Has the plane been sucked into a parallel universe, into some Bermuda Triangle of the air? Have he and his fellow-passengers flown into a time warp? Have they landed on another planet?
A new territory
I’d have been puzzled too, I admit. But from April onwards none of us—neither you nor I, nor the passengers on the transpolar flight—will have any excuse for not knowing where Nunavut and Iqaluit are.
On April 1 this year—as the fur-clad station manager explained to the puzzled passenger—the territory of Nunavut becomes a self-governing division of Canada. The meaning of the name Nunavut is “Our Land” in the language of the Inuit (one of the peoples formerly known as Eskimos). Their new territory stretches from Hudson Bay to Greenland, two million square kilometers of cold, treeless tundra, larger than any existing Canadian province. Here, for the first time, the indigenous inhabitants of the sub-polar regions will achieve a measure of autonomy, in an Inuit version of Quebec.
Well, maybe not quite Quebec. Athough it is ten times as big as Britain and covers a fifth of Canada, Nunavut has only 27,000 inhabitants—four thousand of whom live in Iqaluit, the capital—and its government will be almost totally dependent, financially, on the federal government in Ottawa. There is only one government-maintained road in Nunavut; snowmobiles outnumber cars.
All this information—and the story of the forced landing—I gleaned from a conversation in Ontario with Rick Boychuk, the inspirational editor of Canadian Geographic magazine. The map of Nunavut in his recent issue on the Arctic north is a treasure—with place names in both Roman script and elegant Inuktitut syllabics, and alongside them the linguistic derivations and former English names. The photographs of summer in the Arctic circle give you quite a sunny picture of the place. You feel that it might not be too bad a spot to be grounded, at least when the weather gets warmer. (Iqaluit, the map reveals, means “the place of fish”; it was formerly called Frobisher Bay, named after the British explorer Sir Martin Frobisher, who himself had a forced landing there, back in 1576, while searching for the North-West passage.)
The whale hunt
The emergence of Nunavut as a self-governing polity is surely good news. While large tracts of the world are mired in war and insurgency, here an ethnic minority has quietly negotiated an equitable deal with a central government and gained the freedom to run its own affairs. The Inuit are accomplished in plastic and performative arts—soapstone carving and throat-singing—and these have given them a degree of global cultural recognition.
There are problems with other Inuit cultural practices, though. The Inuit of Nunavut have a custom other people don’t like: they hunt and kill whales. And not any whales, but a particularly rare species, the bowhead, of which there are fewer than a thousand remaining in the world’s oceans.
Apologists for the Inuit argue that the whale hunt is a key cultural event, a custom that promotes social solidarity. The hunt, they say, is a bonding ritual for Inuit men, who traditionally live by hunting and fishing. The division of the whalebone and the fat and meat among the hunters and their families reinforces links among and between Inuit communities.
Against this view, conservationists point out that Inuit no longer hunt in the ancient manner, that the explosive-tipped harpoons and .50 calibre hunting rifles they use are not traditional weapons. In 1996, they report, one of these rare animals, riddled with bullets, was killed and left to rot in Baffin Bay by an Inuit hunting party. Although the whale hunt is an infrequent event, conservationists say that the global population of bowheads is critically low, too low to lose a single one. If bowheads became extinct, they point out, then this Inuit tradition will, inevitably, die too.
Living tradition and dying whales
The Inuit clearly need all the traditions they can hold on to. Like other hunter-gatherer peoples, marginalised by modernity, their communities are in danger of falling to pieces, even as their nationhood is recognised. Inuit are killing themselves as well as whales: the suicide rate in Nunavut is six times the Canadian national average. It would be peculiarly unfortunate if the salvation of their community—the cure for its social ills—turned out to be inextricably located in the sacrifice of an irreplaceable creature, one that has disappeared almost everywhere else in the world.
But who are we to talk, you may say, those of us who are not Inuit? Most of the world’s whales were destroyed to provide oil for lamps in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century. It was only the discovery of petroleum that saved them. You could argue that it’s not for non-Inuit to say which Inuit customs need to be revived and which retired, that it’s not up to outsiders to enthuse about throat-singing and soapstone carving while deploring the whale hunt, all three being parts of a single cultural whole.
Yet we can, I think, express the hope that under the new administration of Nunavut, as it becomes more closely linked to the world of nation states—and to intercontinental air travel—the peoples of the Canadian Arctic will find a way to reinvent and modify this particular custom, a way that will neither threaten their social cohesion, nor jeopardize the continued existence of their talismanic creature, the creature that makes the maintenance of tradition possible. ★