November 2014

If there is an edge of the world it is here, hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle, where the expanse of dazzling white ice surrounding the barren black mountains of Baffin Island ends in a jagged line. Beyond, a still blue sea dotted with icebergs and chunks of floating pack ice stretches away into nothingness.

This harsh but breathtakingly beautiful land of rock and frozen water is so far north that the sun never sets in summer, and the moon provides the only natural light in winter. It is so far north that there is no vegetation to speak of, the Northern Lights appear in the south, and a solitary Canadian military base called Alert is the only human settlement this side of the North Pole.

Elijah Panipakoocho, who was born in an igloo 70 years ago, stands beside me as I absorb this astounding landscape. Burnt dark by the polar sun, he is one of the few Inuit left who can remember how to survive on this extreme fringe of the habitable earth, how things were before the kabloona – the white man – came and destroyed the way of life that had sustained his people for thousands of years.

In broken English he explains how he can predict the weather from the clouds, how the Inuit made sleds from the jawbones of bowhead whales and walrus skins, how the tiniest movement of a single polar bear hair laid on the dome above an ice hole would show when a seal is surfacing. He recalls how his family lived in homes built of earth and rock in winter, and tents made of animal skins in summer. He was, he says, a grown man before he ate a vegetable or fruit.

As Panipakoocho talks, seals pop their heads out of the mirror-smooth sea to stare at us. Flocks of thick-billed murres, eider duck and gannets skim across the glassy surface. Then, late in the afternoon, other creatures begin to arrive, their massive mottled bodies arcing gracefully through the water, offering occasional glimpses of the single tusks that protrude from their heads like long, straight spears. We can hear these strange mammals inhaling and exhaling through their spouts, and trumpeting to each other. They are narwhals, the fabled unicorns of the sea, come to feed in the bountiful waters of the ice floe’s edge.

Soon there are scores of them, circling in pods of six or a dozen, each weighing a ton or more and 12, 14, even 18 feet in length. They are searching for the shoals of fish that lurk beneath the ice on which we stand. At some invisible signal one pod or another suddenly turns, swims towards us, and dives with a final flourish of powerful forked tail fins. The best time to shoot or harpoon them is just before that final dive, when their bodies are full of air and sink less fast, Panipakoocho remarks. They will stay under the ice for 20 minutes, he adds, and they duly resurface with stopwatch precision.

For several hours we watch, transfixed, this feeding frenzy. Then, though the sun is still high in the northern sky, we retire for the night to our tents on the ice. The next morning the narwhals are gone. The landscape is still, utterly silent and shrouded in mist and cloud. It is as if some ethereal artist has tired of yesterday’s vivid whites and blacks, blues and turquoises, and opted instead to paint the sea, sky and ice in shades of purest grey.

Only a distant splash of crimson disturbs the monochrome. A mile up the floe’s edge a narwhal lies in a pool of bloody ice and water, shot during the night by Inuit hunters. They have removed its skin and surface flesh to make a chewy delicacy called maktaaq. They have taken the meat from its back to eat. They have cut off the tusk, which they will sell for $150 a foot or more. They have taken some of the blubber for dog food, or to make a fermented dip called misiraq. In the old days, Panipakoocho says, they would have used some of the skin to make ropes, and the sinews for thread. The rest of the carcase will be devoured by polar bears soon after we depart.

The sight would shock southerners who prefer their meat to come bloodless in cellophane packages, but not Panipakoocho. ‘I feel hungry,’ he laughs as he inspects the dead narwhal. And why not? The Inuit were a nomadic people who relied on narwhal and seal, polar bears and caribou, walrus and Arctic char for all their needs. They ate the meat. They used the pelts and furs for clothes and shelter, and seal oil for light. They valued the animals so much that some poured water into the mouths of dead seals as a sign of respect, but killing them was essential for their own survival. It was the natural order of things. ‘Blood on the ice in the Arctic is not a sign of death, but an affirmation of life,’ Wade Davis, a Canadian anthropologist and explorer, wrote recently.

Today that way of life is all but gone. Panipakoocho no longer dwells on the ice, but with some 1,500 other Inuit in a settlement called Pond Inlet that clings to the north-eastern shore of Baffin Island, three hours by snowmobile from the floe’s edge. The contrast could hardly be greater. Pond Inlet is a tatty, troubled place whose inhabitants have largely lost their links to the land and live in a sorry limbo, caught between two starkly conflicting cultures.

One of only four settlements above the 72nd parallel, Pond Inlet (population 1,500) is in the Arctic, but hardly of it. Almost everything – its food, fuel, pre-fabricated homes – is imported by air, or on the five supply ships that arrive from Montreal – 1,800 miles to the south – when the sea ice thaws each summer. A jar of instant coffee costs $12 in the windowless steel warehouse that is Arctic Co-op, a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes $17 and Tide washing powder $36 – exorbitant prices for anyone, let alone the substantial number of Pond Inlet’s inhabitants who survive on welfare payments.

A couple of miles up the coast at Qulalukat you can still see the remains of thousand-year-old Inuit sod houses, but Pond Inlet’s three or four hundred homes will not last that long. They are flimsy affairs perched on stilts because of the permafrost. Many are surrounded by defunct snowmobiles, broken bikes and other junk. Some have windows boarded up against temperatures that plunge to -40C in the winter.

Pond Inlet enjoys spectacular views across Eclipse Sound to the snow-capped mountains and glaciers of Bylot Island, but has little else to please the eye. A dirt airstrip provides its only year-round link to the outside world, though a return flight to Ottawa costs a staggering $3,600. Electricity cables are draped from poles because nothing can be buried. For the same reason there is no running water – trucks deliver water to each home and empty their septic tanks, two or three times a week.

There are unsightly communications masts and satellite dishes, but no trees, no flowers and practically no grass. The dusty, unpaved roads simply peter out because there is nowhere for them to go. There is an ice rink, a basketball court, a playground and a dance and drama group, but little other entertainment apart from radio bingo. By the shore the carcases of two dogs and the remains of several seals lie on the ice. Pond Inlet’s young graffiti artists call it ‘the Rez’, as in ‘the reservation’.

The inhabitants are open and welcoming, particularly the hamster-cheeked children who run up to greet strangers. Some young boys invited me to help catch a lemming they had trapped beneath a boat. Somewhat disconcertingly, a young girl proudly showed me a goose egg in one hand while clutching the goose’s severed head and neck in the other. But there are ‘massive social problems’, says David Reid, a Glaswegian who has lived in Pond Inlet since 1991 and runs a tour company called Polar Sea Adventures.

There are few jobs outside the public sector. Most teenagers fail to complete high school, and hardly any go south to university. There is a chronic housing shortage, so a dozen members of one family may share one small house, and domestic violence is common. Alcohol has long been restricted, but is brewed illicitly or smuggled in from the south at great expense. Drug abuse is also widespread, though marijuana costs $50 a gram. Most people smoke, even youngsters, though cigarettes are $21 a packet.

Sherry Parks, Pond Inlet’s home-care nurse, reckons that 15 per cent of the community suffers from malnourishment. ‘When people say they don’t have food in their house they literally don’t have any,’ she said. But obesity and diabetes are also becoming serious problems among a population whose traditional diet of meat and fish has been largely replaced by junk food. The 32,000 Inuit of Nunavut, the Canadian territory that includes Baffin Island, drink 10 million cans of fizzy drinks a year – and have rotting teeth to show for it.

Evidence of a dysfunctional society is not hard to find. An unemployed 19-year-old sitting on a bike outside Pond Inlet’s only hotel cheerfully told me that he left school at 17 when his girlfriend had a baby. A 17-year-old said he dropped out of school because it was boring, and brags about sniffing propane. Posters in the tiny airfield terminal warn against the abuse of elders. 'Mary’s grandchildren moved in with her. they have parties and demand money for booze and drugs. Mary is afraid a lot of the time…' one reads. Flying out of Pond Inlet, I found myself sitting next to a Mountie escorting two handcuffed prisoners to Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital. Both had been convicted of assault while drunk or high on drugs.

Statistics show that Nunavut’s Inuit live at least 10 years fewer than the average Canadian, and commit much more crime and murder. Half receive welfare payments. Seventy per cent suffer from ‘food insecurity’. But the most shocking figures are those for suicide. The rate is 13 times the national average, and two thirds of those who take their own lives are under 24.

In Pond Inlet alone three teenagers hanged themselves in the first five months of 2014, the most recent a 17-year-old girl named Atuat Issuqangitut. One woman, Sheeba Simonee, told me her two brothers and three nephews had all taken their own lives. ‘It’s always been like that,’ she said. Surveying the cemetery on a bare hill overlooking Eclipse Sound, Colin Saunders, Pond Inlet’s economic development officer, said he could show me the graves of at least 20 suicides over the past 10 years. His own sister killed herself. ‘It’s a part of life up here,’ he admitted.

There are proximate causes – Pond Inlet’s deprivation, its extreme isolation, the three months of total darkness each winter, the pressures of living in a tiny community that offers so few opportunities and from which it is so difficult to escape.

But the more fundamental cause is the destruction over the past 70 years of a culture that was based on hunting, kinship and survival and gave structure to people’s lives, and the void that has replaced it. ‘Back then people had their purpose in life and knew exactly what they had to do and how important they were to their family,’ Sherry Parks said. ‘Now they’re conflicted about where they fit into this world.’ Or as Saunders put it, ‘We have one foot wearing a work boot and the other still wearing a sealskin kamik [shoe].’

Outsiders, however well-meaning, have spelt trouble for the Inuit ever since they first penetrated the Arctic in the 18th century. Explorers and whalers brought syphilis, tuberculosis, smallpox, measles and other fatal diseases against which the Inuit had no immunity. Fur traders weaned them away from their subsistence lifestyle, contributing to widespread starvation when the fur price collapsed in the 1930s. Missionaries sought to usurp the shamans, the Inuit’s traditional link to the spirit world, and ‘civilize’ the Inuit. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) imposed an alien system of justice.

Southern incursions gathered pace during the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, when the Arctic became strategically important and Canada was eager to assert sovereignty over its northern territories by establishing permanent settlements there. The government adopted an aggressive, paternalistic and frequently cruel policy of cultural assimilation. It encouraged the Inuit to settle in permanent communities by offering them housing, education, health care and other welfare benefits. Children were wrenched from their families and sent far away to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their language, Inuktitut, or to practise their native customs, and were frequently abused emotionally, physically or sexually. One Pond Inlet resident, who asked not to be named, said her mother never recovered – she abused her own children and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Another said he was hit every time he spoke a word of Inuktitut.

Inuit were ‘relocated’ to new settlements lacking any resources. Each summer a coastguard vessel, the CD Howe, toured the Arctic settlements and shipped any Inuit with tuberculosis to southern sanatoria from which many never returned. The RCMP slaughtered some 20,000 sled dogs on the grounds that they had distemper or rabies, but many Inuit believe the real purpose was to break their links to the land. The Inuit were forced to wear identity discs, and to adopt southern surnames.

More recently conservationists have moved in to restrict the hunting of polar bears, narwhals and seals, and to ban the sale of their parts. The Inuit consider themselves stewards of the land and deeply resent such interference – a sign displayed on the hotel door shows two polar bears above the words 'We’re OK'. Charlie Inuaraq, Pond Inlet’s mayor, says the price of seal pelts has fallen from $50 to $10 since the European Union banned their import in 2010. He cups his hands as if to beg and protests, ‘We are kept in a permanent state of this.’

His description is apt. The net result of all that social engineering is a dependency culture, with the government in distant Ottawa now spending $40,000 a year on subsidies for each of Nunavut’s Inuit. Some still hunt, but others no longer want to, do not know how to, or simply cannot afford to – a snowmobile alone costs $15,000 in Pond Inlet, nearly double the price in the south. Instead, the elders complain, young Inuit stay home to watch television or play computer games.

Those that do not hunt are ‘lost’, Bryan Simonee, Sheeba’s husband, said as he stood on his balcony after returning from a hunting trip financed by his housing maintenance job. ‘Any Inuk in his right mind would want to be a provider.’

Some of the old traditions survive. Hunters with a surplus of seal meat use the local radio station to invite their fellow Inuit to come and share it. Women still carry their babies on their backs in pouched garments called amautis, and some still make seal-skins boots and mitts. Georgina, a young woman selling home-made jewellery in the hotel lobby, happily demonstrated the remarkable Inuit art of throat singing when asked.

One evening I attended an event organised by Canada Goose, which makes some of the world’s warmest parkas and which financed my trip to Pond Inlet. No local person could possibly afford a Canada Goose parka. The company was instead distributing eight pallet-loads of cloth, zips, buttons and other surplus materials from its factories in Winnipeg and Toronto so Inuit women could make parkas for their families. It was a commendable exercise, and quite an occasion for Pond Inlet. The community centre resembled some Arctic Harrods sale as 200 women rushed to get their share. Inuaraq made a short speech thanking Canada Goose. Within 15 minutes every last scrap of material was gone, which is hardly surprising as cloth in the Arctic Co-op costs $30 or more a metre. ‘I love making things. It’s fun,’ one woman, Martha Suqslak, said as she walked home with the wherewithal to keep her four children warm for another winter or two. But the irony was inescapable. These women were vying for scraps from factories making garments invented by their forebears.

The most dramatic change to the Inuit way of life may be only just beginning, and once again it is coming from outside. Climate change is already being felt more acutely in the Arctic than almost anywhere else in the world. The sea ice is not only shrinking in area, but melting earlier each summer and freezing later, shortening the hunting season by a month or two. The permafrost is thawing. The weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable.

The opening of the North-West Passage – a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific – means more ships, more tankers and more chance of an environmental disaster. But it also means more cruise ships bringing tourist dollars, and more interest in the oil, gas and mineral resources of the north.

The talk in Pond Inlet is of a giant $750 million iron ore mine being developed by ArcelorMittal at Mary River, barely 100 miles away, along with a 90-mile road across the tundra to Milne Inlet from which 3.5 million tons of ore will be shipped to Europe each summer.

Inuaraq, a hunter of some renown, says Milne Inlet is a prime breeding ground for narwhal, and fears that the dozens of ships coming and going from Milne Inlet will drive away those sensitive mammals as well as the seals. But he also recognises that the old days are over, that Inuit must now hunt for money as well as animals, and that the mine could prove the salvation of Pond Inlet – the nearest settlement – by creating 70 or 80 well-paid jobs for its people. It already employs several dozen, which is another irony. As David Reid pointed out, ‘Iron ore comes from the land, so it could be argued that the land is once again providing for the Inuit.’