Flying in on the Canadian North 737-300 Combi,i a sea of uninspired trailers emerged from the edge of the coast over the frigid arctic waters.
Welcome to Iqaluit, the capital of Canada’s newest and easternmost territory, Nunavut.
But what’s this ? Buildings ? Tall buildings ? Here ??!
My God the density!!
There must be a reason for this unexpected degree of infrastructural proximity. But what ? PERMAFROST, of course. The ground that never thaws. So it is that excavation and concrete piles take the place of conventional foundations and entire buildings get propped up on stilts (like in Thailand) to make it more efficient to heat and more geologically stable (as opposed to Thai architectural logic that accounts for flooding).
But all this digging and piling isn’t cheap, so skyward go the commercial, recreational, and institutional buildings in order to amortise the high fixed costs of construction!ii You wouldn’t think that the same forces that drive Manhattan‘s real estate market to the moon would also drive a barren, rocky, snowy arctic wasteland like Iqaluit, but you’d be wrong. Although there’s plenty of land available in Nunavut, it’s much harder to make habitable than land in the soi-disant “civilised” world.
While Iqaluit might not be a bustling metropolis, at 7`700 permanent residents and about twice that figure when accounting for construction workers, tourists, and other visitors, it’s far and away the largest “urban” centre in the TWO MILLION SQUARE KILOMETRE territory. When combined with the fact that it’s also the seat of the territorial government and has 60%+ First Nations population, there’s plenty of poverty, squalor, and homelessness to go around. But by golly it’s pretty on a crisp blue-skied day.
Zooming in, we see the new Aquatic Centre designed by Stantec, which was just completed last year. The pool therein is, you guessed it, on the second floor. The permafrost means that it’s cheaper to build the pool UPSTAIRS then to dig one into the ground as in pretty much anywhere else on the planet. Oh Iqaluit, you so cray-cray.
The cray-cray continues with the blue-smoke belching two-stroke snowmobiles flying up and down the regular streets. Did you know that the snowmobile was a Canadian invention. Thank good ol’ J.A. Bombardier.
ATVs aren’t uncommon either. Try that in downtown NYC. Don’t think there’s Timmy’s in teh ‘Hat either. That’s two notches for teh ‘Whit, yo.
Though maybe we’ll take back one of those notches for New York when comparing culinary scenes. Take this chicken and beef shawarma platter in Iqaluit. It was B- quality at best but it also came from the only shawarma restaurant within several thousand miles in any direction. That’s how they got away with charging C$40 for the plate and water bottle you see here. Scarcity rules everything around you, but you already knew that.
Not ever dish was so lacklustre – the cold arctic salmon was the best of the locally caught offerings and it just so happened to pair extremely well with the caesar salad available at our hotel.iii If salmon’s not your thing, there was also halibut and arctic char. For terrestrial choices the caribou was the one to try, preferably rare-medium-rare in a peppercorn demi-glace.
Prices and availability of goods at the grocery store was, um, more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they had “fresh” pineapple and motherfucking coconuts. And pumpkins. And hummus (not shown). And all kinds of other wonderful mainland delights. Sure, the prices were steep, but this was more to do with volume than anything else. See the fact that a block of cheddar was pretty much the same as in Alberta but a box of Corn Pops was C$14 and a bottle of Heinz was C$10.
If all that money spendin’ had you down, you could always go catch a free meal down by the shore at the edge of town. Sure, you’d have to fight off conspiracies of talkative ravens (and a few domesticated puppies) for washed-up leftovers of snow-staining flesh, but they won’t peck your eyes out. Much.
Also free were the views of your extra-long shadows. This (below) was taken at high-noon and my shadow was easily 4x my vertical height. While Iqaluit never gets 100% dark in December/January the way Grise Fiord does, the sun barely crests the horizon in the coldest months and gives maybe 4-5 hours of translucent glow. In late October, while I was there, the sun rose at 8:30am and set at 4:30pm, giving it day lengths similar to what Edmontonians experience on the winter solstice, and weather to match.
The arctic weather was far from unfamiliar as such, averaging -10C while I was there, but the 90% humidity cut through my dry prairie clothing like Kitana’s Flying Blade, which made this beaver fur hat an essential purchase on my first day there. (If this shot isn’t begging to be used for a future Contravex header, I don’t know what is!) The flip side of this chill was the crisp, humid air was easily one of the most wonderful, almost magical, relaxing, refreshing and invigorating breathing environments you’ve ever experience. Your sinuses just open right up! With no pollutants or allergens, it’s just dense, coastal arctic air breath after breath.
In addition to the beaver fur hat, purchases were limited to children’s books, locally made soaps, and this whimsical white marble Dancing Bear by Billy Merkosak. The art patron strikes again! I grant that it’s not the whitest of white marbles but apparently the marble mined in Arctic Bay is known for having this grayish-white quality to it. It’s not a highly polished piece the way so much Inuit sculpture is, instead it has a rough textured surface that makes the bear feel more alive and less like a too-heavy sex toy. But isn’t he the most playful and whimsical little bear you’ve ever seen ? I’m not a huge Peanuts fan but he has more than a hint of Snoopy dancing about him.
Sculpture in general is no small part of the local arts scene. Walking through the industrial edge of town (a full block-and-a-half from city centre), I ran into Looty Pijamini completing his latest commission for the Iqaluit airport terminal building. The shop smelled of weed smoke but it seemed to be Looty’s two younger apprentices toking up. The old artist was content with his cigarettes and expertly polished salmon.
Another staple of the local economy was “the bar” aka Storehouse. You need but tell a cabby that you’re going to “the bar” to find yourself with a bunch of lightly intoxicatediv locals shooting pool. Other than sitting in your hotel room watching TV, eight-ball (with a side swig of bourbon) was easily the most entertaining evening activity available.
Before arriving, I’d not only falsely heard that Iqaluit was a “dry” town, but I’d also falsely read that Amazon Prime had done more for this community than the Federal Government ever did. I’d believed both! Now, while the first was obviously untrue, I’m not so sure about the latter either. While Amazon can surely deliver consumer goods at lower costs than local stores like North Mart, the kvetchers would have nowhere to live, no medical care, no education,v no roads, no electricity, and no communications technologyvi with which to convey their ungratefulness were it not for the largesse of the Feds in Ottawa’s efforts at nation building for a post-war generation. Really, that’s the point of all the “investment” up north. Gotta pretend like you’re in touch with your “inner indian” or something because no mythology == no existence and everyone knows it.
Overall, Iqaluit feels like a far-flung colonial outpost overwhelmingly populated by impoverished savages,vii not in the least bit like South Africa probably felt a century ago, because that’s exactly what it is. Ottawa has to lay international claim to the second largest land mass on earth and existentially needs its connection to the Inuit peoples, just as Britain needed its claim to the four corners of the globe.
It’s a dysfunctional mess on the ground but so few Canadians will ever go there that it’s sorta neither here nor there how poorly it works as long as the pin’s on the map.
So that’s it. Hello and goodbye, Iqaluit. We may never see each other again but I think I’d be alright with that. Once was enough. And I’m grateful for that once all the same.
- The “Combi” is differentiated from its more conventional brethren by having cargo not just underneath the passenger compartment but also where the first 15 rows of seats on the main deck would normally be. This results in entry and exit through the rear entrance exclusively as well as a load imbalance. With cargo taking up 3/4 of the aircraft’s volume and passengers only in the rear-upper 1/4, it’s not unusual for several volunteers to be required to move further rearwards to balance the plane for take-off, as was the case on my flight to YFB from YOW. [↩]
- The permafrost also has some lulzy consequences for interior design, like the bathroom raised two steps above the rest of the hotel room. Because permafrozen pipes don’t carry hot water very well innit.
- Our hotel :
The finest of the finest in all of Nunavut! This is what $250 a night gets you and you’re thankful to have it because the alternatives are a sleeping bag in a ditch or a punch in the throat, the latter of which is exactly what you’ll find at the Navigator Inn across the street. [↩]
- The bar is incredibly strict on drunken and disorderly behaviour. The Ethiopian(!) bouncers thought nothing of tossing the slightly tipsy stranger who approached us and only somewhat aggressively asked if we wanted to play pool against him.
Anyways, as to the Ethiopians, there were far far far more Africans and Mediterraneans than I could’ve possibly expected up there. I wanted to run after the first black guy I saw and ask him if he needed directions out of that desolate frozen outpost, but after the fourth or fifth encounter – and a few conversations with cabbies – I sorta kinda came around to the idea that jobs are jobs, mobility is mobility, and these guys didn’t need some hairy Jew’s advice on how or where to make a living. Kudos to them. [↩]
- Not that the native populations seem to care much for proper education. [↩]
- Speaking of communications technology, in case you were thinking that Iqaluit had the perfect climate for a Bitcoin mining farm (or ISP?) “because cooling is free and abundant, while “accidental” unpluggings uneconomical by dint of geographic remoteness” electricity if $0.60 per kwh and Internet speeds are 50-100 kbps on a good day. FaceTime calls are measured in seconds per frame instead of frames per second. So scratch that. [↩]
- The local natives are NOT fond of caucasian people – the younger ones in “the bar” made this all too clear – though thankfully a bit of mythology saved us being left for dead in the snow like more than a few other visiting workers who’ve strayed from the contractor-run camps into the local dens of sin.
Storytelling : it’s powerful shit. [↩]