The largest Native population are the Inuit, who migrated here from Siberia more than 4,000 years ago. Until the latter half of the 20th century, many of them remained nomadic hunters. Today they form remote communities stretched out across thousands of miles in Canada’s northernmost territories. And some are taking to the tourism industry to push back against the steady erosion of their traditional way of life.
“ ‘Culture’ is a misleading term when you’re referring to Indigenous groups,” warns Jason Edmunds, a native of Nunatsiavut, one of the four Inuit regions in Canada. “Because people think it’s not current — that it’s historical.”
As expedition leader for the Adventure Canada cruise line, he believes that a responsible tour of the High Arctic invites a living, breathing connection between the visitors and the visited. On any given voyage, Edmunds counts dozens of Inuit under his employ, typically representing many of the exact regions through which the ship sails.
“We believe that education on the culture and how it relates to places is important, just as important as the sciences,” he says of the immersive programs aboard the Ocean Endeavour — Adventure Canada’s sole vessel, which has been dubbed a “floating university” by guests. “All of our staff speak for themselves, they share their personal experiences and opinions. None of us, as individuals, represent Inuit culture, but together we bring perspective and differing experiences that we are proud to share. We’re pleased to provide the forum for discussion and to amplify voices that need and want to be heard.”
Many such voices remain on dry land, but cherish the opportunity to have a receptive audience when it comes afloat. Karen Nutarak, a native of Pond Inlet in Nunavut territory, is notable among them. After 25 years in the industry, she recently struck out on her own, launching Atii Tourism last February. The title of the company translates to “let’s go” in Inuktitut.
“It’s what I always wanted to do,” she tells The Washington Post. “In 1993, when cruise ships started coming up here, I would see people walking around with red jackets — they always had the same red jackets,” she says, referring to the uniform of cruise participants. “I thought, I would love to do something to organize a cultural event for these tourists so that they wouldn’t have to walk around town, aimlessly.”
Now she does just that, coordinating walking tours and interactive demonstrations — drum-dancing and throat singing, bannock making and sealskin cleaning. In a normal season, Nutarak will welcome passengers from 12 to 14 ships. In addition to Adventure Canada, the community is a port of call for more well-established names of the industry including Silversea, Hapag-Lloyd, Hurtigruten and National Geographic.
With so many guests arriving within such a narrow window, some locals can feel overwhelmed and overrun. The malaise is exacerbated by thoughtless tourists, who have a tendency to invade personal space, often snapping photos of people and property without permission. In their worst moments, they seem to regard their surroundings more like a set or stage than an actual social landscape. Nutarak still remembers a single condescending stare an outsider cast in her direction over a decade ago. She was carrying her baby on her back — a customary regional practice.
“A responsible visitor is a respectful one, someone who follows the tour guide and doesn’t wander off,” she explains. “Come up with an open mind and an open heart. Explore the beauty of this land, make friends with us and buy from local artists when you can.” Empathetic and convivial, she prides herself in diplomatically bridging the divide between inquisitive interlopers and locals that may be wary of “southerners."
She credits Adventure Canada for aiding in that particular mission. When they alight, expedition leaders organize either baseball or soccer games between the community and tourists. They then flip the script on cultural exploration, inviting local groups to board the Ocean Endeavour to enjoy a touring session of their own.
As his company’s primary recruiter, Edmunds takes these opportunities ashore to scout out new talent. “We always aim to have a high contingent of Inuit team members — we don’t just hire one or two,” he explains, alluding to the pitfalls of tokenism. “This creates a supportive environment as many of our lifeways are misinterpreted in mainstream culture. It can be exhaustive and draining to explain, and in many cases feel compelled to justify, who we are and why we are the way we are. In our environment, who we are is celebrated and our empowerment reinforced as we work together to share our culture.”
Malaya Qaunirq Chapman, who hosts a television show called Nunavummi Mamarijavut (“the food we love in Nunavut”), is a regional celebrity who will highlight local food aboard Adventure Canada when cruising returns. She is eager to demonstrate her people’s customs with outsiders, but she cautions against a patronizing mind-set sometimes received in exchange.
“It’s often we get visitors who think they’re going to ‘help us,’ ” she laments. “We don’t need saving. It’s important you come in with respect and adapt to your surroundings. Inuit have lived [here] for centuries, and times have changed. But our traditions and practices run deep.”
Adventure Canada — like all operators in the cruise industry — has been hit hard, canceling all trips for 2020 and through the first half of 2021. “It has been very challenging as a small, family company to endure,” Edmunds concedes. “But the safety, health and well-being of the communities we visit, our team and our guests are our number one priority. We are developing — with the regions to which we travel — new protocols and standards to [resume] a safe operation.”
Back in Pond Inlet, Nutarak has been thrown a lifeline in the form of inter-territorial tourism. “Business has not really stopped,” she says. Although in March the region ground to a screeching halt when it became the first community in the Canadian Arctic to record a case of the coronavirus. “Then they came back a few days later and said it was a false positive.”
Still, because a sizable medical facility is two hours away by plane in Iqaluit, a steady trickle of health-care professionals regularly check in from the capital and elsewhere in the territory. Every now and then they even get a day off. “People are coming up from other Nunavut communities including nurses and [medical professionals] that want to go out and explore while they’re here,” according to Nutarak.
Atii Tourism has already booked U.S.-based clients scheduled for February 2021. Long before they arrive, the first part of Nutarak’s task is already well underway: managing expectations.
“We are known as the ‘Jewel of the Arctic’, but our lifestyle is way, way different from what southerners are used to,” she explains. “These guests wanted to stay at a five-star hotel. Well, we only have one hotel — and it’s not five-star!”
In this part of the world, high above the Arctic Circle, this is assuredly a feature rather than a flaw.