Looking at forever

Summing up my time in Iqaluit and how this experience benefited me is no easy task. The Arctic sharpened my senses and my brain. It's an indelible place.

I was in Iqaluit in late November. I spent two days working for Nunavut News/North (one of the territory's two weekly papers), two days with CBC Iqaluit, and the rest of the time with a friend and her family and exploring on my own. It was an unforgettable time - whether I was photographing women making sealskin parkas in a sewing class, watching the sun rise slowly over the hills, or eating raw caribou, butter chicken and chocolate éclairs at a house party. Nothing was quite as I'd expected; and it was all an incredible learning experience.

My initiation to the Arctic learning curve began before I'd even left Ottawa. As I waited in the departures lounge, the Canadian North agent invited passengers seated in rows 10 to 14 to board first. I thought it odd that they were boarding the middle of the plane first, but the reason became clear as we boarded through the back door: the front half of the plane was full of cargo. When flying to a place where every road ends at the edge of town, anything (food, fuel, clothing, building supplies, toilet paper, electronics…) not shipped North by sealift in the summer has to come by plane.

This was the first in a series of flip-thinking moments I experienced during my trip, and I'm grateful for every one of them. There's nothing like having your misconceptions exposed to crack open your mind and make you re-think where you're coming from and why. It's good for everyone, and is particularly necessary for journalists.

As a freelance journalist living in Halifax, I take for granted the constant barrage of news available 24/7. It's different up North. For starters, there's no daily paper in Nunavut so the territory's only local daily news comes from CBC. Radio takes on special significance in geographically isolated communities, and often plays the role of lifeline (thin ice warnings) and lost and found (purse forgotten at bingo), in addition to keeping people up to speed on what's going on in their community and in communities across Nunavut and the rest of Canada.

Thanks to the Greg Clark Award, I was able to spend time at both Nunavut News/North and CBC Iqaluit, and to gain brief insight into the unique challenges they face -- including lack of institutional memory and high-workload-to-staff ratio at News/North, and the programming challenges of working in two languages (Inuktitut and English) and across three time zones at CBC.

In addition, I was able to compare the stories covered by local media (health issues, justice, polar bear quotas) with the stories told about the North by southern media (suicide rates, alcohol/substance abuse, the high cost of living).

The North has often been plagued by "parachute" journalism where southern reporters drop in, grab their stories and fly out. This trend has improved in recent years since major issues like climate change and Arctic sovereignty are ensuring more of a sustained gaze northwards. But it's staggering the number of Canadians who still don't have a clue about anything above the tree line.

This was true of me until four years ago: I'd never heard of Iqaluit, I vaguely understood that Nunavut was new and it was "up there," and I couldn't conceive of why anyone would want to live somewhere as dark, cold and barren as the Arctic of my imagination. It was only after I spent my journalism school internship with John Houston (a Halifax-based, Cape Dorset-raised, Arctic-focused filmmaker) and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (an Iqaluit-born and based filmmaker) that I realized there was a huge portion of the country I knew nothing about.

Through my subsequent work as a researcher and production coordinator with drumsong communications (John's company), my interest in and my superficial understanding of the Arctic grew. But there is really no substitute for meeting people face to face and experiencing a place for oneself. By sending me to Iqaluit, the Greg Clark Award allowed me to do just this, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunities it afforded me, both as a journalist and as a Canadian.

Iqaluit is unlike any place I've ever been -- Boomtown, Inuit community and Canadian capital all in one. In many ways I felt like I was in another country, but at the same time I felt completely at home thanks to the many wonderful people I met.

It was overwhelming to watch the whole place disappear in a matter of seconds as my flight took off for home. Looking out my warm porthole I was awed by the vastness of the space below me, stretching forever like the polished skin of a giant white elephant laid flat. Physical laws seem to apply differently in the North, and time, space and light expand and contract in a way I've never experienced.

One of my favourite memories from my time in Iqaluit is climbing over the hills outside town, turning in a circle, and seeing nothing but air, ice, snow and rock. Looking at the Arctic landscape is the closest I've ever come to looking at forever; and I can't wait to go back.

Read one of Megan's stories in News/North