Isolation Bedevils Western Arctic Communities

EVERYBODY in the NORTHWEST TERRITORIES knows how you get from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk. You drive down a gentle sloping road from downtown Inuvik to the bank of the Mackenzie River. Then you make a hard right turn.

Onto the river.

From December to late April every year, the only land route between these two Arctic towns, both populated mostly by Inuit, doesn't cover land at all. It's a gently curving route along the river's hard-frozen surface. The ice itself is the road.

Several weeks ago, a dozen senior bureaucrats from Ottawa and a visiting reporter rode along the river in a convoy of minivans. At times blowing snow made it impossible to see the next van in the group. When the wind fell, we could see the riverbanks, perhaps a kilometre distant on either side. But the ice road itself, a narrow strip of river top flooded and scraped clean by maintenance crews like an endless ribbon of municipal hockey rink, is barely two lanes wide. So when trucks headed in the opposite direction roared past, hauling supplies from the exploratory natural-gas drilling rigs that dot the area, there hardly seemed room for them and us on the same ice.

Two hours' drive out of Inuvik the vans passed the treeline, a final few gnarled ancient pine trees giving way to unbroken snowscape.

The Ottawa civil servants' host was the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization that speaks for Canada's Inuit. The goal of the week-long visit was to give representatives of the federal government a chance to see how their policies work on ground almost unimaginably distant from the cozy assumptions of the capital's cubicle villages.

What they saw - what we saw, because I was tagging along with the government employees - were tiny communities living in isolation few in the south can imagine. Canada's Inuit region covers 40 per cent of the country's land area, from Aklavik at the western tip of the Northwest Territories to Kikiak in Labrador, and from Kuujjuaraapik on Quebec's Hudson Bay shore all the way up to the North Pole.

Since Nunavut was carved out as a separate territory in 1999, the Northwest Territories doesn't look like much on a map. (It's quite a bit more impressive when you're in the middle of it.) The area served by the Inuvik Regional Health and Social Services Authority is half the size of the new Northwest Territories. Even so, the area the authority serves is almost as big as Ontario from tip to tip. Its 1.5 million sq. km are inhabited by 10,000 Inuvialuit, Gwich'in and Slavey people in 13 communities. Ten of those communities can be reached only by air.

The challenges up here can seem overwhelming. Inuit life expectancy is 10 years shorter than in southern Canada. The youth suicide rate is eight times higher. Tuberculosis rates are 17 times as high. Dropping out of school is far more common than getting a diploma.

Yet each time visitors from the south begin to think they've found an easy answer to life in Canada's Western Arctic, easy certainty melts away as surely as the ice road from Inuvik to Tuk melts every spring.

Take Inuvik. Its problems are, relatively speaking, those of a regional centre: transport hub, health-care headquarters, a "big town" of 3,700 residents that other Western Arctic communities envy and resent.

At Inuvik's newly built hospital - in some ways a better-equipped facility than many in southern Canada - the biggest problem is attracting and retaining staff. Many doctors, teachers and other skilled employees from the south simply can't afford the cost of living. Rent for a simple one-bedroom apartment can be $1,400 a month. As a result, half of the hospital's employees have been on staff for less than two years.

This matters because the human and financial cost of medical inexperience can be formidable. A rookie doctor or nurse practitioner who's uncertain about treating a patient's condition will put him on the next plane to Edmonton at a cost of $15,000 or more. "A lot of people do get medevaced who don't need to be medevaced," said Nellie Cornoyea, a former N.W.T. premier who helped negotiate the Inuvialuit land-claim agreement in 1984. "It's to the benefit of the doubt, but it's not cheap."

A whole social safety net has sprung up to make life more bearable for patients from the North who find themselves rushed southward. In Edmonton we visited Larga Home, which offers comfort, friendly faces and Inuit dietary staples such as caribou meat and deep-fried bannock bread to visiting patients from the Arctic. Bill Davidson, the amiable transplanted Scotsman who opened Larga in 1987, works overtime to keep his patients comfortable while they're stuck in Edmonton. But he said every patient airlifted out of the Arctic is a financial and social strain that would be better avoided if possible.

If all you saw on a trip like ours was Inuvik, you might think housing was the cure to much of what ails the Western Arctic. Communicable diseases can't spread rapidly if you don't have families of a dozen or more sharing a tiny house. Bright kids would be less likely to drop out of school if they had a quiet room to study. And professionals from the south might stick around long enough to develop regional and cultural savvy if their rent didn't threaten to bankrupt them.

Then you drive up the road to Tuktoyaktuk and you run into another set of assumptions altogether.

In Tuk, it's about that ice road. It's picturesque enough, but when it melts away it takes away easy access to the rest of the continent - and to ready supplies of fruits, vegetables and milk. Grocery costs skyrocket. (This came as news to one of the visiting Ottawa bureaucrats. Her department has been monitoring Tuk's food costs - in mid-winter, when the ice road ensures prices will temporarily be at their lowest.)

In a meeting with the visiting civil servants, the members of Tuk's hamlet council pleaded for the feds to build an all-weather road to Inuvik - 150 km at $1 million per kilometre. The road would support oil and gas exploration that, if it ever pays off with a major exploitable reservoir of gas that can be pumped into the Mackenzie Delta pipeline, will bring the payday the region has wanted for decades. (By some estimates, Canada's Arctic natural-gas resource totals 175 trillion cubic feet, about a third of Canada's total estimated reserves of 594 trillion cubic feet.)

The road would allow Tuk to relocate part of its overcrowded cemetery. The road would provide access to a gravel quarry so the dangerously eroding Beaufort Sea shoreline could be shored up.

The road, a couple of the savvier travelling bureaucrats told me later, would also be a bonanza for the local construction company, which is unusually well-represented on Tuk's city council.

Anyone tempted to too much cynicism over that link, however, would be well advised to look around Tuktoyaktuk. Something has to give; the little hamlet is in serious difficulty. At Mangilaluk School, the principal, Allan Pitcher - like a disproportionate number of the North's transplanted southerners, a Newfoundlander - rattled off a dismaying list of problems. "I'm expecting a real bad fire inspector's report," Pitcher told us. "There's just no storage space here." Attendance, he said, is not just "atrocious," it's "totally, frankly puzzling: you could have a student not show up for two, three months and then show up for a few days."

Territorial budget cuts threaten to make more trouble for a school that's already in precarious shape, Pitcher said. Of his 20 teachers, he expects two to be cut next year. One is the shop teacher, in a school where vocational training should be expanded, not cut. Funding for the school breakfast program ran out in January.

Maybe the problems facing these communities are simply insurmountable, I thought. Then we squeezed into two tiny twin-prop airplanes and flew still farther north to Holman. Again, the quick assumptions didn't last long.

Holman is home to barely 400 residents and it's on an island in the Beaufort Sea, so there's no winter ice road to Inuvik or anywhere else. The cost of living is sky-high: at the local grocery store a bad bunch of celery costs $6.09, a kilo of bananas $5.99. Yet there's a serenity to Holman, a sense of pride, that is the envy of other communities in the Western Arctic.

On the visitors' first night in town, the community threw a feast in the town hall. Trays of hot arctic char, turkey, caribou and barbecued muskox were brought out. A child had scrawled seasonal greetings in Inuinnaqtun, the regional Inuit dialect, on brightly coloured construction paper taped to one wall: "Tatqiq hiqiniq ubluriaq - welcome back hiqiniq, the sun." Community elders played drums and danced.

There are problems in Holman, too. One social-services employee described the shortages of manpower and funding in eloquent detail - then begged me not to quote her because she was afraid she'd be reassigned away from a town she loves.

Holman's unique assets are largely intangible: community spirit; a strictly enforced curfew for children; a school principal, Helen Kitekudlak, who comes from the community and radiates enthusiasm. (On a bulletin board at the school, the Inuinnaqtun Word of the Week was posted: Quviahuklutin - be happy.)

Can Holman's assets be replicated in less fortunate communities? How can solutions be found to such a range of problems? Shortly after the visitors from the south returned from their Western Arctic tour, the federal government began trying to find a way.

On April 19, during a day-long summit meeting with Aboriginal leaders, Prime Minister Paul Martin announced the creation of an Inuit secretariat within the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. For the first time, a group of civil servants will work full-time on the unique challenges facing the Inuit.

Jose Kusugak, the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, says he's relieved and excited by Martin's initiative. A secretariat within a government department won't change everything, of course. A process isn't a solution. But it's a start.

Maclean's May 24, 2004