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Happy Nunavut Day – Warm Memories of Filming in one of Canada’s Coldest Places

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Setting up for a dawn shot on the hill overlooking Iqaluit and Frobisher Bay. Photo credit: André Boisvert.
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Setting up for a dawn shot on the hill overlooking Iqaluit and Frobisher Bay. Photo credit: André Boisvert.

In September 1998, while directing my first feature-length documentary, Just Watch Me, a film about the impact of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau‘s vision of a bilingual nation as seen through the lives of eight Gen Xers, I had the opportunity to travel to the Eastern Arctic city of Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. The trip from Toronto was and remains more expensive than a trip to Tokyo. That is a shame because it means that it’s easier for Canadians to travel to Japan than to go to our own far North, which as I discovered, is a place like no other.

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The vastness and scale of the tundra is impossible to imagine. In the middle left of this photo, you can just make out a member of the crew. Photo credit: André Boisvert

The distance from Toronto to Iqaluit is 2,337 km (1452 miles). First I flew to Ottawa where I had to change planes before continuing almost due north. The second plane had a bulkhead halfway down: the front half held passengers and the back half cargo. Almost everything had to be flown in: lumber, groceries, medicine and office supplies. The flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit took three hours. Looking out the window midway, I watched as we passed north of the tree line, a feature, which had until then only existed as a mythical demarcation point in my geography texts.

research trip September

Most of the houses are grouped together, so I was surprised to find this lone dwelling on a rocky outcropping overlooking the bay.

 

fawns

An amazing diversity of delicate yet hardy flora and fauna cover the rocks in the harbour.

I landed on the evening of Friday September 11, 1998. I remember the date very well because it was the same day that the Starr Report, the wide ranging investigation into then President Bill Clinton by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, was released. Looking out the window of my small hotel room and watching the news, I was struck by how remote such events seemed. Though Iqaluit shares the same time zone as Washington, it is worlds apart. Another interesting feature of the city that I was to discover, is that because of its location near the pole, Iqaluit has crystal clear radio reception from around world. Detroit radio was very popular.

skin

After a successful hunt, skins are placed on stretchers to dry outside the hunter’s home. This was a common site.

 

children playing

Kids rode bicycles and drove ATVs around town. One popular destination for adults was the Road to Nowhere, which as the name suggests, ended abruptly at the outskirts of town.

 

Carver

I met this artist as he was working on his soap stone carvings which he sent to galleries in the south.

Formerly known as Frobisher Bay, Iqaluit is the only city in Nunavut. In 1998, it had a population of around 4,185. Today Iqaluit has grown to 6,699. The population of Nunavut itself is only 31,906, which seems very small considering the vastness of its territory: at 750,000 km2 (680,000 sq. mi.), Nunavut is equivalent in size to Western Europe. Formerly part of the Northwest Territories, following years of discussion and consultation, the decision had been made to divide that territory in two. As the eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut was set to officially launch in the spring of 1999, my trip coincided with a large building boom and great excitement as new government offices and agencies were being established.

Post office

This post office had just been constructed when I arrived and displays the graphically elegant syllabics that are used in written Inuktitut.

Disco

When I visited, Iqaluit was largely dry. This bar was one of two places in town that served alcohol and was packed with locals and anyone up on business or visiting friends on Friday and Saturday nights.

In early December 1998, I returned to Iqaluit with the crew to film an interview with crown attorney Doug Garson, whose efforts to become bilingual had led him from Manitoba to Quebec and ultimately to Iqaluit where he fell in love with and married an Inuit woman. This time, the dramatic golden light and mild temperatures of September had given way to a bitter cold, the kind most of us only read about in books.

me very cold

A very cold me.

 

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Iqaluit, literally means ‘place of many fish’. It sits on the edge of Frobisher Bay and has been used by the Inuit to fish for thousands of years. Photo credit: André Boisvert

We had rented a truck only to discover that the heater was broken. After we got over our initial shock, we realized that this was a blessing in disguise: the camera would not have tolerated the constant shifting between the extreme cold we were shooting in and the warmth of a heated truck and we would have lost a lot of valuable time waiting for it to adjust. Even when we filmed inside an unheated hockey arena, it took over an hour for the camera to warm up enough to film. Another major problem was the camera batteries, which drained rapidly in the cold.

Truck

The famous truck.

One of the key visual components of the film were sunrises which we filmed in various locations across Canada. All were stunning but I can honestly say that the dawn I experienced in Iqaluit was one of the most magnificent I have ever seen. In the far north, it takes the winter sun a long time to rise over the horizon. The sun rose slowly and never truly crested. Until it set at around 3 p.m., the daylight resembled what we call ‘magic hour’ – soft coral, pink hues lit the town all day long. It was astonishing and extraordinarily beautiful.

Dawn

Setting up for the dawn shoot. Photo credit: André Boisvert

When filming was completed and before the plane departed, we wanted to go dogsledding and see how an igloo was built. We were all pretty disappointed that we had arrived too early in the season and there wasn’t enough snow yet. It is hard to know when I will have the opportunity to return but I will definitely time it so that I can do both of those things and more. Visiting the Nunavut Tourism site, I see that there are many wonderful and unique adventures still to be had in Canada’s far north. Now if only, they could do something about the price of those airfares!

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Crew shot taken in the light of the setting afternoon sun outside the local church which is shaped like an igloo.