Sask.’s connection to the road to nowhere

Iqaluit’s shoreline shows the diversity of housing and transportation methods available in the remote community.  |  Duane McCartney photo

Former Saskatchewan residents learn to live with the challenges that come with moving to remote Nunavut

IQALUIT, Nunavut — Ever try ordering something on Amazon when your address is The Road to nowhere? That’s the sort of challenge people living in Iqaluit, on Frobisher Bay in Nunavut’s Baffin Island, have when they try ordering something from the “outside world,” said Karren McCartney.

“There are no roads leading out of towns up here, so very expensive air flights are the only way to travel and everything is brought in by sea lift or air freight, so that makes food and every day things costly.”

Darren and Karren McCartney from Northern Ireland and their friends, Mat and Christine Senkow, formerly of Hudson Bay, Sask., and Gwen and Abbie McQuarrie, formerly of Melfort, Sask., are some of the people that have moved to work in Iqaluit.

The sea lifts come in late summer after the ice has disappeared from Frobisher Bay. Moderate-sized container ships with cars and trucks on top of the containers are off-loaded in the bay and brought to shore on barges, where large front-end loaders move the goods to shore.

Everything, including materials for office buildings, heavy road-building equipment and even large fire trucks come into Iqaluit in this manner.

All the good and supplies coming to Iqaluit must arrive by ship, but there is no deep sea port, which means they are hauled by barge from container ships anchored in Frobisher Bay. | Duane McCartney photo

Perishable food and smaller items come in by air freight.

Karren and her friends make good use of online shopping via the postal service through such companies as Amazon and similar sites for items such as diapers and clothing.

“There is a big lineup at the post office for these types of parcels,” said Karren.

“You can buy most anything that you need from the two major shopping stores and the hardware-lumber store but it comes at a high price. An assembled wood picnic table is $850 and a garbage box for storing your garbage cans is $600,” said Darren.

The stores have a wide selection of fresh produce and groceries, often a better selection than what can be found in central Alberta, but at twice the price.

Angus rib steaks cost about $42 a kilogram, stewing beef $16.59 a kg, nectarines $8.49 a kg and apples $5.19 a kg.

A large container of coffee costs $20, milk $6.99 for two litres, coke $20.99 for a dozen and a can of pork and beans costs $3.25.

The big surprise was gas at $1.29 a litre.

We treated ourselves to three large hamburgers and two orders of french fries and three soft drinks from a food truck vender and the bill was $85.

The main general store had a large fresh meat counter. The store ships in boxed beef products by air from Cargill and Lakeside packers in southern Alberta. They also handle Harvest Meats from Yorkton, Sask., with a large selection of the company’s products available.

In addition to food, electronics and household goods, the general store carried items such as hunting and fishing equipment, aluminum fishing boats, furniture, clothing, snowmobiles and all-terrain four wheelers. The add-on shipping cost for a four-wheeler is about $1,100 and it is itemized on the sticker price.

The federal government’s “Nutrition North Canada” subsidy program is designed to bring healthy food to isolated northern communities. When people buy their groceries, the amount of subsidy before the listed shelf price is itemized on your bill, said Karren.

“This really helps with our food costs. However, housing costs are very high and a simple three-bedroom bungalow runs at about $450,000 plus.”

The government also pays its employees a northern allowance to make up the differences in the cost of living between Nunavut and larger southern Canadian centres.

Today, about 7,000 to 8,000 people live in Iqaluit and about 60 percent are Inuit. Many people from across southern Canada have moved to Nunavut for jobs with the territorial government and service industries.

The Inuit still feast on “country food”, which is part of the culture. At a traditional feast, pieces of walrus, whale blubber, caribou, seal, arctic char were laid out on cardboard on the ground for all to share. Tim Horton’s coffee and doughnuts were served as well.

The Inuit people have been living in Canada’s newest territory for more than a thousand years.

Nunavut means “Our Land” in Inuktitut and Iqaluit is “the place of many fish.”

Iqaluit was an American air force base during the Cold War of the 1950s and it served as a centre for the radar systems for the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, the primary air defence warning line in case of an over-the-pole attack on North America. In the past, the long airport runway was an alternative landing site for the space shuttle.

“Since Iqaluit is the government city for Nunavut, most people work for the government, hospital or educational system. Locals can do university degrees at no expense and we have a large nursing program at the hospital. As the city is relatively new, there are all sorts of new houses and office buildings. Iqaluit just opened up a very modern and large airport facility as it is the main transportation hub in the eastern Arctic. Plans are in progress to build a sea port for the shipping industry” said Darren.

“The majority of buildings are mounted on steel pilings due to the heaving of foundations. With the changes in the permafrost, some large buildings have had to install refrigeration equipment to keep the ground frozen due to climate change.”

Most Inuit have a motorized fishing boat and a snowmobile. They often travel to the barren lands, or arctic tundra, to their small and isolated cabins or hunting camps.

Karren sums up life in the Arctic: “We are very isolated up here and one has to learn to enjoy the simple things in life.”

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