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Booze rationed in 'high' arctic

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Nunavut's liquor laws are not "dry" so much as they are "semi-arid."

In some communities, like the capital Iqaluit, booze is sold in bars. In others, like Pangnirtung, retail sale is banned entirely. And nowhere can booze be purchased for private consumption without a permit.

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It’s all very confusing, the result of laws designed to prevent "impulse" purchases, which are presumed to lead to drunkenness.

To some extent, the laws seem to work. The Nunatsiaq News reports that Inuit are only one third as likely as other Canadians to drink weekly, but they also are three times as likely to get drunk when they do drink. Three quarters of crimes, meanwhile, are alcohol related.

Nunatsiaq News also reports that Inuit smoke pot at four times the rate of other Canadians, although they are inclined to shun heavier drugs. (Transportation costs, no doubt, explain the fondness for pot.) I wasn’t aware of Nunavut’s semi-arid laws in Iqaluit, where I first arrived and where the dining room and bar both served alcohol.

But when I got into Pangnirtung and discovered that I was not going to get out for 24 hours, I asked about booze and was told none was available. Or at least none was available legally. A young man at the general store said vodka was available for $160 a bottle!

Ron Mongeau, Pangnirtung’s senior administrative officer, explained that each community in Nunavut is allowed to set its own rules. Pang had opted to be a dry community — no booze allowed.

Other communities have opted for no retail service, but residents can apply for private permits. Permits can be issued on the basis of a check for criminal abuse of alcohol. Or the bar can be set higher. Once the initial check is made, the applicant’s family is consulted. If they say no, the permit is denied. It can also be denied if a community member lodges a complaint.

But if the permit is allowed, it is sent to Iqaluit or Rankin Inlet, where it is processed at a liquor "store" and shipped to the permit holder, who is responsible to pay the air freight plus the cost of the permit, about $10. I did not discover the cost of a bottle of booze, but was told it would be $50 or $60.

Individual purchases are restricted to 40-ounces of liquor or the equivalent of wine and beer. It takes about a week for delivery.

Rankin Inlet is listed as an "unrestricted" community. But in actual fact it means that from 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. adults can go to a "private" corner of the hotel dining room, where, on presentation of a room key, they can order either a can of beer or a fourounce glass of wine for $8. Now, $8 for a single malt I can see. But $8 for four-ounces of the house red? I saw two people in the "bar" once in three days.

Oh! Another wrinkle. You cannot buy "European" booze in Nunavut. It is banned in retaliation for the European Union’s ban on seal products. There’s lots of CC and Canadian wine, however.

In Churchill, I decided to see the sites and so rented the only vehicle available on a Saturday afternoon — a 1992 Ford F-150. (The 20-year-old odometer showed 149,000 kilometres; Churchill, shall we say, is a compact community and it is not connected to the outside world by roads.) I first drove up to Cape Merry at the mouth of the Churchill River, where the river’s current, quickened by a fast-running tide, made a maelstrom of white-capped waves rolling in from Hudson Bay. On the far river bank, Fort Prince of Wales beckoned but boat tour season had ended so the closest I got was the view through Parks Canada binoculars mounted at a Cape Merry viewing site.

All around were iconic scenes, grey rock coated with orange lichen, small spruce trees so hammered by north winds that twig branches only grow on the south of their spindly trunks, and long stretches of rocky coast pounded by foaming seas and sounding at times like distant artillery fire.

At one point I saw a brown rock emerging from the ebb tide. Then I noticed the same rock had moved. Finally, I saw the brown rock roll like a diving whale and spout. Young belugas are brown and the whales this season had remained at the river’s mouth unusually late. It might have been a beluga, or a seal, or a figment of my imagination.

I had left the pickup on a small incline and didn’t notice the front tires had sunk a tad into sand. It was enough, however, that the truck could not pull itself up the incline and instead started clawing ruts out the gravel with its knobby tires. I was stuck. I had one Churchill phone number, that of Mayor Mike Spence, who I reached in Thompson. He quickly arranged my rescue.

From Cape Merry I followed the coastal rode, along with a lot of other folks who, it seemed, were out enjoying a sunny afternoon, maybe looking for polar bears, which were to start arriving any day on their annual migration to hunt seal on sea ice in Hudson Bay.

Everywhere were signs warning about the dangers of leaving your vehicle or being alone in polar bear country. I forgot those warnings, however, when I spotted the wreck of Miss Piggy, a Lamb Air C46 cargo plane that crash landed on a rock hill in 1979.

Made of aluminum, the aircraft has weathered its 33-year stay in remarkably good shape — the fact that it’s a wreck notwithstanding.

I had climbed up beside it and was looking for a means to climb onboard when it happened. My left hand, dangling by my side, was suddenly enveloped in a warm, wet maw.

WHAT THE ...!!!???

I didn’t think, just reacted, pulled my hand away and turned to see... a great big black Labrador dog, looking up at me with kind eyes and a waging tail. Another bob-tailed brute came up, but like the lab it was a pussy.

Then I remembered the warning signs.

One wreck led me to another — the MV Ithica, an ore-carrying freighter that ran aground east of Churchill during a fierce storm that carried it too far inland in September 1960 to ever be refloated. When I first saw the ship 40 years ago it looked as if it would be seaworthy if could refloated. Today it’s simply a big rusted tub.

When I spotted the wreck I turned up a gravel road that ran in its general direction for a closer look. I hadn’t gone far when a wolf pack appeared in the road directly ahead. I could see one big "White Fang" blocking the way and some other greys and blacks rousing themselves to their feet.

WOLVES!, I thought... and then I wondered "Why are they dragging chains?" Turns out the "wolves" were sled dogs that belong to a local breeder.

As moments of high adventure in far North go, these incidents were it for me. The only polar bears I saw were stuffed — a standing eight-foot monster in the lobby of the Seaport Hotel, and a couple of less terrifying examples in glass cases at the Eskimo Museum.

The Eskimo Museum, by the way, is a notto- be-missed Churchill attraction.

Opened in 1944, the museum is best described as a gift from Oblate priests who ministered to the aboriginal peoples of the vast Hudson Bay Diocese, which includes Churchill and most of Nunavut.

The priests, who first arrived 100 years ago in 1912, found that the Inuit would at times present them with scenes made of tiny carved figures that they would use for story telling — sort of Inuit dioramas.

There are many of these in museum, including one carved in 1938 showing the artist contemplating arrival of the first airplane he had ever seen. Other carvings tell spiritual stories, or show practical things, like how to fight a polar bear (distract the bear by offering it your left arm to chomp on then with your free right hand stab it under the jaw and into the brain).

According to museum curator Lorraine Brandson, the priests started collecting the carvings, which they would use to break the ice, so to speak, in their dealings with the Inuit.

"It was like looking at photographs today to start a conversation," she said.

By the 1930s, the Oblates had amassed a fair sized collection, which, back them, was not considered "collectible" — that wouldn’t happen until the 1950s.

"But they thought they better keep a few for posterity," Brandson said. "It was a kind of foresight that preserved this way of life and showed the artistic abilities of the people."

At first the Oblates displayed the works in the bishop’s residence, but then opened the museum.

Brandson said one of the great features of the museum is that it is accessible to the people who are responsible for its contents.

"What’s really special is that many come to see pieces made by their grandparents, or people will come from all over the world and this will be their first exposure to the art. It’s a treasure chest."

Today, the collection includes 1,200 carvings, almost all of which are on display in well-lit glass cabinets.

Only the Winnipeg Art Gallery has a larger collection, but it is not so accessible, or at least it won’t be until the proposed Inuit Art and Learning Centre opens in three or four years

Speaking of which, there is an undercurrent of criticism in Churchill about the development in Winnipeg of attractions that seem a good fit for Churchill.

WAG’s Inuit Centre, is one example.

The bigger target, however, is the $70 million "Journey to Churchill" project at Assinboine Park Zoo, which, when completed will have six polar bears, four seals and eight musk ox on display in a four-hectare fantasy land that includes a amphitheatre to view recreations of the northern lights.

The centre is sold as good for Churchill — recognized as the Polar Bear Capital of the World — in that it is supposed to inflame curiosity about the northern wildlife that in turn will increase tourism.

"They could have taken the money and made a great attraction here," one long-time Churchill resident told me.

"But no. They went and took the thing that make’s Churchill Churchill and put it in Winnipeg.

"It just says save $4,000 and see the bears in Winnipeg."

I usually bring home tourist "art" from places to which I travel.

Sometimes I get lucky and score real art at low prices, but usually it’s representational stuff, local scenes well-enough done but not original in that the artist likely painted or drew the same scene dozens of times.

To some extent that was true in Nunavut, especially Iqaluit. But with this difference — in Iqaluit, the "tourist" art often is the real deal.

That’s because Inuit art is serious business, contributing about $34 million a year to Nunavut’s GDP. It provides about 1,000 fulltime jobs in a workforce of about 14,000.

So important is art-making, that under the Nunavut Lands Claim Agreement (its constitution) Inuit have an unrestricted right to remove up to 50 cubic metres of carving rock from Crown lands annually without a permit. The government, meanwhile, is required to help find carving stone quarries and help distribute rock to carvers scattered over the vast territory.

Art co-operatives and studios can be found everywhere, sometimes, as in Pangnirtung, they represent one of the largest sources of local employment and revenue.

You see beautiful pieces everywhere, and they are not cheap — starting at about $100 and ranging to many thousands of dollars.

The easiest way to purchase art as a tourist is to sit back and let it come to you, especially in hotel lobbies, restaurants and bars.

Artists will approach and perhaps un-scroll a painting, or reach into a pocket to produce a carving.

You can pretty much judge quality by the sales pitch. If a piece starts out at say $80, but then becomes two-for-$80, and then three-for $60 and finally one-for-$20 — well, it’s likely not very good.

But if the price is reasonable and doesn’t budge, look closely.

I was in a restaurant one evening when a boy came by with a furled painting that I was not interested in. As he walked away, however, I noticed he was clutching a small polar bear, which he offered up at another table.

A woman bought it for $30. I went over after and she showed me a perfectly proportioned polar bear in a walking position. I had missed a great bargain.

I had been determined to buy a carving of a musk ox (one of my favorite animals along with rhinos and giraffes). I got one in Pangnirtung for about $80 less than a similar carving by the same artist would have cost in Iqaluit.

The main means, and usually the only means, of transportation in the far North is by air. In other words, to get around the cold hard region you need cold hard cash — lots of it, in my experience.

Over a two-week period, I flew one-way from Winnipeg to Iqaluit, Iqaluit round-trip to Pangnirtung, one-way Iqaluit to Rankin Inlet and one-way Rankin Inlet to Churchill. I could have flown Churchill to Winnipeg, but opted instead to take the train from Churchill to Thompson and the bus from Thompson to Winnipeg.

 Because of the nature of the work I was doing, I didn’t always pay full fare.

But had I — if I were in your shoes, in other words — the cost of airfare and fees would have been between $3,800 and $4,800, depending on the day of the week and how far in advance the flight is booked. Total distance travelled would be about 7,000 kilometres.

Compare that with cheap flights to Hawaii, about $700 round trip. Total distance about 12,000 kilometres round trip to either destination.

Which is not to say there’s anything untoward about prices, they simply reflect the costs of doing business in the Far North. But it is to say that transportation costs are a burden up North.

Time is money, I know. To save time costs money, to save money costs time. In the West today, travellers usually opt to save time. I was glad, however, that I opted to save money returning to Winnipeg from Churchill.

Travelling home by train and bus saved about $300 at a cost in time of about 22 additional hours of travel.

The train station at Churchill is a delight. Built in 1929, it is one of the largest stations of its kind in Western Canada, reflecting the optimism then (and ever since) that northern Manitoba was on the brink of explosive growth. Never happened, of course, and today the station is more a Parks Canada museum than a station, although you can buy tickets there, which I did.

I wanted to go only as far as Thompson, which is what a lot of veteran Churchillians do. They take the day coach, which is mostly empty during the off-season. If you can score facing seats, they can be made into passable bunks, which makes the 14-hour ride more comfortable. What veterans do is ride the train to Thompson ($102), then rent a car to drive to Winnipeg, Brandon or wherever. Round trip on the train plus the car rental costs about $500. A round trip flight from Churchill to Winnipeg is about $1,300.

Private "roomettes" are available ($370), but they are so snug that you have to stow your bunk in order to use the "private" toilet.

I oped for a lower berth ($270). The train leaves Churchill for Thomson at 7:30 p.m., which at this time of year means it will be dark outside before you even clear Churchill town limits.

So I knew that the best option was to simply go to sleep and get up at dawn to sightsee. I woke up once as we crossed the steel bridge over the Nelson River, an impressive construction in the middle of nowhere.

When we left Churchill, there were 10 on the train. By dawn that number had doubled, and by the time we got to Churchill there were about 40 people on board, most of them day-trippers heading into Thompson for appointments or to shop. Which goes to show that the real value of the passenger train is to local commuters who live at the whistle stops along the 500 kilometre route.

The cars are actually very nicely appointed and comfortable, although it’s too bad that the dining car no longer is full service. You can get inexpensive and passable micro-waved meals. But until a year ago, when service was discontinued, the dining car was considered one of the best restaurants in the north.

I must say that all talk about the "pristine" beauty of northern Manitoba’s wilderness is pretty much that — talk. After 30 minutes of watching an endless blur of scrub poplars and stunted spruce and tamarack trees, reading my book looked better and better.

 

gerald.flood@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 2:58 PM CDT: Corrects reference to Pangnirtung residents being able to apply for liquor licenses. It is a dry community.

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