Tale of Two Towns … Resolute and Grise Fiord
Resolute is a small hamlet located on Cornwallis Island (74°41’ 51” N 094°49’56” W) with a population of just under 200 souls. It is a foreboding and lonely place. The Inuktitut name is Qausuittuq – literally “the place with no dawn”. The community is named after the HMS RESOLUTE.
There are signs of abandoned Dorset and Thule settlements from as early as 1500 BCE.
A joint United States and Canada military weather installation was opened at this location in 1947 followed by the development of the RCAF Station Resolute in 1949.
The actual community – along with Grise Fiord – was started in 1953 as part of the Government of Canada’s relocation program. Inuit families from northern Quebec (Port Harrison now known as Inukjuak) and Pond Inlet were forcibly relocated to the high Arctic in an effort bolster Canada’s claim to sovereignty over the area.
We must have appeared as an odd gathering on the rocky beach. Staff and 80 or so passengers ready to board fast zodiac craft to be shuttled to the waiting One Ocean Expedition vessel Akademik Sergey Vavilov or the “Vavilov” for short.
The Vavilov is a 117m-ice class Arctic and Antarctic research vessel. It was a purpose build for polar research in 1988 in Rauma, Finland. The vessel has an international crew and staff compliment of 63 with room for over 90 passengers. It was going to be my home for the next 6 weeks.
We dodged ice flows and Bergy bits and leftover pieces of chunky multi-year ice to arrive ship side and begin the boarding process.
One Ocean Expeditions offers an “experiential travel” platform that is designed to inform, engage and educate guest onboard their vessels. A wide variety of topics are offered up on each cruise. Given our current location the Geopolitical reality of the role forced relocation played in Canadian history was the topic of the day.
Along with Resolute our passage plan would be taking us to Grise Fiord. Another community that was forged from the wilderness via a relocation program at the same time as Resolute came in to being. Indeed families from the southern communities were actually split apart and arbitrarily moved to either Resolute or Grise Fiord.
The forced separation of the families is highlighted by a public art piece mounted on the shore near Resolute. The image is that of an Inuit man, alone, looking longingly towards Grise Fiord. He is waiting for his family to be reunited again.
We departed Resolute and headed towards Grise Fiord (76° 25’03” N 082° 58’38” W) some 240 miles to the east. The large flat pans of ice were effortlessly peeled back by the Vavilov when the twin 5,000Kw diesel engines were engaged.
Grise Fiord’s Inuktitut name is Aujuittuq meaning “a place that never thaws”. It is the northern most civilian settlement in Canada with an average annual temperature of – 16.5 ° C making it one of the coldest inhabited places in the world.
Otto Sverdrup named the area during his 1900 expedition. He thought the noise of herds of walrus in the area sounded like pigs. The Norwegian translation is “pig Inlet”. Today it is home to ~ 129 persons.
We were now 1,160 km north of the Arctic Circle. The ship moved into position and the zodiacs began loading up groups of eager visitors. Each of us wondering what sort of reception we would get ashore and what was waiting for us.
As we landed groups of enthusiastic children crowded about, a few elders were on hand and a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in full review order red serge, greeted us on the shore. It was a warm and welcoming experience deeply appreciated by all the passengers.
The town tours began with a walk along a beach. Pulled up onto the pebble beach were a number of freshly harvested Narwhales. The animals were in the middle of being butchered up and divided among the community members. These whales form a critical part of the diet of the community and they play an important part in the history and culture of the area.
Of note, was how the whale’s heads were presented and placed facing the ocean. As it was explained to us by our local guides, this placement of the head formed a significant purpose in that it demonstrated to the other whales respect, honour and appreciation for the whales sacrifice. Failure for the Inuit to respect the harvest would certainly leaded to future failed hunts, hunger and in the not to distance past starvation.
You don’t see this is any school books.
We were taken to a hill above town and I was stunned to see another public art piece. This one is not quite complete – then again I suppose the story of Grise Fiord and Resolute is not yet completed. The statute featured an Inuit woman with a child, looking west towards Resolute. They were waiting for the return of her husband and the family reunion that had been denied them for so many years. Never had I seen two art pieces 2oo miles apart represent such a powerful story.
Later in the day the One Ocean Passengers were treated to a community experience. Inuit art and skills were on display along with food from the land. This included “muktuk” which is the skin of Beluga or Narwhale served up in a traditional manner. The meat taste different from western food but it has a unique quality, firm texture and I quite enjoyed sampling the food.
The biggest surprise came during an informal talk with Larry Audlaluk, an elder and community leader. He was addressing the group when he was asked about the relocation and the negative impact on his family and the community.
His response was thoughtful, measured and reasoned. He started by saying that he was proud to be a Canadian and acknowledged that what happened was not right. He mused that he cannot remake history. He was positiove, optimistic, forgiving and said in a quite solid voice…” without forgiveness there is no future.”
Well said Larry Audlaluk…well said.
Author: Ken Burton and travels in the Northwest Passage with One Ocean Expeditions.