Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Paula C. Madden | Why are all these Jamaicans in Nunavut?

Published:Saturday | September 9, 2017 | 12:00 AMPaula C. Madden

I was in the Iqaluit Airport recently. Iqaluit is the capital and only city in Nunavut. More on that later. I was waiting for my luggage to make its way on the conveyor belt to me before it drops unceremoniously off the end. What I describe as a conveyor belt might conjure an image of the carousel that you might find at the Montego Bay or Kingston airports.

Okay, I want you to get rid of that image. In Iqaluit, instead of a carousel that goes around with your luggage, there is a moving belt, maybe six or eight feet long, and your luggage drops off the end. Kiss your bottle(s) of 'drink' goodbye if you don't catch your luggage in time.

While I was waiting to catch before the drop, a nice man offered to grab my luggage and take it off the belt. I accepted this offer gratefully because I was in the second row of people waiting, and that's too far when your bags are only travelling a few feet. I also accepted because I had one precious bottle of drink in my checked luggage (you cannot buy alcohol in Nunavut without a permit in some communities, and others prohibit the sale or importation of alcohol altogether. Iqaluit, exceptionally, has liquor licences available to restaurants).

I ran into the gentleman later at my hotel and then at the airport the next morning. As it turns out, we were both headed to the Hamlet of Clyde River, where I live, and he was headed for work.

We sat together on the plane. We exchanged a round of niceties and he asked me where I was from. I told him Jamaica, and he asked where in Jamaica. I did as I often do, which is to answer that question by saying my town is so small, people don't usually know it. He told me that he was also from Jamaica. This did not surprise me as I have met many Jamaicans living and working in Nunavut in the last year and a half that I have been living and working here mostly.

I asked him where he was from and he said Riverhead, and I said, "No?!" Turns out he could tell me where my great-grandparents lived, about the river; he knew everything. Then he said I must be related to Gem (my sister), Faye (my mom's niece), and then he told me to hold on. He pulled out his cell phone and showed me recent pictures of him and my cousins at a family friend's son's wedding. It turns out that he, my sister, and cousins grew up together. I was younger, so we had no recollection of each other.

Nunavut is the land of the Inuit people. In fact, Nunavut is the Inuktitut word meaning 'our land'. The language of the Inuit people is Inuktitut, except for in Western Nunavut, where the language is Inuinnaqtun. Inuktitut is the most widely used language.

Nunavut is spread over one-fifth of Canada's land mass. It has a population of just over 35,000 people spread over 26 communities. It is in the Canadian Arctic where the sun shines for 24 hours from approximately April to August, and summer temperatures in the most populous region, Baffin Island, range from a comfortable 6°C to a balmy 16 °C (this high is exceptional). The winter temperatures can drop below -50°C.

The population in communities ranges from 130 in Grise Fiord to upwards of 7,000 in Iqaluit. All of the communities, except for Iqaluit, are referred to as hamlets as they are too small to earn the designation of city. There are no roads between the communities, so the only way in and out is by plane. I once lived in Kimmirut, a community of 450 people, and I flew in and out on a Twin Otter. On one flight, there were two other people besides me, the pilot and his co-pilot.

 

Back to Riverhead

 

After speaking to my sister and my cousins, they confirmed their friendship with and affection, for my Riverhead friend, and I invited him to stay in my home. On his second day in town, I received a phone call from a nurse named Veronica. She told me that she had met my new friend at the grocery store and that he told her that there was another Jamaican in town. When I asked her where in Jamaica she was from, she told me Guy's Hill, which is a stone's throw away from Riverhead.

In Igloolik, also on Baffin Island, I met a mental-health nurse, and she was from Gibraltar. It turns out that her mother was married to my former cousin-in-law's older brother. Wait, I feel a Miss Mavis, sista, pickni, grandaughta, niece friend coming on. Anyhow, I digress.

Nunavut and rural Jamaica have a lot in common. Both Nunavut and Jamaica are breathtakingly beautiful.

Nunavut's landscape is otherworldly, as described by a friend. Nunavut is treeless Arctic tundra, rocky and mountainous in some cases. Jamaica's landscape is lush and green, with its seaside, amazing beaches, and beautiful rivers.

Rural Jamaica and Nunavut both have small populations, and family and community are important to both. There is a sense of responsibility to others that does not exist in southern Canada. While rural Jamaica - indeed all of Jamaica - has changed since I was a child, the sense of others and community still exists. This is so even with the creeping individualism that has infested or perhaps has always been present in larger more Western countries.

Both in rural Jamaica and Nunavut, I can count on running out of water, random Internet service, and tek spoil mek style. I can also count on a friendly smile, and a greeting. Believe me, these are hard to come by in southern Canada.

I feel essentially but not quite the same in Nunavut. This is not to say that racism doesn't exist in Nunavut. Just look around and speak to people and Canada's colonialism is evident everywhere.

Maybe what keeps us coming back to Nunavut, besides the landscape and familiar or shared aspects of culture, is the same spirit that gave tropical island boys the impetus to enter a bobsled team in the Winter Olympics. Imagine that!

Finding home in Nunavut and missing being at home in Jamaica. One love!

- Paula C. Madden lives and works in Clyde River, Nunavut. She is author of ' African Nova Scotian-Mi'kmaw Relations' (Fernwood, 2009). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and paulamadden@osgoode.york.u.ca.