Buyer Be Fair: A Guide to Smart—and Responsible—Shopping in the Arctic

The North is rich with beautiful art and crafts. If you care about being a responsible consumer and you’re looking forward to purchasing a one-of-a-kind souvenir on your expedition, here are six easy-to-follow tips to help you shop ethically in the Arctic.
Owl printmaking kinngait cape dorset

© Lee Narraway

Artist Qavavau Manumie demonstrates a printmaking technique in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut.

Up north, artistry is everywhere. Inuit carvers, seamstresses, printmakers, and craftspeople abound, creating world-famous products that boast both function and flair. From ornate beaded necklaces to plush sealskin parkas to lithe kayaks, their creations help Inuit stay safe in the wilderness, stylish around town, and culturally connected. And, of course, because their works are wildly popular with visitors like us, the buying habits of Adventure Canada guests play a key role in supporting the Arctic’s economy and culture. Here are some handy tips to help you purchase wisely and responsibly.

Cambridge bay muskox statue DM

© Dennis Minty

Community art projects are one type of artistry that visitors get to enjoy in the North.

Buy Local

In small northern communities, you’ll often be buying direct from the artist—the most ethical and rewarding way to shop. Their products are the real deal, and the artists are often happy to talk with you about their work. In larger centres such as Nuuk or Iqaluit, and at airports and grocery stores, you’re more likely to find the classic souvenir stand mementos: plastic Inukshuk statues, faux-fur mittens, and so forth. In such places, pieces that are authentic and handmade will usually be labelled as such. For example, Nunavut Inuit-made products are often certified with an “Authentic Nunavut” tag. For sculptures especially, look for the Igloo Tag Trademark. When in doubt, ask the shopkeeper. And as usual, caveat emptor.

Shoppers browse carvings in a kimmirut shop

© Lee Narraway

Shoppers browse in at the Soper House Gallery in Kimmirut, Nunavut.

Don't Haggle

Whatever the cost of an Arctic artwork or craft, it’s poor form to dicker on the price. Haggling is not a cultural norm in the North the way it is in other parts of the world. You’ll probably come off as a pushy city-slicker at best, or, even worse, as an ungrateful and unwelcome guest. Heaven forbid! Remember, these artists aren’t rich, and surviving in the North costs a bundle. Be sure to consider what galleries charge for similar pieces down south. You’re under no pressure to purchase, of course—but if you do, you’ll likely already be getting a deal, without needing to haggle for it.

Carry Cash

In most communities, you’ll find credit and debit cards to be useless—except for scraping frost! Likewise, banks and ATMs are rare. It’s smart to acquire appropriate currency before coming north: Canadian dollars for Canada, Danish krone for Greenland. Artists are unlikely to want US dollars, as they have no easy way to exchange them. Also, a pro tip that many have learned from experience: when disembarking for town, do not forget your wallet on the ship!

Artistic skull in greenlandic gallery

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

This striking piece mixes modern motifs on traditional mediums, on display in a Greenlandic gallery.

Stay Legal

Transporting Arctic animal products can be tricky. Americans are forbidden from bringing home marine mammal items, such as products made from seal, polar bear, whale, or walrus. Europeans have slightly more freedom, and Canadians are somewhat freer still. Beadings, wall hangings, prints, caribou products, and soapstone carvings are usually safe bets when it comes to importing your souvenirs back home. In general, though, before spending big, learn the export and import rules that apply to your circumstances. Our on-board experts are always there to help.

Be Flexible

Sometimes when we sail into a community, the stores are packed with souvenirs, carvers are selling sculptures on their doorsteps, and kids peddle handicrafts on the beach. Other times, maybe beluga whales have been spotted near town and everyone has left to go hunting. Look on the bright side: one of the best things about the Arctic is that life doesn’t revolve around commerce. Plus, there’s always the next port of call—or, the Adventure Canada gift shop.

Soapstone carver from above

© Lee Narraway

Carver Pootoogook Qiatsuk works on a piece of stone.

Buy Aboard

The shopping doesn’t stop when we haul anchor. Adventure Canada’s gift shop is packed with worthy wares. Many are practical: forget your wool hat? Need lozenges? Want a souvenir coffee mug? We’ve got you covered! Then there are the creations of the talented expedition team. Depending on your trip, you might find copies of adventurer Jerry Kobalenko’s coffee-table book Arctic Eden, botanist Carolyn Mallory’s elegant watercolour paintings, or cultural educator Heather Angnatok’s savoury Labrador tea or handmade soaps.

One of the main reasons Adventure Canada started our onboard gift shop was to support small businesses and local artisans from the areas we visit. We consciously purchase through co-ops and other suppliers to buy from nearly every hamlet across the North, to spread the economic benefit of tourism beyond just the communities that we visit. It also means we provide this economic benefit even if all the artists are out beluga hunting on the day we arrive, or we are forced to make itinerary changes. Our dollars have real power to make lasting benefit in these places—to help regenerate these economies and support art-makers.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.