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Seeking New Worlds Above the Tree Line

Before joining Adventure Canada for our Greenland & Wild Labrador small-ship expedition in 2018, guest Frances Frisken had never considered travelling through the Arctic. But it didn’t take long before her natural curiosity and keen mind were drawn in to the region’s unique beauty, cultures, and transformative power.

Header Frances Frisken

© Dennis Minty

“Bill and I had never thought of visiting the Arctic until we received an email from a friend of ours, Al Pace, promoting the cruise,” says Frances. “We had thought our travelling days were over, but were intrigued by the description of this expedition and signed on almost at once.”

Frisken and Bill

Frances and her husband Bill on a small-ship expedition

Frances says that she had little previous knowledge of the Arctic. However, as Professor Emerita and Senior Scholar at York University, Dr. Frisken possesses the keen mind and skills of a researcher.

“Apart from what I had learned from films like Atanarjuat, The Snow Walker, and The Necessities of Life, I went not understanding a great deal about the region and its people—but the Arctic draws one in. It taught me about a unique part of our country and the world. When immersed through travel, the Arctic’s vast beauty and its living and historic cultures have a transformative power. My learning continues following this wonderful experience.”

An active researcher and writer, Frances recently spoke to us about her observations and experiences from this itinerary, and shared some excerpts from an article she wrote.

Impressions of the Adventure Canada Resource Team

Frances’ enthusiasm for learning was enhanced by the onboard community and organization that made the small ship of guests, staff, and crew immediately feel like a relaxed gathering of good friends. “The tone of our journey was set right away by Cedar Swan and Jason Edmunds. This wife and husband dynamic duo led our expedition and its talented team of experts.”

In keeping with all Adventure Canada expeditions, the talented team to which Frances refers was made up of resource experts, academics, and Inuit Cultural Educators who provided firsthand accounts of Inuit life and challenges—all of whom “were impressive for their breadth of knowledge, their enthusiasm for their subject matter, and their evident desire to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with us”.

Jason cedar family

© Dennis Minty

Jason, Cedar, and their daughters Charlotte and Islay in Ilulissat on High Arctic Explorer 2019

Frances Frisken's Experience

Two people stand out in my memory. There was Maria, who had struggled hard to realize her potential and who showed great honesty and courage in telling her story to a room full of strangers, and Andrew Bresnahan, a young anthropologist and physician who works in Nunavut. Though not Inuit himself, he has dedicated his life not just to serving the Inuit people but also to understanding them—an understanding he conveyed with affection and empathy.

Quilik charlotte inuit

© Dennis Minty

Inuit Cultural Educator Maria Merkuratsuk and Charlotte Edmunds lighting a qulliq in a welcome ceremony on the Ocean Endeavour

Bresnahan

© Mark Edward Harris

David Pelly and Andrew Bresnahan helping a guest cross a river on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut

It was from some of the speakers that we learned about the people whose visits to the region in the past had become part of its history. Among them was Leonidas Hubbard, who died of starvation and exhaustion after losing his way while on a canoe expedition in a remote part of Labrador. Another was his wife Mina Benson Hubbard, who undertook the same trip to honour her husband’s memory and succeeded where he had failed.

Other visitors who had more lasting and widespread influence on Arctic life were missionaries sent out by the Moravians, a Protestant sect based in Saxony (now part of the Czech Republic). Their first Labrador mission was founded in 1771 and evolved into the Town of Nain, now the administrative capital of the autonomous region of Nunatsiavut, where their church still functions. They opened seven more missions along the Labrador coast between then and 1905. One of the last mission settlements to close was Hebron, a stop on our trip’s itinerary, which Inuit residents were forced to leave in 1959.

Nain

© Dennis Minty

Nain is the most northerly point on the Greenland & Wild Labrador itinerary where one can see the tree line

Moravian missionaries and the Canadian government had withdrawn their support after agreeing amongst themselves, without consulting residents, that the Inuit would have better lives if they moved to larger communities. The missionaries went back to Europe; the Inuit residents scattered among different towns where they were often treated as unwelcome competitors for scarce resources. The results of the resettlement were so devastating for some of those affected that in 2005 the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador formally apologized to them, after which his government erected an apology-inscribed monument in Hebron.

Hebron Labrador

© Dennis Minty

What has survived is a Moravian-established musical tradition of choral singing and the playing of brass and string instruments. These talents were on display in Nain, where we were greeted by a small brass band when we arrived and heard a choral performance in the Moravian church before we left.

Church nain inuit culture

© Jen Derbach

Community hosts Joan Dicker and Abele Ikkusek showcase traditional clothing at the Moravian Church in Nain

Other outsiders who played a crucial role in the lives of Newfoundland and Labrador residents were the Grenfell missionaries, who brought medical services to remote communities between 1893 and 1981. They also opened hospitals in some of the communities they served, helped to set up industries based on local crafts, established two orphanages for children whose parents had died of tuberculosis or other diseases, and operated residential (boarding) schools in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Grenfell Mission doctors are still highly regarded to this day, some of whom suffered severe hardships in carrying out their work. We learned about these from expedition team member Dave Paddon, the son and grandson of Grenfell medical missionaries, who read us a long letter written by an unnamed doctor late in the winter of 1949-50.

Expedition team member Andrew Bresnahan told us he believes the Inuit have “turned a corner”—that their lives and prospects are slowly improving. Derrick Pottle, one of Adventure Canada's Cultural Educators, agrees. Inuit are recognizing the importance of maintaining a way of life that produces food and other necessities by harvesting the North’s resources, instead of depending on governments. They have gained a right to choose their own way rather than having to abide by choices made by others.

Food Security—a Critical Northern Issue

This emerging sense of pride and self-confidence owes much to the achievements of Inuit participants in land claims negotiations with other governments and with the Innu First Nation to the south. The earliest of these were members of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), an organization of Inuit elders formed in 1971 to represent the interests of 65,000 Inuit living in fifty-one communities in the four Inuit regions (Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut) in Canada.

In addition to negotiating land claims, ITK has become an advocate for federal and provincial health, education, housing, and other policies that respect Inuit culture. It also encourages community-based initiatives to reduce food insecurity—a challenge that stems from a variety of factors and intersects with other challenges. Such initiatives include food banks, community freezers, community kitchens, and programs to encourage the harvesting of “country” foods that once solely comprised the Inuit diet.

Food security arctic char

© Lee Narraway

Air drying of Arctic char is part of Inuit culture that still continues to this day

Several of us visited a food security initiative in Nain, an experimental community kitchen. The woman in charge welcomed us with a bowl of delicious partridge soup. We then learned that she gave cooking lessons to women and teenagers, bread-making lessons to men, and, with one or more helpers, prepared daily bag lunches for children attending the town’s two schools. She taught young people methods of harvesting and preparing traditional foods—a healthier and less expensive source of food than much of that flown in from down south.

Will you return?

“I think we might be getting past our adventure travel years,” says Frances, “but I recommend the experience. Canadians should go, see, feel, and gain a greater understanding of the North and its people. It will change you.”

Here’s hoping Frances and Bill 'go north’ one more time!

About the Author

Frances Frisken

Frances Frisken

Adventure Canada Guest

Dr. Frances Frisken is Professor Emerita and Senior Scholar, Division of Social Science (Urban Studies), at York University, Toronto. She travelled with Adventure Canada on Greenland and Wild Labrador with her husband Bill in October 2018.