Iceland to greenland zodiac glacier

Seeking New Worlds Above the Treeline

A guest post by Adventure Canada traveller Frances Frisken

The tone was set by our Host Cedar Swan, daughter of the founder of Adventure Canada and the company’s CEO, and her partner Jason Edmunds.

Cedar is a founding member of Canadian Women for Nature, a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, a member of the Explorers’ Club, and a member of the board of directors of Project North (the charity discussed in Part I that gives sports equipment to Inuit youngsters). Jason, an Inuk who grew up in Nain, was the trip’s planner, Expedition Leader, guide and general problem solver. He too is a member of the Explorer's Club and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

Jason cedar family

Jason, Cedar and their two daughters, Charlotte and Islay in Ilulissat photographed by Dennis Minty

Jason’s first job of the day was to make the daily wake-up call, which began with reports on the weather and the ship’s position and ended with a quotation that extolled the benefits of travel. Here is one example: “Come my friends, tis not too late to seek new worlds. Push off, and sitting well in order, smite the sounding furrows—for my purpose holds” (Tennyson) a thought well-chosen to strengthen the resolve of the many passengers like us who were well past retirement age.

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Expedition Leader Jason Edmunds looking at out at the bow of the ship from the bridge photographed by Michelle Valberg


At the other end of the age spectrum were Cedar and Jason’s daughters Charlotte and Islay (aged 5 and 3), who seemed to be equally at home playing “house” with their caregivers and other child-passengers under a wide set of stairs or sitting quietly in the main lounge while someone informed or entertained us.

The team of speakers assembled for this cruise included academics, five Inuit culturalists who gave first-hand accounts of Inuit life and challenges, and non-Inuit Canadians who lived, worked or travelled in the Arctic. All 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.

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Inuit hunter, carver and culturalist Derrick Pottle teaching an onboard carving workshop

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, who undertook the same trip to honour her husband’s memory and succeeded where he had failed. There was also the seven-member crew of an American bomber that crashed on the Labrador coast during World War II. Three of its members went off in a boat to seek help and were never seen again; the other four died of starvation waiting for help that never came. Their experience prompted the U.S. Airforce to develop a program of survival training for new pilots.

Charlotte Inuit Culture Qulliq

Onboard presentations and demonstrations by Inuit culturalists connect travellers to their culture and land, photographed by Dennis Minty

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 (founded in 1771) 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, after which they closed them one by one because of cutbacks in church and government support and population losses due to serious illness. (The mission settlement of Okak was closed in 1919, for example, after 161 of its 220 people had died of the Spanish flu.)

Nain Labrador

The town of Nain in the region of Nunatsiavut, Labrador photographed by Dennis Minty

One of the last mission settlements to close was Hebron, which Inuit residents were forced to leave in 1959. Moravian missionaries and the Canadian government had withdrawn their support after agreeing among 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 verbally apologized to them, after which his government erected an apology-inscribed monument at the site. The buildings remain and the site is now a tourist destination. We saw it only from a distance, however, because a rough sea forced the cancellation of our scheduled visit.

Hebron Labrador

A fragile foundation standing in the settlement of Hebron in Labrador photographed by Dennis Minty.

Before beginning their work as preachers and teachers Moravian ministers were required to learn Inuktitut so were able to involve Inuit in their work as church helpers, one of whom spoke to us at the Inuit church in Nain. These people have kept some churches open since the last of the missionaries went back to Germany in the early 2000s. Their influence is declining as they age, however, and as younger people turn away from the church. 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

Church helpers speaking at the Moravian Church in Nain photographed by Jen Derbach


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 Mission’s reputation has been tarnished in recent years by accusations that children who attended its schools were sometimes abused or belittled by the persons who ran them – accusations that led to a lawsuit to have them recognized as “residential school survivors.” In 2016 the federal government made them eligible for the same level of compensation as had been awarded to the survivors of residential schools in other parts of Canada. Then in 2017 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a formal apology for the abuse and cultural losses they had suffered.

Zodiac Passengers Searching

Passengers admiring the sights of Greenland. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

Still highly regarded are Grenfell Mission doctors, some of whom suffered severe hardships in carrying out their work. We learned about these from 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. It described a harrowing mid-winter journey made with several Inuit drivers and a team of half-starved dogs. (“The seal fisheries were very poor last autumn,” he wrote, “the result of premature freeze-up in the bays, and dog feed is desperately scarce throughout the country”). A short excerpt from his letter gives a sense of what the trip was like:

Driving snow and icy particles cut conjunctivae painfully and stings our faces. My boots are sticky with blood. We have a small pilot team and they are having a hard time. At dusk we manage to locate a certain abandoned house, but are quite a long time digging down to it, for it is quite buried in snow. My three drivers are just as wretched, but they are solicitous for my comfort whereas I am solicitous only for my own, and the realization makes me ashamed. And they are doing this work for a pittance, in order to help me bring what limited comfort I can to the sick...

Hvalsey guide callum greenland

Callum Thompson providing interpretation of Greenland's largest, best-preserved Norse ruins in the area. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

Conditions like these, which are described at several places in the letter, were all too familiar to the writer’s Inuit guides and patients, whose people had managed to survive for generations in this incredibly difficult environment. The failure of outsiders to respect the culture that enabled their survival has been blamed for some of the chronic problems frequently linked to Inuit communities: life expectancies and rates of high school graduation that are much lower than the Canadian average and rates of poverty, residential overcrowding, food insecurity, infant mortality, tuberculosis and suicide that are higher – sometimes much higher. Nonetheless we were told more than once by Expedition Team member Andrew Bresnahan, a young anthropologist and physician who works in the Inuit Territory of Nunuvut, that he believes the Inuit have “turned a corner,” that their lives and prospects are slowly improving. One of the Inuit “culturalists” was similarly hopeful. A “new spark of optimism” is being kindled in the north, he said, and a new sense of pride. The Inuit are now recognizing the importance of maintaining a way of life that relies for food and other necessities on harvesting the north’s resources instead of depending on government handouts. They have also gained a right to choose their own way rather than having to abide by choices made by others.

Zodiac Greenland Krista Godderham

Naturalist Krista Gooderham and happy passengers exploring by Zodiac. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

This emerging sense of pride and self-confidence owes much to the achievements of Inuit participants in land claims negotiations with other governments and 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 51 communities in the four Inuit regions (Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavuk) that make up Canada’s far north. In addition to negotiating land claims it 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 the land-based (“country”) foods that once comprised the Inuit diet.

Several of us visited a food security initiative in Nain: an experimental community kitchen sponsored by the Department of Health and Social Development of the government of the region of Nunatsiavut and backed by several community organizations. 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 land-based (“country”) foods – a healthier and less expensive source of food than much of that flown in from south. (We had been given a chance to sample it while crossing the Davis Strait from Greenland to Labrador.) She also notified local people on Facebook when there was leftover food available.

The government of Nunatsiavut is one of two local governments created in 2005 to serve individual Inuit regions (the other is in Nunuvut). The addition of these governments to those already involved in multi-government negotiations has added another level of complexity to the task of finding and funding culturally-appropriate policies for the Inuit territories. Such negotiations can take a lot of time and require a willingness to reconcile very different expectations and points of view. (Those leading to the creation of the Torngat Mountains National Park took more than 35 years). What keeps them going, said one participant, is a lot of patience and a shared understanding that the goal is to “come to an agreement”– a negotiating philosophy that, if followed, would make the world in general and Canada in particular much more comfortable places to live in right now.

About the Author:

Dr. Frances Frisken is Professor Emerita and Senior Scholar, Division of Social Science (Urban Studies), at York University, Toronto. She joined us on Greenland and Wild Labrador expedition in October 2018.

This article was first published in High News, in-house newsletter of Highgate Condominiums, Winter 2018.