Canada's Coolest?
A rock writer chasing White Stripes discovers lots of other colour

Jul 01, 2007 04:30 AM
Ben Rayner
Entertainment Reporter

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IQALUIT–This is one of the last places you'd expect to bustle, but Iqaluit is a remarkably lively spot for an outpost on the edge of civilization.

When the temperature drops to -45 C, the wind hits high gear and the snow falls so thick and fast that a trip from the front door to the car is impossible, it's no doubt a different story. Yet in springtime the streets of Nunavut's capital – while only one of them is actually paved – are abuzz with human traffic and taxi cabs whipping to and fro well into the wee hours of the morning.

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Lucie Idlout, Nunavut's gift to alternative rock, poses on the ice at Sylvia Grinell Territorial Park. [Photo: RENE JOHNSTON/TORONTO STAR ] >> Click photo for full page layout

It's a bit of a head trip at times, since a turn around the right corner or a trip up the aptly named Road to Nowhere can lead to utter silence and a barren, ice-choked ocean or mountain vista straight out of a Farley Mowat novel. But its capacity for delivering such "wow" moments is exactly what makes Iqaluit such an intriguing place to be.

"Iqaluit itself is the capital of our territory, so it's the biggest `urban' – and I say that in quotations – centre and it has all the modern amenities," observes singer/songwriter Lucie Idlout, the tough-talking Iqaluit native who scored the job of opening for visiting rock gods the White Stripes at the Arctic Winter Games Arena this past Wednesday night. "If you want to see the latest film releases, you go to Astro Theatre. But if you want to get out onto the land, you come to Sylvia Grinnell Park. Everything is just steps away. You're right on the ocean and in the middle of nature, really.

"It's obviously most comfortable for Inuit to behave as Inuit, and so to continue on with traditions that have always existed for our people makes perfect sense. But on the other hand, we also have MTV, we have MuchMusic – we've got better cable up here than you can get down south. – so we're seeing what happens down south ...

"So Inuit being very adaptable people, we've just managed to take all the tools from down south that exist for everybody else and make them our own."

Idlout, who splits her time between Iqaluit and Toronto, is the perfect ambassador for her hometown: Hip, smart, urbane and cool on her own terms. For Iqaluit, a town of 6,000 whose population averages just 25.6 years of age, is indeed a far cooler place to be than most of Canada might realize.

It's probably time word got out. Like most Canadian communities with a primarily aboriginal population (Nunavut is 85 per cent Inuit) Iqaluit has its share of systemic social problems – chief among them being high unemployment, a suicide rate said to be four times the national average and a distressing 75 per cent dropout rate in its schools.

The media's focus on the bad news, however, can leave the impression that a place like Iqaluit is a social disaster and a cultural backwater. So when someone like the White Stripes comes to town and sheds a little light on the lighter side of life at the back end of Frobisher Bay, it's another step taken towards normalizing the north in the eyes of the rest of the country.

"It is those little landmarks and it's gonna take time, but it will eventually come out that we're not just a big, whiny aboriginal group," says Bruce Uviluq, an assistant director with Nunavut Tunngavik, the organization charged with making sure the Canadian government makes good on land-claim agreements.

"It's crazy. When I grew up here and when I was going to school here, there were 3,500 people. It's doubled. It's growing so fast ... Right now, though, all of Nunavut's money comes from the federal government. There's no economic development here, there's not really any tourism ..."

The latter, one suspects, could become a booming business for Iqaluit if travellers knew how much fun could be had up here. So, with that in mind, might we present a brief survey of local culture, categorized below. You'd be surprised how much this town's got goin' on.

Carving out a living
"Pretty much everyone up here is an artist," remarked my new pal and amateur tour guide Rick Thompson one day last week.

The preponderance of Inuit men and women hawking bone and silver jewelry, paintings and etchings and ornate carvings hewn from soapstone, caribou antler, whale bone and walrus ivory throughout Iqaluit's restaurants and bars would seem to bear his claim out. The quality varies, of course, and the tourist pricing is often comically ambitious, but some visitors will gladly hand over $500 or $600 or more for a particularly choice obsidian statuette of a polar bear. And in any case, art is a fairly vital part of the town's non-government economy; carvings and paintings are the primary source of income for some residents.

"A few years ago, I quit my job so I could carve. People said: `You're crazy, you'll never make any money.' I didn't even know I could do it until I started doing it," offers Chris Aula, who conjures everything from silver earrings and pendants to ornate, three-dimensional cribbage boards with his brother, Patrick, at the seaside in the east-Iqaluit `hood known as Apex. "I like it. I don't have any more supervisors."

Aula and other artisans can often be found plying their trade in public at the Iqaluit visitors' centre or at events such as the Nunavut Arts Festival, which also ran down last week. The Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum also has a cool, historically minded collection of Inuit art and artifacts dating back hundreds of years. The By the Red Boat Gallery – which does indeed sit by a red boat on the beach at Apex – is worth a look simply because it's housed in one of the windblown buildings of Iqaluit's original Hudson's Bay Company outpost.

Tunes from north, south
Gritty, grungy indie-rock sweetheart Lucie Idlout is arguably Iqaluit's best-known budding pop star, but she's not the only game in town.

"There are people who work for the government and play in bands on a regular basis, so we've got everything from East Coast music to blues to jazz," says Idlout, who rhymes off such Inuit folk and rock forebears as Sikumiut, Charlie Adams and Charlie Panigoniak as major influences.

Last week's Alianait! festival featured the varied likes of traditional Inuit throat singers, rappers from Greenland and a rare acoustic performance by Idlout in a hushed middle-school gymnasium. This writer was also slipped CDs by a likeably thrashy local metal band called Angava and a chap named Jimmy Elcho, alias "Arctic Elvis."

Alas, Elcho's come-hither baritone is mostly silent these days due to extreme asthma, but he hasn't lost his sense of humour: "I started having problems with my lungs, so now I've got pills and pills – just like the real Elvis."

Out on the (small) town
You can get a mean bowl of hot and sour soup at the Navigator Inn, but the best bet for dining is to befriend someone who'll take you home and lay out a spread of "country food." And someone probably will.

Within hours of arrival up north, I'd munched on frozen beluga flesh, dried arctic char, seal cartilage and sampled Idlout's bass player's own recipe for French onion soup made with seal stock. Be warned: Not everyone's got the stomach for the fresh fruits of land and sea. Jack White reportedly had a hard time politely choking down raw caribou while dining with Inuit elders on Wednesday. Well, there's also a KFC.

Bars are scarce up here and the Nunavut Liquor Act is pretty tight regarding their hours. But since the same act forbids an actual liquor store, Iqaluit's three main watering holes – the Storehouse at the Frobisher Inn, the lounge at the Navigator Inn and the good, ol' Royal Canadian Legion – tend to be jammed with enthusiastic, highly convivial drinkers until the lights come up.

The Navigator's lounge is the gem, a long, low-ceilinged room where it's not uncommon to suddenly find yourself waved into a friendly conversation with a soapstone carver from Cape Dorset. A can of beer tends to run upwards of $6, but you'll find yourself compelled to buy rounds for your new chums, anyway.

Weirdness alone can entertain
Iqaluit throws ignorant southerners a curve every now and then, be it in the form of a discarded caribou hoof lying in a hiking path, wire corrals stacked with seal carcasses to feed sled dogs, or the area's endless supply of gigantic bumblebees and screeching, eagle-sized ravens.

This scribe's personal favourite spot for surrealism is the large, round, white structure in the hills south of the town known amongst the locals as "where the UFOs land." But running the gauntlet between the dump and a stretch of tundra inhabited by barely domesticated sled dogs also takes you to a desolate 1950s U.S. army base that now passes for the town's "golf course." You bring your own chunk of artificial turf to tee off and whack away amidst transmission towers and satellite dishes that might or might not still be in use, all the while hearing tales of mysterious aircraft that occasionally buzz the town.

"I've never seen a soldier here once," confides Rick Thompson, "but if you come down here at three or four in the morning, every window in the buildings is lit up."

How cool is that?

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