A floor-to-ceiling wall of pelts guards the entrance to the Igloolik Elders’ centre. The air is thick and sour with a mix of curing fish and seal meat, fox fur and a caribou skin stretched out on a wooden frame in front of the hall coat closet. Where the shoes normally go, there’s a slick, hairy chunk of what looks like wolf skin rolled up in the corner and a line of blood leading to it. In the fridge, where the milk normally goes, a little white ptarmigan lies on the shelf with a broken neck and its feathers still attached.
Many of the Elders who live here learned how to hunt and prepare these animals, as well as the walrus and polar bear, on Baffin Island—not Igloolik—on camps near the site where Baffinland plans to construct the Steensby port. In the May 3 technical meetings before NIRB, the mining company remained determined to built the port at Steensby, despite continued community concerns that shipping and rail routes leading to the port run through major walrus and caribou habitats and calving grounds.
“I travelled a lot in that area,” says Mary Ammaq, who sits on her couch with a pot of freshly boiled sealskin on her left and two jelly-pink slabs of meat from inside it on a piece of cardboard to her right. “And sometimes I went over there by dog team.”
“I remember it was summertime and we caught a polar bear. This land is beautiful.”
“There were seals, bearded seals, caribou abounded—there were more caribou back then—and some walruses too.”
I had read that when pre-construction began on the mine, caribou counts in Arctic Bay had declined to the point where residents were now getting caribou meat and pelts shipped from Arviat, to the south. I ask whether she thinks Mary River had anything to do with the decline of caribou for Iglulimmiut.
She shakes her head. “In the dog team days, and even in Skidoo days, in a day we could catch a caribou. Now it’s harder and harder. The old people used to say that the animals move. They shift to one place to another, following their food. They’re not disappearing, just going back and forth. They’re just going back and forth.”
She’s more concerned that, despite the fact that she’s been to nearly every community consultation concerning Mary River, her input will come too late.
“You go to the meetings and you know they have already been working and informing the Inuit later. I see television ads for Baffinland showing the mining of iron ore and I can see people from this town there.”
“The mine had already started before they started talking about it. So what do you do? It’s always like that. We get informed after the decision has already been made.”
She continues: “I remember in the spring, when I was young—before I had any kids—we used to walk inland with the dogs carrying the gear. We would walk the land looking for caribou. I remember one spring, when we were walking back, there was snow falling on the ground. The dogs took off after a polar bear. It took us a while to catch up, and when we did, my husband told me to shoot it. So I shot it.”
“The next day we had to return to the camp where the rest of the Inuit were.” It was a long way, “so we used the polar bear hide as a sled. We put our things inside, tied it up and used it as a sled. That’s how we did it…. We were able people; very independent.”