Across the High Arctic: Looking to the future and honouring the past
Published Friday, October 20, 2017 2:30PM EDT
As our vessel approached Bellot Strait -- a natural, narrow corridor above Boothia Peninsula, the Northernmost part of Canada's mainland -- things didn't look good.
In fact, Captain Stéphan Guy put the Coast Guard on standby in case we needed rescuing. But even with emergency backup, it could take five days for help to arrive.
Luckily, ice conditions improved dramatically as we got closer to the Northwest Passage. And worry gave way to wonder.
I always knew this would be the defining moment of our journey. And demand for this leg of the Canada C3 voyage was the highest. After all, it's not every day you get to travel through such a storied waterway -- a coveted trade shortcut explorers had long attempted to discover, but died trying.
Sir John Franklin and his 128 men perished in these waters after departing England in 1845 aboard two ships. The Terror was only recently discovered in 2016, and The Erebus two years earlier -- more than a century after they vanished.
It took more than 20 hours to grind through the thick chunks of ice -- pounding with enough pressure to rock the boat and produce a deafening sound. Imagine a car barreling through a brick wall. I remember being blown away by what I was seeing, hearing, sensing. All of it happening against the backdrop of a golden sunset shimmering on the Arctic waters.
There was more: Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, with gigantic sandstone and limestone cliffs 265 metres high, a nesting habitat for birds in the summer; Croker Bay, where we tasted water from a glacier tens of thousands of years old; the breathtaking vistas of Sirmilik National Park; the experience of trying paddle-boarding (and failing miserably) in pristine, crystal clear waters.
But along with the captivating natural beauty, there are fears for the future. We saw sailboats in the Northwest Passage. Sailboats. A sign that the ice here is melting, threatening food sources Inuit have long relied upon. And tourism is on the rise as a result of more open waterways. There are more cruise ships passing through -- sometimes with more people on board than the populations of the towns they're traveling to.
It's just one of the issues that was top of mind for participants, especially the Inuit ones, who either live -- or were born -- here. A major part of the C3 voyage is also to shed light on Canada's dark past: forced relocation, residential school abuses, and the overall colonial legacy, which continues to impact Northern communities.
Many of these conversations happened inside the Canada C3 Legacy room, built in consultation with the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund -- a powerful way to keep both of their memories alive: the late Canadian singer whose evocative music and iconic lyrics resonated across the globe, and the 12-year-old boy who died of hunger and exposure trying to find his way home after running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont.
The point Inuit participants wanted to make is that even though the journey was about celebrating Canada's 150th, it was also about honouring the past, and that communities existed here long before July 1, 1867.
The vessel served as a powerful symbol of a remarkable voyage: not only of discovery, but also about a journey to come to terms with Canada's historical scars.