People & Culture

Sinking in the Far North

Roy MacGregor, one of Canada’s greatest journalists, shares the stories behind the stories in his new book, Paper Trails: From the Backwoods to the Front Page, a Life in Stories

  • Jul 31, 2023
  • 2,195 words
  • 9 minutes
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How, I wondered with a shiver and a shudder, am I ever going to put this through on expenses?

                                                    Hotel                                   $169.00
                                                    Breakfast                            $14.95
                                                    Lunch with interview      $36.90
                                                    Ski-Doo replacement      $15,000.00

It was mid-June 2005, and the Globe and Mail had dispatched me to cover Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s “Farewell Tour” of the Far North. In her five years at Rideau Hall, she and her husband, the writer John Ralston Saul, had developed a deep passion for the North. She would be leaving office at the end of September after serving the full five-year term and being granted a one-year extension by Prime Minister Paul Martin. 

Clarkson had been both a popular and a controversial Queen’s representative. She was the first visible minority and only the second woman to be appointed to the post. She worked hard, travelling all of the country and much of the world, which annoyed some Canadians who saw her lifestyle as lavish.

The GG role is a difficult one in Canada. Some are admired for the simplest of matters—Lord Stanley offering a hockey trophy after he had already returned to England—and some, like Viscount Byng, are remembered only for their political problems. Canadians hugely admired GGs 18 (Vincent Massey), 19 (Georges Vanier) and 20 (Roland Michener), but then ran into a string of difficulties. Number 21, Jules Léger, lost his voice to a stroke but stayed the full five years with the determined help of his wife, Gabby. Ed Schreyer (22) was deemed boring. Jeanne Sauvé (23) closed off the Rideau grounds to the public. Ray Hnatyshyn (24) and Roméo LeBlanc (25) were seen as nice but little attention was paid to them. GG number 26, Clarkson, significantly raised the governor general profile and largely returned some majesty to the office, even if some didn’t much care for it. She was succeeded by Michaëlle Jean (27), David Johnston (28), Julie Payette (29) and Mary Simon (30). The affable Johnston was so admired for what he brought to the job he was asked to stay on two extra years. The toxic Payette was so disliked she was asked to leave early and was replaced by Mary Simon, the first Inuk to hold the position.

A group shot from Alert, the defence station. Roy is alone in the back row, two heads to the right of Mme. Clarkson. (Photo courtesy Rideau Hall)
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Clarkson’s love for the Far North had raised the profile of this increasingly vital cap of the Canadian land base. It was a story of great interest to me, as well, as I had become so deeply involved with the Cree of James Bay and their battles with the federal and provincial governments of the day. This was a chance to see much more of the North than I had so far visited.

This trip was seen as a last hurrah for Clarkson, who at times had seemed tired as her extra year came to a close. Little wonder—a few weeks following her return from the Far North she was admitted to hospital in Toronto and fitted with a pacemaker.

Travelling in a military Twin Otter, the small group—I was the only journalist along—visited Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, as well as the far-flung communities of Pangnirtung, Tanquary Fiord, Pond Inlet, Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord. There were also stopovers at the research station at Eureka and the military base at Alert, the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement in the world. Some 60 people, the vast majority of them in the Canadian Armed Forces, live at the base on Ellesmere Island north of the 80-second parallel, some eight hundred kilometres from the North Pole.

It was a spectacular week to be there. Thanks to the 24- hour sunlight of the summer solstice, I watched youngsters playing golf in “Pang” well after midnight, their makeshift course with just a single hole laid out along village streets and the rugged coastline. How appropriate, then, that the visitor centre at Pangnirtung contains an ancient club, a very rusty niblick, that had been found in an old Scottish whaling camp.

At Alert, Clarkson and Saul led a work brigade in constructing a rock cairn at the far end of the runway, a point where Canada ends— or begins, depending on which direction you might be travelling. It was a remarkable spot for the cairn, with mountain ranges barely within sight and, across the choppy ice, Russia sitting somewhere beyond the far curve of the horizon. The symbolism did not need to be explained.

At Grise Fiord I spoke with Larry Audlaluk while he skinned a ringed seal. He told me how his community had been torn from their traditional home by the Canadian government during the 1953 High Arctic relocation. They were moved more than a thousand kilometres from their northern Quebec homes. This was a Cold War policy of the Louis St. Laurent government: take several families from a northern Quebec village called Port Harrison, now known as Inukjuak, and have them serve as “human flagpoles” in the High Arctic to underscore Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage. Then, the government brought in a few families from Pond Inlet to teach Inuit hunting and survival skills to those now forced to live in what amounted to a foreign land.

Not residential school . . . not quite.

Larry’s father died from heartbreak. The people found the place they had been taken to so dark and desolate that they decided this time to transplant themselves, moving far across the bay to a place where they could catch more sunlight. They could also catch Arctic char, a food staple in their traditional grounds in northern Quebec. When Larry brought the first sparkling char home, his mother broke down and wept at the mere sight of it. When I spoke to Larry, more than 50 years had passed since their forced move north and, as he put it, “People have to move on. The young have grown up here. This is their home. And it’s my home now—I love it here.”

At Tanquary Fiord, on the far northern edges of Ellesmere Island, we hiked in the northernmost wilderness reserve in the world, Quttinirpaaq National Park, and stared in awe at a remarkable glacier known as the “Hand of God.” It is a massive glacier shaped, eerily, like a long forearm reaching down into the fiord, thumb and four fingers tightened as if it were a giant hand seeking a purchase on earth. We saw photographs taken over the years that show the arm shrinking, the fingers appearing to tighten . . . the grip slipping.

At Resolute Bay I thought I might die.

And if I somehow survived, I thought I might still be killed—by the accounting department of the Globe and Mail.

The cairn that Governor General Adrienne Clarkson helped build. Her husband, John Ralston Saul is leaning on it. (Photo courtesy Rideau Hall)
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Resolute Bay, a small village on Cornwallis Island, was another forced- relocation community. The government-created settlement in the Arctic Archipelago along the Northwest Passage is called Qausuittuq in Inuktitut, which means “place where the sun doesn’t rise.” It certainly was in the time we were there. No dusk, no night, no dawn— just 24-hour sunlight in this place that lies farther north than any other Inuit settlement but Grise Fiord.

John Saul was in a mood for adventure. On the flight in to Resolute on the Twin Otter, Captain Dominique Lassonde had pointed out a site where a Fokker F27 operated by Great Northern Airways had crashed on approach to the Resolute Bay airport in early June 1968. He pointed it out not to scare us, but to say that, somehow, no one aboard was killed, though the plane was completely destroyed.

John Saul wanted to go to the crash site. There are times in journalism when reporters must make their own managerial decisions. There was no chance to phone the Globe to ask permission. I made an executive decision to join the Canadian Rangers who were taking him out to see what remained of the old Fokker nearly four decades after it went down in bad weather.

Sergeant Randolph Idlout and three corporals, Mark Amarualik, Debbie Iqaluk and her son, Joadamee, would lead a snowmobile convoy over the still-thick ice of the harbour that offers refuge from Barrow Strait. Also along would be RCMP constable Glen Fishbook. Each of us had a snow machine to ride. Having spent 20-some winters in Muskoka, I was familiar with the machines, often heading out with my friend, now brother-in-law, Ralph, on his brother Ted’s old snowmobiles. The Bombardier Ski-Doo I would be riding in Resolute, however, was brand new.

We set out over the ice, the pace quickening until we were going faster than I had ever gone before on a snow machine. It was exhilarating, exciting, fun. The group paused only briefly when Amarualik spotted a ringed seal in the distance and took a long-distance shot that missed, sending the frightened seal vanishing back into the hole it had made through the thick ice.

We travelled across the harbour and then left the ice to climb far up a valley to a high, snow-covered plateau. It was here that flight GNA F-F27 ran short of fuel while circling the airport in heavy fog and had to ditch. It was one of those rare times in the Far North when bad luck takes all the right turns. The pilot found an unusually flat and solid stretch of ground; the plane held together well enough to protect the passengers; and the crash took place close enough to Resolute Bay that a rescue was both possible and prompt.

Up here, disaster can strike fast—just keep reading.

At the urging of the southern visitors, the rangers selected a different route back, twisting and soaring through a magnificent canyon with high snowdrifts curling on one side and a small stream just beginning to melt through the middle.

Up ahead, one of the rangers turned his snowmobile across a shining stretch of melting ice, the spray spreading on both sides like instantaneous crystal wings. It seemed like a good idea to follow suit. I aimed my much heavier, brand-new, borrowed $15,000 machine into the same ski slots, skimming out over the wet ice . . .

. . . bogging down . . .

. . . stopping . . .

. . . sinking . . .

Let’s be open about this. Mistakes happen—but in this particular person’s case, they had usually been grammatical, fatal only in the eyes of certain readers.

The ice seemed to sag, almost as if I were a child walking across a king-size bed. Everything seemed slow. Slow, but also inevitable. I had screwed up—big time. I stepped free of the machine, flicking the engine off as steam began rising as the ice water of the stream found the hot engine. Water was seeping into my right boot.

Had I been alone, I would have been doomed. Boots wet and still eight kilometres from the village. Southerners see Inuit hunters with their thick gloves attached to their coats like the mittens of a toddler, unaware that this is life protection. Were a glove to blow away while a hunter cleans a seal or sets a trap, not only fingers would be lost.

But you can also get lucky—just like the crew and passengers aboard GNA F-F27. Blind dumb luck in this case was John Saul riding a more powerful Ski-Doo than any of the rest of us. Ranger Mark Amarualik sprang into action, grabbing a long rope from the pack on the back of his machine and easing out onto the ice close enough to the slowly, slowly, slowly sinking machine that he was able to loop the rope around the handlebars. Racing and slipping back to shore, he then attached the rope to the rear of Saul’s machine, replaced Saul as driver and slowly, with a great roar of the engine and grind of the treads, extricated the sinking machine from certain doom and reporter damnation.

The machine was saved! There would be no career-ending expense filing.

MacGregor luck.

Excerpted from Paper Trails: From the Backwoods to the Front Page, A Life in Stories by Roy MacGregor. Copyright ©2023 Roy MacGregor. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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