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Our Complicated Romance with the North

Canada’s mythological “idea of the North” meets documentary reality

Nanook of the North
(dir. Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)
Courtesy TIFF Film Reference Library

It’s a frigid February evening in Whitehorse when Tanya Tagaq takes the stage. She’s in a black dress and still buzzing from her recent Polaris Prize win.

“I just want to tell the children in the audience that I’m going to make some sounds you’ve never heard before, but don’t be afraid.”

More than 400 people have crowded the Yukon Arts Centre for a live musical performance of Nanook of the North. To many Northerners in the audience, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen the 1922 film. Black-and-white images of Inuit harpooning seals and building igloos flicker behind Tagaq as she hauntingly reinterprets the film with her throat singing. The theatre is electric: the weight of more than a hundred years of colonialism clashes with the images on screen.

As a documentary student at Ryerson University I’ve returned home for the 2015 Available Light Film Festival, Canada’s largest film festival north of 60. I’m familiar with Nanook of the North from school and know that it’s problematic within the documentary canon. But Tagaq’s performance particularly brings this legendary and yet ultimately controversial film to light.

Long romanticised, Canada’s North remains a place few Canadians have ever visited. Our ideas of the North largely come from Southerners who too easily recycle the stereotype of it as a beautiful yet unforgiving landscape.

In his seminal 1967 radio documentary The Idea of North, Glenn Gould paints a picture of an “incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga.” The documentary follows four transplanted Northerners working in the Northwest Territories and Yukon. Through the hour-long contrapuntal radio piece, each person gives his or her own reasons for going north. One interviewee says a mistake landed him there and others recall a conscious decision to chase adventure and a better career.

Robert Philips, a government official surveying land squatters in the Yukon, discovered what many Northerners find: it can be a contradictory place. “In some ways you may have gone to the North to get away from society and you find yourself far closer to it than you’ve ever been in your life.” The solitude that’s so easily sought in the woods and on the tundra is at odds with the small, intimate communities that make up the North.

As lyrical as Gould’s piece is, it nonetheless overlooks the people that have been living in the North for thousands of years. The North is still very much viewed as a frontier place, and The Idea of North celebrates this sentiment without recognition of the Indigenous people that laid claim to the area long before. The allure of the North appears to be a wholly European creation.

Writing this, I feel conflicted since I’m also a transplanted Northerner who is not Indigenous. I moved to Whitehorse in 2009 to work for one of the last remaining independent newspapers in Canada. It was a summer gig that turned into a permanent job for a couple years and I’ve found myself here ever since. Was it the romantic allure that initially brought me up here or the non-conformist lifestyle? It’s hard to say now.

Picture of Light (dir. Peter Mettler, 1994)
Courtesy Peter Mettler


Admittedly, even Northerners are precious about the North. People here say it’s one of the country’s best kept secrets for its easy access to nature and unique lifestyle. Northerners love to share stories about their adventures on the land and it’s rare if you show up to a potluck that doesn’t include locally caught fish, moose, bison or caribou. And yet, it’s still easiest to romanticise the North when you’re standing at the corner of Yonge and Dundas amidst several lanes of traffic with hundreds of pedestrians rushing past you. It represents a quintessentially Canadian idea of nature and solitude. But the reality is life in the North is more fragile than Southerners recognise.

It’s a place that lives at the whims of mining’s boom-and-bust cycles with communities continually appearing and disappearing on the landscape. The Yukon is lucky enough to have roads to most of its communities, unlike the rest of the North where towns are heavily reliant on goods being shipped or flown in, sometimes only once a year. This means the price of food and goods is astronomically high in many of these remote communities. When the power plant in Pangnirtung, Nunavut burned down in 2015, the community declared a state of emergency for weeks until the government figured out the logistics of flying in new generators. A wash-out of the main highway south of Whitehorse in 2012 left grocery stores looking like scenes from a post-apocalyptic film. A military transport plane had to bring in goods when the highway still hadn’t cleared a week later. Resource issues aside, the cultural legacy of colonialism in communities across the Arctic is hard to ignore: the suicide rate in Nunavut is 14 times higher than Canada’s national average. The North may represent romance and adventure but it is still a uniquely challenging place to live.

Romance of the Far Fur Country (dir. Harold M. Wyckoff, 1920)
Courtesy Hudson’s Bay Company Archives


The 2014 documentary On the Trail of the Far Fur Country delicately teases out the North’s romantic past and modern present. The documentary retraces the footsteps of a film crew that shot in different parts of the Arctic to commemorate the Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC) 250th anniversary. The 1920 film, Romance of the Far Fur Country, predated Nanook of the North and is said to have influenced Robert Flaherty in the making of his documentary. When Nanook was released in 1922 it was a worldwide hit, while Romance of the Far Fur Country was quickly forgotten.

In making On the Trail of the Far Fur Country, the filmmakers, Kevin Nikkel and Chris Nikkel, screened footage from the original documentary to communities featured in the 1920 film. They visited towns across the North trying to connect the dots between ancestors. Even the filmmakers seemed surprised at how different the North appeared from what they had imagined. “With a remote outpost in our minds, a modern community greets us,” narrates Nikkel as the camera focuses on a newly built school in Kimmirut, once a main trading post for the HBC known as Lake Harbour.

It’s here in Kimmirut the filmmakers meet Alethea Arnaquq- Baril, a now well-known Inuit documentarian. “You read about these times and you see photographs of these times but seeing moving images is really something else,” says Arnaquq-Baril as she watches Romance of the Far Fur Country on a tablet the filmmakers have brought with them. One of the Inuit men in the film, Ingmilayuk, who is filmed telling stories to HBC employees, turns out to be her great, great grandfather. “There were good guys in there too; we talk about the company as this big business, this big entity, but there were humans in there. Not everyone had bad intentions,” she says.

For the Indigenous people to whom the Nikkels show the footage, there is a mixture of sadness and awe. In the nearly 100 years since the documentary was filmed, many of the distinct aspects of the communities captured on camera have vanished through cultural assimilation and residential schools. “This footage is amazing,” says one young man in Alert Bay, British Columbia. He’s watching scenes from a large potlatch that features elaborate ceremonial masks and carvings. Large potlatches of this type were outlawed by 1919 and the filmmakers had convinced the First Nations to illegally don their regalia.

City of Gold (dir. Colin Low, Wolf Koenig; 1957)
Courtesy of the NFB


Listening to Pierre Berton talk about his hometown of Dawson in the Colin Low and Wolf Koenig classic, City of Gold (1957), one can see why the North and the idea of the frontier are so easily romanticised. “You could buy anything in Dawson in its heyday, I remember my father telling me,” Berton narrates. “Anything from oysters to opera glasses. You could buy a dancehall queen for her weight in gold. And one man did. His name was Chris Johannson and he lived on Whisky Hill.” Berton’s punchy narration overtop of tinkling dance hall music makes this 1957 NFB documentary particularly memorable.

Berton’s depiction of the “endless human chain” of miners toiling up the side of the 45-degree slope of the Chilkoot pass in search of gold symbolises the grit and determination that’s so widely celebrated in North American culture. Even though, as Yukoners later learned, it would be at the expense of Indigenous culture and the pristine wilderness.

The historical romance of the North can be a hard pill to swallow. Indeed, much like the glittering goldfields that drove thousands of people to the Klondike, the North has often brought adventurers who come first to reap its riches and secondly to sing its praises. As poet Robert Service wrote in his poem “The Spell of the Yukon,” “You come to get rich (damned good reason) / You feel like an exile at first / You hate it like hell for a season / And then you are worse than the worst. / It grips you like some kinds of sinning / It twists you from foe to a friend / It seems it’s been since the beginning / It seems it will be to the end.”

Somehow the sepia-toned image of a gold miner or a hunter from the 1900s has a greater allure to Canadians than the folks doing those jobs today. Arnaquq-Baril knows this all too well. Her recent documentary, Angry Inuk, exposes the plight of Inuit seal hunters who have been struggling to get by ever since the European Union banned seal products in 2010. The film defends the Inuit seal hunt focusing on Arnaquq-Baril’s friends and family who rely on hunting to financially support themselves. The film doesn’t sugarcoat Northern living. It’s expensive to live in a remote community like Kimmirut, Nunavut, particularly when residents are at the mercy of political decisions made thousands of kilometres away.

Stories like Arnaquq-Baril’s are important because they don’t just focus on the parts of the North that celebrate solitude and overcoming nature. Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary premiered at Hot Docs last year taking home the Vimeo On Demand Audience Award along with the Canadian Documentary Promotion Award. Her ‘sealfie’ social media campaign now has supporters around the world and her documentary has created a dialogue with Inuit hunters in the North that until recently had been silenced.

Angry Inuk (dir. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, 2016)
Courtesy of the NFB


It’s important that Northerners are given the opportunity to tell their own stories so that we don’t perpetuate the same stereotypes that have been in circulation since the 1900s, stories largely written by European men who came north for adventure. The North truly is a special place that needs to be experienced first-hand, but it’s also a place of dualities. In addition to the rambling cabins in the woods, there are also big-box stores and fast-food restaurants. And the great swaths of open land that inspire stillness and awe in the North are under threat of mining and resource exploitation.

I’m proud to call myself a Northerner, even though I recognise my time here has been fairly short. The North has become a great melting pot of different cultures and it’s not uncommon to hear French, English and Inuktitut all in the same small community. Although racism and division still exist, Indigenous cultures and traditions are more respected and understood here than in centres like Winnipeg where I’m originally from.

Fast-forward two years to the 2017 Available Light Film Festival where Angry Inuk is the opening film. Even before the documentary has screened, people are clapping for Arnaquq-Baril. “You haven’t even seen it yet,” she says with a laugh. “You might not even like it!” But, sure enough, as Tanya Tagaq’s voice swells above the end credits, the audience jumps to their feet for a standing ovation. For these Yukoners, the documentary spoke to them; it demonstrated not only the strength and resilience of Northerners but also the complicated beauty of living in the North.

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Vivian Belik is a recent graduate of Ryerson’s Documentary Media program and recently made a short documentary for Hot Docs’ Canada 150 commission In the Name of All Canadians.

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