by Lorna Crozier
Have I ever dreamed the North—those vast, treeless expanses, ice-gouged, bear-patterned?
Maybe I need a dream catcher fashioned from bent willow and strips of caribou hide to help me find the place in my body where such a dream could begin. More importantly, I need to go farther north than I’ve ever gone before. I need to go with my heart open and my brain, to quote Emily Dickinson, “wider than the sky.” That’s about as wide as a brain can get.
My path to the North begins as my plane takes off from Ottawa on its way to Iqaluit. After one of the flight attendants gives the safety instructions in English and then French, a softer voice lists the rules in Inuktituk. The language itself nudges my Saskatchewan-born body and my mind toward a different way of being, a different way of knowing the world.
When the plane lands, the national Inuit leader Natan Obed welcomes our group of travellers from the south with a warning: have a wonderful time, appreciate our wildlife and the beauty of the landscape, but remember the Inuit live here. They have lived here for thousands of years.
That long history of habitation becomes palpable later the same day. In the Sylvia Grinnell
Park where we’ve gathered for a picnic, I notice a family fishing by the river that flows into the sea. It’s an ancient fishing site, the river traversed by Arctic Char as they make their way towards salt water. I stumble over a jumble of rocks to meet them. I don’t want to interfere, but all the fishermen I’ve run into, like to talk about their catch.
Just before I reach them, a little girl breaks away from the group and hops over the rocks like a small mountain goat. “I can sing,” she calls out to me. “Do you want to hear?” I do. Clutching an iPod, buds in her ears, she breaks into a Katy Perry song.
I find out it’s her family sitting by the shore, and one of them, a man named Joe, asks me if I’d like to see the fish he just pulled in. At the same time, his wife asks, “Have you ever tasted dried fish?” When I say I haven’t she gives me a piece of dried Char about the size of a playing card. “Do I eat the skin, too” I ask. “Oh, yes.”
I tell her this is my first taste of the North, and I’ll never forget it. She grins then says, “150 years—that’s bullshit.”
I know, I know. Hard years for your people.” I have an excuse for retreating into silence instead of struggling further to find the right response, one of apology, acknowledgement and respect. My mouth is full of one of the best foods the North has to offer. And boy, that skin is testing my teeth. It is taking me a long time to chew.