Life in a northern town

Our correspondent in the North compares his new life with his prior expectations

A few days ago I was on the phone with family back in Newfoundland, and they asked me a question.

How are you adjusting to life in Arviat?

It’s a question that we hear a variation of almost every time we talk to somebody back home. While questions about the culture, the weather, our jobs, and so on are common, people seem mostly curious about the day-to-day logistics of living here. Life north of the tree line in a community of about 2500 people, most of whom are Inuit of course, is very different from life back home, but what we find most surprising are the ways in which it is not that different at all.

Food: not what we expected

The first thing most people usually ask about is food. There were two things we were expecting: first, that food would be far more expensive than in Newfoundland, and second, that we wouldn’t have the variety we were used to, especially when it came to fresh produce which we expected to be limited and sometimes of poor quality.

We turned out to be pleasantly surprised. Food is more expensive in Arviat than in Newfoundland, with shelf prices generally about 40-100% more than we were used to paying in St. John’s. But if you do some price comparison between the Northern Store and the Co-op (the two main stores in Arviat) it’s often possible to find items on sale and stock up. Buying in bulk can save you some money, and items like milk and eggs are subsidized through the Nutrition North Program, which recently (and somewhat controversially) replaced the food mail program. You can order food directly from grocery stores in Winnipeg and have it shipped, and it’s also possible to get country food, especially caribou and fish, directly from local hunters.

Fresh food is flown into Arviat several times a week, so although you occasionally find things that have been on the shelf for a while, it’s usually possible to find good quality produce here. And even though it is more expensive, we have found ourselves eating healthier diets with more fresh food and, paradoxically, spending less money – for the simple reason that (a KFC Express excepted) we don’t have the option to run to Burger King or Boston Pizza.

Transportation: lots going on

The increased cost of food is almost entirely due to the cost of transportation. There are no inter-community roads in Nunavut, so everything comes in by sea or by air. During the summer, a lot of bulk goods such as food, fuel, vehicles, and building supplies come in by sealift.

For day-to-day items, however, Arviat depends on its airport. Fresh food, special orders for things like snowmobile parts, and even snowmobiles themselves come in by air cargo. Mail delivery (also by air) is fairly quick and reliable, which makes shopping online popular, especially with the Christmas season upon us. Even this is sometimes a challenge though, for the simple reason that a lot of online retailers won’t ship to P.O. boxes, and we don’t have street addresses. The simple fix: change your address from P.O. Box 123, for example, to 123 Box Street, and the packages seem to find their way to you.

There are no inter-community roads in Nunavut, so everything comes in by sea or by air.

One of the things that surprised me on arrival was the number of vehicles in town. Hondas (all ATVs are called Hondas here, no matter what the make) and snowmobiles are the dominant mode of transportation, but considering the lack of outside road connections I wasn’t expecting many large vehicles besides those used for services, such as town maintenance trucks and RCMP vehicles. But, although there are no cars, there are many privately-owned trucks and SUVs in town. And there are a couple of taxis you can call if you need a ride to the airport, or have too many grocery bags to carry home.

But, in a town that’s only about 1.5 kilometres long and 500 metres wide, it’s pretty simple to get around on foot, and we’ve been doing just fine without any transportation, even if we do have to bundle up against the cold.

Communication: not so much a problem

Staying in touch with family and friends back in Newfoundland – or wherever they are – is generally pretty easy. Landline phone service is perfectly reliable and not too much more expensive, although we can rack up some long-distance bills. Cell phones work too, although data services and long distance calls are sometimes delayed or dropped, which could be because they still have their Newfoundland numbers rather than local ones. Some newer cell phones, like iPhones, do not yet work in Arviat however.

Internet does tend to be more expensive and have fairly low monthly data caps, unless you are willing to pay large monthly fees. That means that streaming video and downloads are often limited, but using e-mail, Facebook, and so on is not usually a problem, although there are sometimes connectivity issues.

While living in the north is a very different experience from living back in Newfoundland, in many ways living north of 60 is not very different at all. You buy your groceries at a grocery store (one actually larger than the one I grew up with), shop online, and send text messages to your friends.

…what Arviat might lack in malls and movie theatres, it more than makes up for in polar bears, friendly people, and snowy, moonlit landscapes.

One Friday night we went for a walk at 11:00pm, a clear, cold night, with moonlight blue on the snow. A co-worker who was driving around with a friend stopped and asked us if we’d like to see some polar bears, and we spent the next 20 minutes watching a half-dozen bears digging at the town dump, where they are attracted by food while waiting for the sea ice to form so they can continue their migration.

It reminded me of growing up in Bay D’Espoir, far away from malls and movie theatres and coffee shops, where we drove around on Friday nights and watched bears at the garbage dump too. It’s strange how much the rhythm of life here reminds me of that part of Newfoundland, and while Arviat might not have the city amenities that I had gotten used to after 10 years in St. John’s, day-to-day life has proven to be not all that different. And what Arviat might lack in malls and movie theatres, it more than makes up for in polar bears, friendly people, and snowy, moonlit landscapes.

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