To the 69th Parallel (Part 2): On the DEW Line

Exploring the North…and finding Newfoundlanders in surprising places

On the day I was scheduled to leave Cambridge Bay, I got up early and went for a walk. I was anticipating another long couple of travel days (see my last column), and thought I could use the exercise. Plus, I had traveled a long way from home (both the Arviat and Newfoundland versions) and I felt I hadn’t yet seen much of Cambridge Bay. So on a beautiful sunny morning, with the thermometer down around -37 degrees Celsius, I left my hotel to take a look around.

Before I moved to Nunavut, I had a certain image of its communities. As, I suspect, for most southerners (meaning anybody south of the 60th parallel), this image was vague and generalized, pieced together from occasional news stories, internet features, and high school geography classes. I pictured small communities with gravel roads, low buildings, one-storey homes built on pilings above the permafrost yet appearing huddled against the cold, an abundance of ATVs, snowmobiles, traps and furs and antlers that demonstrated the importance of the land, all surrounded by open spaces. My mental image was somewhat correct, but I should not have been so surprised to discover that different communities in Nunavut have very different atmospheres.

Regions of Nunavut

Nunavut is divided into three regions: the Kivalliq (where Arviat is located), the Kitikmeot, and the Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin) Regions, whose respective capitals are Rankin Inlet, Cambridge Bay, and Iqaluit (also the territorial capital). Nunavut has a policy of decentralization, meaning that government services are spread out over as many communities as is practically possible to maximize the economic benefits of government employment and contracting. Iqaluit, being both a regional and territorial capital, is the largest community by far, with a population of around 8000, compared with the next most populous communities of Rankin Inlet and Arviat, which both have between 2500 and 3000 people. Cambridge Bay is the smallest of the three regional centres, with a population of around 1500, although that does make it the largest community in the Kitikmeot Region.

Radar sites and research stations

The first thing I noticed when I landed in Cambridge Bay was that the airport has far more infrastructure than Arviat’s. The number and square footage of the warehouses and hangars surrounding the airport seemed to rival even those of Rankin, and the airport itself was small but modern. There are good reasons for this. In addition to being the regional centre, meaning it serves as a staging point for the rest of the Kitikmeot and a vital link to the south through Yellowknife, it is the site of one of the few remaining staffed radar stations in Canada’s north. Originally built in 1955, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line consisted of 63 radar sites that formed a northern line from Alaska to Baffin Island, hopefully impenetrable to Russian bombers. While most DEW line sites were automated or decommissioned in the late 1980s, the site at Cambridge Bay was refurbished to become part of the North Warning System, and maintains a military staff of about 18.

In addition, Cambridge Bay’s location at the south of Victoria Island is on a main route for traffic traversing the northwest passage, making it an important stop for cargo and research vessels in the north. Largely for this reason, Cambridge Bay is slated to be home to the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station, currently in the planning stage and scheduled to open in 2017.

All of this gives Cambridge Bay a very different atmosphere than Arviat, and I felt like I was in a very different kind of community. Cambridge Bay has more office buildings, businesses, and accommodations, and the traffic on its busier streets made it feel much larger than Arviat, when in fact it is about half the size. It reminded me of Rankin Inlet, not surprising since both are regional centres with similar functions and infrastructure. Arviat, despite being both quite populous and close to Rankin, has nowhere as much infrastructure or business activity.

While most DEW line sites were automated or decommissioned in the late 1980s, the site at Cambridge Bay was refurbished to become part of the North Warning System, and maintains a military staff of about 18.

Arviat is also very flat and compact. It has no noticeable elevation changes, and its roads tend to run very straight, while Cambridge Bay is much hillier, with streets that twist and turn through town and along the shoreline. Arviat is mostly houses, with the occasional office building or garage, while the number of large office buildings in Cambridge Bay clearly indicate its role as an administrative centre.

As I walked through Cambridge Bay that morning, I thought about what that means for Arviat. Without the business activity and employment that come with being a regional centre, there is significantly less economic activity. Its large population means that unemployment is high, and many people who are employed work at Agnico-Eagle’s gold mine at Meadowbank, just north of Baker Lake, or at other jobs that require they leave their home community. Although I was very new at my job, it was clear to me that economic development in Arviat was going to present its unique challenges but, I was equally certain, its own opportunities.

Ocean Alliance

I walked out onto the frozen Arctic Ocean for the first time. Although its shoreline and rolling hills could possibly be similar to some bays back home in Newfoundland, in the middle of February this ocean was so different from the Atlantic that it seemed impossible that the two could even connect.

But connect they do. I walked along the ice to the wharf where a fishing vessel was tied up, its windows boarded up against the Arctic winter and surrounded by qamutiks parked on the ice. It looked like any of the fishing vessels tied up at the small boat basin in St. John’s harbour, but then again, the traditional name of Cambridge Bay is Iqaluktuttiaq, which means ‘good fishing place.’

When I got close enough to read the nameplate on her stern, I could see that she was called the “Ocean Alliance,” registered in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Her bow was emblazoned with the Newfoundland flag. I’ve often said, only half-jokingly, that Newfoundlanders seem to be the largest minority in Nunavut, and I’m more and more convinced that I’m right. I’m definitely not the only one who made the long journey from the bays of the Atlantic to the shores of the frozen Arctic.

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