Tourism could bring wealth and pride to Nunavut

In this interview with Arctic Deeply’s Alexander Kim, Inuit activist Aaju Peter says development of Nunavut’s tourism industry can support preservation of traditional knowledge and skills, in addition to being profitable.

By: /
30 June, 2016
A man photographs a giant inukshuk as the moon rises above it in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut August 21, 2013. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
By: Alexander Kim

Vancouver-based journalist

Aaju Peter has many jobs. She’s a lawyer, a translator, a singer-songwriter, a sealskin seamstress and an Inuit seal-hunt activist. Peter has visited the European Parliament many times to protest the E.U. ban on importing seal products.

Peter also works in the tourism industry as a “culturalist” with Adventure Canada, a company that offers “rugged, yet comfortable” cruises, including several that traverse the Arctic and journey from Nunavut to Greenland. Peter, who grew up in Greenland and now lives in Iqaluit, is an onboard guide to the Indigenous cultures of both regions. She leads tourists in Inuit ceremonies, gives talks about traditional knowledge and slings a rifle across her back during excursions onto shore, watching for polar bears.

In May, Peter participated in a panel discussion on the future of Arctic tourism at the Arctic Circle Greenland Forum. Peter, who has worked with Adventure Canada since 2001, encouraged more tourism development in the Arctic. Tourism, she said, is the most sustainable path for economic development in the Arctic.

What makes tourism the most sustainable economic development option for Nunavut?

Everything you need is already there. Communities in Nunavut have their culture and their language. That is what tourists come up to see. There is so much potential for expansion without becoming some kind of Walt Disney theme park, but (instead) true cultural development and true exchange. That potential exists already in each community and tourism is becoming more and more accessible.

What is your experience working with tourists as a cultural guide?

I welcome tourists to our territory with a lamp lighting ceremony. I light a stone lamp and I say we are pleased to have people come see our environment and meet our people. It’s good to welcome them because I think the connection between Northern communities and the tourists is much better when they have that experience. I also talk about Greenlandic and Inuit culture. I talk about the differences in colonialism in Greenland and Canada and how it has affected us Inuit. They have a lot of questions about that.

What do you tell tourists about colonization in Greenland and Canada?

When the tourists travel in the Canadian Arctic and then go to Greenland, there’s the immediate visual difference. The houses in Greenland are multicoloured. Everything is neat and clean. There’s a harbour that we can land on. Most everybody seems to be employed. There’s proper schooling. There’s two universities. In the Canadian Arctic, the houses are not as colourful and well kept. There’s a lot of garbage lying around. There’s no harbour. There’s a humongous housing shortage. There’s huge unemployment and food insecurity. I try to talk about those things. Greenland has been colonized for much longer than the Canadian Arctic. We are newer to colonization, but it is true that [Arctic] Canada has not developed as much. There hasn’t been the political will to develop and provide services to the Canadian Arctic, especially when you look at unemployment, education and housing.

How do tourists react to seeing those differences between these two Arctic nations?

I think they get a real appreciation for what we in the Canadian Arctic have been saying all along. They see for themselves that we lack housing and jobs and we have food insecurity. Their reaction is to say, “How can we help?” But the tourists also see another side when they visit the communities. They come back to the ship and say, “Oh that was beautiful! The people are so welcoming. The people are so caring.”

How do communities in Nunavut benefit from tourism?

We buy their services for cultural performances, for local foods and for speaking with us. And artists have an opportunity to sell their art. It could be even more beneficial if each community that is visited knew they are going to be visited a year ahead of time. The artists could prepare their art and make more money with their carvings, their sewing and their other services. That’s how a community could really benefit.

Do you see any negative outcomes from tourism in these communities?

I’ve heard of ships from European or foreign cruise lines landing in communities and not hiring any Inuit from the region. So there’s no one to speak about Inuit culture, the things the tourists will be seeing, or how to conduct yourself as a visitor. Tourists will just walk through town, buy absolutely nothing and won’t deposit anything into the community. There’s no exchange, there’s no friendship.

Aaju Peter is a lawyer, translator, singer-songwriter, sealskin seamstress and Inuit seal-hunt activist. She is also a cultural guide for tourists. Photo by Alexander Kim

At the Arctic Circle Greenland Forum you also said tourism can help maintain Inuit culture and traditional skills. What did you mean?

For instance, the lamp lighting ceremony. There are stories that go with the lamp lighting. These stories contain things you need to know about your environment, about clothing, about traditional singing, about all the traditional things. When the stories are told, youth that participate learn their traditions. It’s an opportunity to learn more about your own culture. The sharing and the questions that come from tourists are also opportunities. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you go ask an elder and further your own knowledge.

Do you worry that tourism commodifies Inuit culture? How do you stop that from happening?

I am not concerned about commodification of Inuit culture at this point, although it is something that should be discussed during training sessions. Inuit should maintain their dignity and always strive to be authentic and true to their culture when presenting to tourists.

What are the barriers to the growth of tourism in Nunavut?

We need to train people. We could start courses where you can get educated to do this, but we need to have the tourism industry buy into it and help develop these businesses within Inuit communities. It will create a lot of money for communities and I think it gives us – what do you call it? Independence. It makes you feel that “I am strong. I am proud of my culture.” It’s not only the monetary gain. It’s cultural pride. For our own people to take back pride in their culture – in the amazing people who survived in the Arctic – we can become a stronger people.

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