Bringing home the idea of north

Nachvak Fjord, Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador

It is hard to know the Arctic. The idea of north is difficult to verbalize even here in Canada where we have so much of it. It is particularly awkward relating to such vast territory that belongs in our national identity, but which few residents have ever seen. Even getting there is difficult. Northwords, a new documentary produced by FilmCAN as part of its National Parks Project, attempts to bring one small corner of the Canadian Arctic closer to social consciousness. See the trailer.

Journalist Shelagh Rogers invited five urban Canadian writers to travel last summer to Torngat Mountains National Park on the north coast of Quebec and Labrador. I doubt most Canadians have heard of this park. I had not, prior to a public screening of the film last Wednesday at The Bookshelf cinema. It is an unusually rugged corner of the Canadian Arctic.

The writers selected were Joseph Boyden, Sarah Leavitt, Rabindranth Maharaj, Noah Richler and Alissa York, evidently a diverse cross-section of wordsmiths with a sensibility about space and nature. However, they had no more experience of the Arctic than an average Canadian—in other words, none. They were each asked to create a new written work inspired by the experience. Northwords vividly documents the week they spent there. Rogers interviews the writers: their eloquent, often emotional responses provide a narrative about the landscape, wildlife and cultural artifacts.

One site they visited was Hebron, an Inuit community built by Moravian missionaries in the 19th Century. In 1959 the mission was disbanded and the Inuit were relocated. One of the original residents accompanied the writers on their exploration. The encounter suggests how outside interference caused alienation between an aboriginal culture and their land.

Also striking was the sense of ever-present danger from bears, and the raw personal responses to a hunting expedition. Several of the writers participated in harvesting meat from a caribou, a necessity of life in that environment. The film made some strange experiences more immediate. Seeing it made me want more than ever to visit the Canadian Arctic and gain a greater sense of what is this world we live in.

The photo of Nachvak Fjord in Torngat Mountains National Park is in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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