Following the Herd

Matyas DavidBy David Matyas

It’s a bumpy ride from Rankin to Chesterfield Inlet. A short 15 minute hop and the plane flies low. As we take off, the pilot announces that the caribou herd is off the right side. I’m sat on the left and I crane my neck. I reach for my seatbelt but as the plane pitches and I think better of it. They’re down there all right. A herd I’m told is 100,000 strong. But the hoof beats are drowned by the turbo-prop engines and my vision’s blocked by the passengers across the aisle. Over the week this story repeats itself. Rumours and sightings. But as mighty as the migration is alleged to be, I won’t manage to see the caribou.

I’m travelling to Baker Lake in the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut on the circuit court. It’s the only inland community in the Territory and sits close to the mouth of the Thelon River. Baker is about as close as you can get to the geographic centre of Canada.

For those in Montreal and Toronto who might describe “going north” to Sainte-Agathe or Huntsville, Baker Lake, at the longitudinal midpoint of the country, underscores this thinnest veneer of northern space that most Canadians occupy.

Like many communities in Nunavut, Baker Lake does not have a sitting judge or permanent courthouse. While some matters can be dealt with through teleconferences, others are served through a travelling ‘circuit court.’ Periodically, the crown and defence lawyers, court workers, clerks, translators and judge fly into communities to hold first appearances, preliminary hearings, trials or sentencings. Sometimes they even bring along a summer student, as is the case this week. It’s a migratory court that travels across the North from community to community and back again.

The days before the circuit are spent interviewing clients and meeting with the Crown. The judge and court party have not yet arrived and there is much work to prepare beforehand. Some of the individuals will be in jail by the end of the week. Others will have their matters dismissed.

Defence and crown sit to discuss those matters where a joint position may be possible and determine those issues where agreement will not be possible. Nerves and anticipation of what is to come.

In a break between meetings and research I visit the Jessie Oonark centre. The centre holds a printshop, jeweller’s studio, space for seamstresses and equipment for silk-screening.

I watch one seamstress repairing a hole in a high vis jacket. “We have an exclusive contract with the Meadowbank Mine and repair their clothing” says the gallery steward. Elsewhere, an elder is at a work station making earrings. They are shaped as Kamiks (traditional boots) and made from caribou antler. It is fine, detailed work. Her name is Martha Noah, one of Baker Lake’s accomplished artists and a collaborator of the renowned Simon Tookoome.

When the owners learn that we are in town with the circuit court they remember past court sessions, those rulings they’ve felt unfair or viewed as ill-suited for the community. Stories, nostalgia and the reservations for circuits past.

Without permanent structure, some circuit courts are held in school gymnasiums or community halls. The Baker circuit takes place in the conference room of a local lodge. As the court arrives the first day, the owner of the lodge, a man from the Shetland Islands brought to Northern Canada decades ago to work for the Hudson Bay Company, hangs flags behind the judge’s chair. A Canadian flag on one side of the judge. A Nunavut flag on the other. A room that was silent as a tundra field prepares for the rumble of matters to come.

The first morning of court is fast and busy. Lawyers and the court are trying to clear the easier matters from the docket early and push more complicated issues to latter times. Things get adjourned to the next day or the next circuit court dates in October or December. The room is full and the tempo of proceedings is high. The court workers scramble to track down those accused persons or witnesses who should be in court but have not yet appeared. The hall reverberates with the energy of the court, finally arrived.

Over the next afternoon and day, the court takes over that space. Grazing on legal matters as if it had always resided there. At times it feels like it will always be there. But, gradually it thins as cases are concluded and cleared from the docket.

By the morning of the third day only the stragglers remain. A few lingering matters cut off from the herd of issues before the court on previous days. Crippled cases impaired by missing witnesses or accused who did not show up.  Some of these may join the other cases on future circuits, others never make it past this court.

And then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the circuit court concludes. Those finished matters settling like trampled earth.

As the plane takes to the sky I look again for the caribou herd. From Baker to Chesterfield and onwards to Rankin Inlet, I cast my eyes over the landscape for signs of their passing. But the migration has past, gone with only the faintest of traces that it was ever there.

Qamutik

Matyas David

By: David Matyas

A few weeks ago a friend took me out on the ice. There were three of us with just one snowmobile, and so for the first leg of the journey I rode in a ᖃᒧᑏᒃ (qamutik) attached by thick steel hitch to the back of the Ski-Doo. Though I’d seen qamutiks around Iqaluit, resting next to houses or snow-flecked on the back of a Bombardier or Arctic Fox, it was my first chance to ride the famous sledge.

The qamutik is one of those traditional designs that has maintained its relevance over time and has continued to outperform newer technologies. Explorers from Britain and the United States, who thumbed their noses at the Inuit design at the start of their expeditions, saw sleds imported from Europe reduced to splinters naught but a few miles into journeys. And locally, one friend told me that while many Inuit have replaced dog teams with snowmobiles, the qamutik design has endured, with only the smallest of changes in material.

The first part of our trip crosses the rough ice next to the shore—a field of towering chunks and gnarled fissures, cracked and compacted by a winter of shifting currents and reaching sea-ice. The qamutik heaves. Bounces. I’m tossed and jostled like an apple forgotten in the flatbed of a pickup on a country road. The wood squeaks and flexes but holds fast and before too long we are out on the smooth ice.

The genius of the qamutik design lies in the knots that bind the cross-pieces (or napooks) to the runners. Where the repeated thud of wood on hard ice is enough to wriggle ever the most resolute of nails free from their place, the knots and cord give the design flexibility, allowing it to maintain its integrity as it pounds across the rough terrain.

I’m banged and bruised but the ride is much more fluid on the open ice. The snow-mobile weaves around patches of blue ice and the qamutik bends along behind like a slinky. We stop and look at the mountains on the far side of Frobisher Bay. A small flock of geese flaps over the ice. In a landscape without trees to blow through, I find the wind sounds lower, throatier.

Beyond the functional importance of the qamutik, the traditional sledge-runner is also represented in art and architecture, carvings and design. At the busiest intersection in town, the four corners, there is a large red building designed to look like a qamutik. At galleries around Iqaluit, I’ve seen miniature qamutik carved from caribou antler or serpentine. And, in one of the courtrooms, the barrier (or bar) that separates the gallery from the bench and counsel tables, is made to look like two long qamutiks.

At the far end of the Bay I get out of the qamutik. I hear creaking beneath my feet. The ice, I’m told, will be solid for several weeks. In the interim, puddles form and freeze upon its surface that you can still fall through—not enough to reach the swift tidal current below but sufficient to ruin a good outing. The qamutik floats like a barge on this frozen sea and I return to its safe confines.

As we turn and head back towards town, I look out on islands in Frobisher Bay. They seem to peek through the ice like mountaintops through clouds. I think about the qamutiks represented in the courthouse, wondering how they are meant to relate to justice in the North.

Are they meant to reflect the system as it is? Or, are they presented as aspiration, an allegory of what the system might become? Are efforts like the Gladue reports that are considered when sentencing offenders of aboriginal background the flexible knots in an otherwise harsh carriage of justice as it bumps and crashes across a socio-cultural landscape? I reflect on judicial processes adapted for the context, from decentralization efforts to official Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun language requirements, wondering if they will endure. I think about certain imported features of southern justice and if they are as doomed to fail in this context, like European explorers’ sleds dashed upon the ice.

I hop out of the qamutik feeling privileged to have had the ride. I’ll look at them differently as I walk through town. Hopefully, another chance to ride in a qamutik will glide past again.

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