Things are a little different north of Churchill. Some say that the real arctic starts a little ways north of Churchill, where the primary language is Inuktitut and the communities are truly remote, no broken-down rail lines here! It’s also quite likely that most of those people haven’t spent a full winter in Churchill, but they might be on to something.
The Community of Arviat, at only 200 miles (400 km) away, is Churchill’s closest northern neighbour. Arviat is almost three times the size of Churchill, probably 90-95% Inuit, and still very much a traditional community. Polar bear tourism is a very small factor, relegated to five sport hunts in November. A polar bear sighting from town is a big event, drawing residents down to the coast with binoculars and tentative excitement. A polar bear in town results in a community announcement telling everyone to return to their homes at once, by no means should anyone be walking alone! No Polar Bear Alert program here, instead people are encouraged to ‘shoo’ the bear away instead of shooting it.
While Churchill residents patrol the town in the peak of polar bear tourist season, Arviat celebrates in a slightly different way. For a little more than a decade, the residents of Arviat gather in the community hall on October 31st for the annual Polar Bear Tag Draw.
Open to members of the Hunters and Trappers Organization (which is pretty much everyone over 16), this draw decides who will be eligible to hunt a polar bear this year. Most importantly, the first lottery winners can sell their tag to the Trophy Hunt for a cool $2500, a real benefit in a community where employment levels hover around 50%, under the 65% average for Nunavut, Canada’s predominantly Inuit territory.
There are stipulations. The bear must be hunted within 48 hours, and if you do not shoot a bear within that time frame, your tag will go to the next person or family in line. The quota, ranging between 10 and 20 bears, is usually filled by November sixth or seventh. Coincidentally, several of the bears relocated by helicopter from Churchill are harvested.
There is much excitement generated by this event, ranging from speculation on who will win, debate over the fairness of the draw and even concerns that maybe women should not be allowed to participate in a traditionally male event.
Surprisingly, the polar bear hunt is a relatively new phenomenon in this part of Nunavut. Traditionally, the Arviarmiut did not encounter polar bears, either inland, along the coast, or on the sea ice. Even after relocation to the coast and the creation of Arviat (then Eskimo Point), polar bears were just not a significant part of Inuit culture along Hudson Bay. In fact, it was not until the 1960s and 70s, that sightings began to increase.
In 1963, the first polar bear hunting quotas were set by the Government of the Northwest Territories. In the mid-1970s, Arviat’s first annual quota was set at four bears. By the eighties, the GNWT had adopted a flexible quota system with the annual harvest ranging between 12 and 20 bears.
However, since the mid-1990s, polar bear sightings in the Arviat region have increased, roughly coinciding with the decrease in numbers of Churchill’s bears. (ed.note: but that’s another can of worms) Because of these increases, in 1996, the first sport hunting tags were drawn. Over the past decade, the sport hunt became an increasingly important part of modern Arviarmiut culture.
In fact, most residents prefer the payout given that a polar bear hunt brings with it the costs of snowmobile gas, supplies and possibly two days of lost wages. Add to that the $300 fee for cleaning, scraping and preparing the hide and suddenly the $500-$600 paid for a large bear skin (almost always sold to non-Inuit visitors to the community) and the roughly 140kg of meat, most of which is used for dog food, is a far-cry from $2500 in your pocket.
Still, polar bear hunting, albeit modern and expensive, is a significant part of Arviarmiut culture. Many young men want the status attached to hunting a polar bear while elders wish for the opportunity for one last hunt.
Last year, at Halloween, it was announced that the 2008 quota would be reduced to three bears and that all of them would be designated as ‘self-defence or problem bears’, likely meandering north after their helicopter relocation from Churchill.
There was much disappointment. The main problem is that the Inuit do not see polar bears numbers decreasing, but quite the opposite. One community elder is quoted ‘Years ago, there used to be no polar bears at all or even if there was it was rare to see a polar bear. But today, there are too many polar bears.’