A memorable junket, Part IV: my 2003 journey with the GG

As the days went on, some delegates on Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s 2003 state visit to Finland and Iceland, started to worry about their weight. Not me: I ate little, drank nothing and concentrated on collecting a stash of the organic chocolate bars that were handed around the airplane after meals so I could take these home as gifts.

Polar Gambit, published Oct. 27, 2003 in Maclean's

Polar Gambit, published Oct. 27, 2003 in Maclean’s

I patched up things with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, then the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (now Council), who was worried I’d somehow portray the presence of Inuit on the trip badly in my stories.

But because I was the only journalist on board, my presence also sparked a perceptible unease amongst Canada’s royal envoys — with John Ralston Saul, Clarkson’s husband, coming back to chat me up on the airplane, to quietly sound me out on how I had found the state visit.

While I toiled to finish my Maclean’s piece (due while I was in Iceland) and to meet my relentless Nunatsiaq News deadlines, I managed to fend off all other pressures — after all, I had experienced much worse in Nunavik.

But I also missed out on many opportunities during the state visit: for example, a lunch in Iceland where my table companions included noted photographer Ed Burtynsky and author Jane Urquhart. However, instead of talking to them about his art or her writing, we were obliged to make small talk with the other person at the table, the local mayor’s wife.

I attended only one or two of the many concerts or art exhibits which were included on the agenda as I tried to meet my deadlines.

And, much to my regret now, I don’t even remember meeting author and fellow delegate Wayne Johnston, whose books I continue to read.

However, while travelling on the airplane from point A to B, I did talk to the wild salmon marketers from B.C., Ontario wine producers and an architect from Toronto. Most of them weren’t even sure why they were asked to be on the trip.

And I also passed the time with many of the academics who had with an interest in the North, among them, François Trudel from Université Laval, Peter Johnson, then chair of the Polar Commission, and Shelagh Grant, author of many northern histories.

However, in my professional coverage of the trip, I managed to leave out its many high points for me (as a person, not a journalist) — which I still recall today:

  • talking on many occasions with Gen. Romeo Dallaire and his wife, Elizabeth Dallaire, (who were on the Finnish portion of the junket) about his experiences in Rwanda and post-traumatic stress;
  • returning to Helsinki again in the autumn, where the damp smell of wet yellow birch leaves reminded me of studying in Helsinki;
  • privately interviewing Finnish president Tarja Halonen and visiting the palace, which I used to walk by every day where I lived in Katajanokka;
  • catching a glimpse a Saami friend from Tromsø, Norway in Rovaniemi, Finland, from our bus (hei, Marit!) and talking briefly to her;
  • taking in the site of Iceland’s first parliament,Thingvelir, with its towering natural forum of rock; and, last, but not least,

    Governor General Adrienne Clarkson holds an algae bar near Lake Myvatn, Iceland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

    Governor General Adrienne Clarkson holds an algae bar near Lake Myvatn, Iceland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

  • stopping in Myvatn in northern Iceland where I held an algae ball (priceless) and also encouraged Clarkson to do the same.

You might wonder why a glass jar with a silly algae ball somehow still sums up that 2003 state visit for me.

But you just had to love those “lake balls,” the strange, ball-shaped algae called “kúluskítur,” or “balls of shit” in Icelandic, or “Cladophora aegagropila” in Latin, which only exist in two lakes in the world: Lake Akan on Hokkaido Island in Japan, and in Myvatn.

Seeing those algae balls made up for all the frustrations and fatigue of the 2003 junket and made me smile— who could ask for more?

I hold a jar with an algae ball from Myvatn, Iceland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

I hold a jar with an algae ball from Lake Myvatn, Iceland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

You can read earlier instalments of A memorable junket here:

Remembering a memorable junket: Siku girl’s 2003 travels with the GG

Remembering a memorable junket, Part II: Siku girl’s 2003 travels with the GG

Remembering a memorable junket, Part III: Siku girl travels with the GG in 2003

Did you miss A Date with Siku girl’s Like an iceberg? You can read it all here:

Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic

Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.

Like an iceberg, 1991…more

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark” 

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”

Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”

Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”

Like an iceberg, 1995, cont. “Secrets”

Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”

Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Working together”

Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “At the edge of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1996, more “At the edge of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1996, cont. “Choices” 

Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq”

Like an iceberg, 1997, more “Qaggiq”

Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq” cont.

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Qaggiq and hockey”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Brain surgery in POV”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont.: “Masks on an island”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Abusers on the pulpit”

Like an iceberg, 1998, “Bearing gifts”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “At the top of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “A bad week” 

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont.: more from “A bad week”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “Memories”

Like an iceberg, 1999, “The avalanche”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “An exorcism, followed by a penis cutting”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., more on “the Avalanche”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Robins in the Arctic”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Fossil hunting”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Where forests grew” 

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont.,”And then there was Nunavut”

Like an iceberg … the end

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A memorable junket, Part III: my 2003 journey with the GG

As we headed from the airport in Ivalo, after a busy five-day visit to Finland, en route to Iceland, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s 2003 state visit continued to test the stamina and the tempers of all involved.

Every day we started by 9 a.m. and finished near midnight. The schedule for a usual day included a discussion or two, a formal lunch, a plane ride, another discussion, a tour, banquet and yet another plane ride. To the GG staff’s credit, the packed schedule went off seamlessly.

Kids waving Icelandic and Canadian flags welcome the 2003 state visitors in October, 2003. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Kids waving Icelandic and Canadian flags welcome the 2003 state visitors in October, 2003. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

“We have been too much in a hurry,” said Piita Irniq, then the Nunavut commissioner. “But, when you think about it, when people come to the North for a visit, it’s the same thing.”

After our arrival at Keflavik, Iceland,  under a clear, bright blue sky, the president of Iceland, Olafur Grimsson, greeted Clarkson and her husband John Ralston Saul in front of Bessastadir, the Icelandic president’s official residence.

A semi-circle of tow-headed children waved tiny Icelandic and Canadian flags, as a brass band played the two countries’ national anthems. In the background was an Icelandic view of treeless countryside and snow-covered mountains.

During visits to Reykjavik, Akureyri, Myvatn and Hosfos over the next five days, fisheries and new sources of non-polluting power, including hydrogen-fuelled buses, as well as art and architecture, were on the state visit’s agenda.

The final day of the state visit brought the Canadians to Hosfus, the home of the Icelandic Emigration Centre, a  museum with exhibits on the lives of the thousands of people who left Iceland for other countries.

In 2002, the centre drew more than 10,000 visitors to the isolated fiord on the northern coast, whose population had abandoned fishing, mainly due to changes in the Icelandic fishing industry.

Immigration museum Hosfus, Iceland, (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Icelandic Immigration Centre, Hosfus, Iceland, (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

“Economic viability doesn’t have to be from a large industry,” said Canada’s then-Arctic Ambassador Mary May Simon at a roundtable discussion at the centre. “We need to learn from you.”

After that discussion, more food. This time the table featured the pungent fermented shark, hákarl, hung to dry for four to five months, which Irniq and I dove into and compared to igunaq, the fermented walrus, which is a treat among Inuit.

While the Icelandic scenery, with its rock mountains, sprinkled with snow,  sheep-filled fields and steamy geysers, took me in at every step, that portion of the junket was not without tension: by a huge waterfall Sheila Watt-Cloutier, then president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (now Council) and I got into a heated argument about how I would portray the junket and the Inuit participation in the costly circumpolar state visit.

I can’t recall exactly what we said to each other, as the water rushed over the falls behind us, because I wasn’t taking notes.

But Watt-Cloutier and the others I spoke to casually on the bus or airplanes knew I had sometimes felt foolish and embarrassed to be travelling on the posh trip when people back home in the North were paying big money for bad food and housing.

The front page of the menu from the "working dinner."

The front page of the menu from the “working dinner.”

For example, the menu at a five-course “working dinner” at the Töölönranta restaurant in Helsinki had featured marinated salsify, lightly smoked filet of elk with wild mushrooms and lingonberry syrup, perch, Finnish cheeses and Arctic berry coulis, all with their own wines. The cost of that meal alone would have equalled back a month’s spending when I was a student in Finland, I couldn’t help thinking.

And why did we have to be served such lavish meals even when we travelled on the airplane?

We also stayed in first class hotels all the way — like the Nordica in Reykjavik, all pale wood and white walls and crystal lights — and even stopped by the luscious Blue Lagoon thermal spa and pool for a dip as part of our scheduled events around Reykjavik.

No wonder that Watt-Cloutier, who represented Inuit from impoverished Russia to Greenland, worried about the message that I would send back home.

But I assured her I was not there to editorialize, but to report on what was happening and would record how they felt about the trip, not how I felt, which is what I did. Watt-Cloutier, Irniq and Simon said they were pleased about the state visit, which is what I ended up writing in 2003.

But during my late nights in front of my laptop, I still struggled to hone in on aspects of the state visit’s interest to our mainly Inuit readers and come up with 1,000-word focused piece for Maclean’s that would give the rest of Canada a view of the state visit.

Read the final instalment of  A memorable junket on Aug. 21.

You can find the first two parts of A memorable junket here:

Remembering a memorable junket: Siku girl’s 2003 travels with the GG

Remembering a memorable junket, Part II: Siku girl’s 2003 travels with the GG