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.
“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.
“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.
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: