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

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

Here was the real treat for me as I tagged along on the 2003 state visit with Governor General Adrienne Clarkson to Finland and Iceland. This state visit took me back to Inari, a Saami centre of in northern Finland with a population of about 2,200. The stop there offered a chance for Saami, Inuit — three on that leg of the trip — and the other Canadian visitors to learn more about Saami culture, and share.

The discussions in Inari stuck closely to the issues such as people, culture, the land and animals, in contrast to the previous stops in Finland. In Helsinki, Clarkson’s husband, author-philosopher John Ralston Saul, presided over a noon-ish wine tasting — of Canadian wines — at the downtown Sipuli restaurant that left me dizzy. And, in the city of Oulu, Finland’s northern high-tech centre, officials seemed puzzled about why the Canadians, who mispronounced the city’s name (oh-loo) as oooo-looo or ow-loo, were there at all… although the Oululaiset knew what to serve for lunch: wild mushroom soup, moose steak and berry mousse.

From the Kaleva, Oct. 9, 2003

From the Kaleva, Oct. 9, 2003

Oulu’s daily newspaper, the Kaleva, took pains to describe Clarkson’s visit as well as her role in Canada. A journalist from that newspaper had even visited Iqaluit before the GG’s visit as a way of informing readers in Oulu about Canada’s North, and also interviewed me in Finnish — which I had learned as a young girl.

But Oulu’s vision of what a state visit should look like appeared to be an event designed around trade-deal signings rather than talk, as was the case in 2003: at a discussion at the University of Oulu on “Change and Development in the Changing World,” presentations and comments came largely from Canadians or non-Finns, and few students attended the open session.

A Canadian government official on the state visit maintained that it was important, despite the lukewarm connection, to show Finland that Canada isn’t simply about hockey and snow. Instead, I thought, it would be perceived as a land of wine, haute cuisine and academic talk?

As for Clarkson, at the next stop further north in Inari, the focus on good food continued as she asked what reindeer usually eat. That question came as a Saami herder fed a plump animal.

“They like birch leaves and mushrooms. This summer, there were plenty of mushrooms so they’re well-prepared for winter he said.

Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (at right) learns about reindeer near Inari in October, 2003. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (at right) learns about reindeer near Inari in October, 2003. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

At the reindeer farm outside Inari, inside a fire-lit tent called a lavvu, Into and Marit Ann Paadar accompanied their traditional drummer, the romppu, and performed Saami songs or joiks. Into and Marit explained that Saami in Finland have three very different ways to say thank-you, depending on which Saami group they come from — giittu, takk or spasi. When the couple married 30 years earlier, they said couldn’t understand each others’ dialects, so they adopted Finnish as their common language.

We also visited Inari’s Saami museum, called the Siida or “village,” where young Saami singers provided the entertainment and Saul and Clarkson received gifts of Saami capes.

“Clarkson gushed over the thrill of finally meeting people dressed like the colourfully dressed ‘Lapps’ she’d read about in history books as a child,” I finally wrote in Maclean’s. “Woops,” I thought at the time — that was like calling Canadian Inuit “Eskimos” — but the polite Saami smiles only froze at Clarkson’s gaffe.

Finland's Saami leader Pekka Aikio gives John Ralson Saul and his wife, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, a  luhkka, a traditional article of clothing, which can be worn outside a fur coat or by itself in warmer weather. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Finland’s Saami leader Pekka Aikio gives John Ralston Saul and his wife, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, a luhkka, a traditional article of clothing, which can be worn outside a fur coat or by itself in warmer weather. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Later in Inari, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, then the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (now Council), Piita Irniq, who was the Nunavut commissioner, Mary May Simon, Canada’s first Arctic Ambassador, and Clarkson joined the president of Finnish Saami parliament, Pekka Aikio, someone I’d first met 10 years earlier, at the Saami radio station for a discussion that aired on Saami radio and television.

Finnish Saami parliament, Pekka Aikio  and Mary May Simon, Canada's first Arctic Ambassador, participate in an October 2003 round-table discussion for the Saami radio network in Inari, Finland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Finnish Saami parliament, Pekka Aikio and Mary May Simon, Canada’s first Arctic Ambassador, participate in an October 2003 round-table discussion for the Saami radio network in Inari, Finland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The importance of the reindeer, said Irniq, reminded him of the importance of the seals in Inuit culture.

But unlike Inuit in Canada, Finnish Saami, whose parliament has only advisory powers, have no rights over their land, Aikio said.

“We would like to have the situation of Canadians,” Aikio said. “It’s fantastic what you have in Nunavut.”

But there wasn’t much time to think about that as we rushed from Inari to the Ivalo airport and back to Rovaniemi for the night and then, the next morning, to Iceland.

Read more about Siku girl’s 2003 state visit to Finland and Iceland on A Date with Siku girl.

You can read the first instalment here.