Willie Hyndman and a handful of volunteers pitch two canvas tents in the unseasonably warm sunshine shimmering with fine-grain snowflakes. Then they wait. And wait. A crowd gathers, forming a cautious half-circle around the tents. Still, they wait.
Hyndman is getting nervous. This is the twelfth country food market he’s organized in Iqaluit since 2010 under the Project Nunavut moniker. The rising cost of fuel, ammunition and other hunting supplies is threatening the viability of traditional Inuit food sharing, and Hyndman saw the markets as a chance for hunters to generate cash, while keeping traditional Inuit foods (known locally as “country food”) available in the community.
But while the markets have always been organized in such a way that hunters can just show up and sell their catch, there’s a paucity of country food on the Iqaluit market right now. Organizers of Iqaluit’s springtime festival Toonik Tyme bought up large amounts of seal, caribou, maktaaq (whale blubber skin with some of the fat attached) and other Inuit staples for a community feast later in the week, and a local restaurant just made a major purchase of caribou, which fetches a princely sum when served by the gourmet plate. Only once did Hyndman organize a market only to have no hunters show up. It was -46 with the windchill that day.
Then, like a knight in a diesel-stained snowmobiling jacket, hunter Mike Alexander thunders up on his skiddoo towing a kamotiq laden with caribou and arctic char. A mob surrounds the sled and people, led by elderly Inuit women, begin clutching at the chunks of caribou meat as Alexander attempts to unwrap the blue tarp covering his cargo. The caribou ribs, bright, ferrous red and gleaming in the sunshine, are gone almost instantaneously. Some are taken without payment. “People aren’t paying!” Alexander shouts after one lady absconds with a piece of meat, but she’s already been swallowed up by the crowd.
No matter. Hands clutching 20-, 50- and hundred-dollar bills are thrust at him. “That one’s thirty,” he says of a two-foot long char. “Fifty,” he says of a hock of caribou. In about 15 minutes, he’s sold nearly everything and holds in his hands a fat wad of cash. Alexander quickly reports his haul to Hyndman, who marks it down on a clipboard. Later Hyndman estimates Alexander took in about $2,500, selling 30 char and three caribou (relatives later said the figure was closer to $1,500). “He totally saved the day,” Hyndman observes.
Before I can make my way around to speak with him, the hunter climbs aboard his sled, punches the throttle, and is gone.