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Emma Thompson: What You Learn About Living From a Week in the Arctic

Inuit man scanning ice for polar bears, west coast Hudson Bay, south of Arviat, Nunavut, Canada
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Thompson is an Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress and writer.

A diary of a trip buoyed by the wisdom of the imperiled Inuit people

Correction appended, Oct. 19.

Saturday, August 13

Joanna Kerr, the executive director of Greenpeace Canada; Jess Wilson, head of their Arctic campaign; my 16-year-old daughter Gaia and I leave for Clyde River, one of the northernmost communities on earth, taking two days to reach our destination. Interestingly, on the small plane to Iqaluit—just as we start to feel properly cold, they serve ice cream.

Sunday, August 14

It is a miracle we are in this tiny Inuit hamlet at all. After a ban on commercial seal-hunting caused dreadful damage to traditional life, for decades the only rude word that existed in Inuktitut was “Greenpeace”.

Two years ago, Jerry Natanine, then the mayor of Clyde River, read an apology from Greenpeace to Inuit from the Canadian Arctic. He consulted with the Elders of the community, who made a collective decision to ask for Greenpeace’s help with the fight against a seismic blasting proposal from a Norwegian oil consortium looking to drill in their waters. The community members were very much against the idea and had not been properly consulted. They had been battling to overturn the permission granted by the government but had few financial or legal resources with which to pursue the fight. Now, this case is up before the Supreme Court of Canada—the first time a case for the rights of indigenous peoples has been heard. It could set one of the most important precedents of our time. Jerry says, “For a long time I refused even to read the Greenpeace apology. Then I asked myself what I was so afraid of. I believe that reaching out healed much of my wound, and now I feel whole again, human again”.

We are sitting in the cabin of the Arctic Sunrise ship as he speaks and suddenly we find we are all crying.

Monday, August 15

Walking around the hamlet, Gaia, Joanna and I meet two young girls who show us about. We walk over boggy ground past a dead Ski-Doo and Darlene, the eldest, shows us how to use Arctic cotton to light the moss, which is used to cook meat and fish here. We reach a small cemetery at the top of a hill (we can’t go any further, in case of unwelcome encounters with polar bears) and here, Darlene shows us her brother’s grave. “He committed suicide,” she remarks, without emotion.

He was 19. The oldest person I can find buried here is 47. The wounds of colonialism and identity-loss run deep here.

At the only supermarket in town, a place called the Northern, I am aghast at the prices. A small packet of almonds is $13. A can of Coke is $6.16; rolls of toilet paper are $26; 900 grams of dry spaghetti, $14.49. I gasp and reel and have a long chat with a group of women who find my outrage amusing. “We are used to these prices,” they say, rueful and resigned. I am appalled and resolve to have it out with the Northern as soon as time allows. The mean wage here is $19,000. No one can afford these prices. It’s daylight robbery.

This means that the hunt is literally the difference between life and death. Later, Jerry tells us about the glorious feeling of happiness that a successful hunt brings: “When we turn back home, our hearts are filled with tears of gratitude—to the animal for feeding our families and our community.” Everything that is caught is shared.

Tuesday, August 16

Would have fallen into bed last night except I’m on the top bunk, which involves a lot of flailing. Up betimes for ship’s chores. I elect to do the toilets. A quick fire drill in the cold means we bond like a bunch of Emperor penguins, Gaia the warmest in the middle.

During a visit to the community center we talk to Magda, one of the Elders, who tries to teach me the rules of Inuga, a game played with the bones of a seal flipper. You eat the flipper, dry the bones and then play a game about creating homes with the bone parts—but each bone is different and only a few of the Elders still alive know what each represents. It’s an example of the intimate knowledge Inuit have of the animals who sustain them, a kind of emotional and intellectual unity. I try to imagine doing the same thing with a cow.

Local Elder and Emma Thompson in Clyde River
GreenpeaceClyde River elder Iga Palluq speaks with Emma Thompson at the Clyde River community center.

Someone comes up behind me and whispers: “That’s F-A-R-T—faaaart.” I whirl. Has she just quoted Nanny McPhee? “Yes,” she says, sniggering. “We all know you’re here. Where’s your tooth?”

That evening, we hear a lecture on seismic blasting given by marine biologist Lindy Weilgart. She plays a recording of a seismic airgun—it’s like a bomb exploding. The sound is equivalent to a pound of TNT going off—between 235-260 decibels. This goes on every ten seconds without ceasing for months on end, which is devastating to the marine mammals in the Arctic, as sound is their survival tool. They see with their ears, essentially. Where seismic blasting has been allowed to occur, seals go deaf, whales bleed from the ears, narwhals avoid their usual routes and as a result get trapped in the ice and die. If it is allowed to go ahead here, the hunt will be disastrously affected and the community will not be able to survive.

Lindy’s lecture on noise pollution is continually and hilariously interrupted by babies and kids thundering about the hall. Here, families go everywhere together.

Wednesday, August 17

One of Jerry’s ancestors is from Scotland. A whaler. We talk about the connections—landscape, flora and the Highland Clearances, which displayed all the cruelty and indifference of the colonialism here. Jerry has the keenest intuition I think I have ever encountered. He would smell b.s. a mile off with his eyes shut and mothballs up his hooter.

“There are so many ways the government could help this community to thrive—wind power, wave power, cold-water coral-diving—but they want to push seismic blasting. It feels as though they have declared war upon us.”

We are on the deck. It is sunny and surprisingly warm and suddenly someone shouts “BEAR!”

There is a polar bear standing on an iceberg as if auditioning for the cover of Beautiful Bears Monthly. Then we see two more, swimming. I had been so caught up in the human drama of this I had forgotten we might see animals.

Thursday, August 18

We gaze at the tumbling, roaring waterfalls at the foot of towering cliffs (the tallest in the world are here, at Sam Ford Fjord)—and it is both beautiful and terrible, for the water should still mostly be bound in the ice our planet needs to control its temperature.

Still, Clara looks up at the sight and says, “Stairway to heaven.”

The view is suddenly engulfed in thick fog, and we repair to the hold to paint protest banners. I talk to our Captain about his experience in a Russian jail after thirty Greenpeace activists and crew were imprisoned for three months for protesting against oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea. “All that time, I kept thinking about the ship,” he said. “She was held prisoner, too. This is my twenty-ninth tour with her. I guess I felt protective”.

Then, as fog has suspended all activity, Chris Williams, Professor of Economics at Pace University, tells us that the oil and gas lobbyists use the same playbook as the tobacco companies during their attempts to convince us that smoking didn’t cause cancer. Some of the same individuals are involved in climate-change denial. Interesting in a horrific, what’s-wrong-with-us-all way.

Emma Thompson and Joanna Kerr in Clyde River
GreenpeaceEmma Thompson and Executive Director of Greenpeace Canada, Joanna Kerr aboard an inflatable boat, in front of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise.

Friday, August 19

Everyone has colds. Except me. I have a cough. It’s the open day on board the Sunrise when locals are ferried over by an RHIB to spend the day onboard meeting the crew, learning about the ship and exchanging stories. I talk to Annie, who is 49. When she was five, her family was re-settled into Clyde River. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police shot her father’s sled dog-team. He trained up a new team, and they shot them, too. “Maybe that’s why I love dogs so much,” she says, smiling.

[Editor’s note: There are conflicting reports about the reasons for the dog killings between 1950 and 1975. The RCMP says it was following animal control laws. Iniuit had long maintained that the dogs were healthy and under control, and that the killings were done as an attempt to force them to move from their traditional lands. The Qikiqtani Truth Commission wrote in 2010 that the RCMP’s actions were not a conspiracy because they went on “far too long to be the result of a secret plan; it also explained that Inuit “were not given any reasons why their dogs were shot.”]

Saturday, August 20

We are all invited to meet the eldest member of the community, a woman of 85, called Aga. Our Inuit translator, Clark, says half an hour with her was worth more to him than a term of school. He recommends that we pay close attention and try to live through her words instead of merely listening.

Aga says that seeing the Sunrise moored in the cove brought back unpleasant memories of the foreign ship that took away members of her family when she was little—and brought them back “without their culture.” She herself was given a government tag when she was 15. “My name was E5827,” she says. “Actually, at the time I thought it was just a nice necklace.” Aga had thirteen children, was often on the move, hunting with her husband. Back then, you relied on the Elders for help and wisdom. One of them helped with a complication in the birth of her twins by reaching into her body and pulling out the placenta. All the women in the audience let out a collective groan. She remembers that there was no alcohol and when, after World War II, she saw foreigners drunk on the street, she thought they were staggering because they were in pain.

Inuit don’t kill anything they are not intending to eat. “There is no waste,” she says, “We used to catch anything we could find, clean the skins and eat the meat. Back then, I feared nothing but these days, I am fearful of oil and gas—seismic blasting deafens the seals, it destroys their home and ours. I am old and need all the help I can get.”

She tells us when the Aurora Borealis is at its brightest, you can hear it—and it sounds like crystals tinkling. Gaia asks her if the teenagers have any appreciation for the old ways, and she says thankfully the younger ones are now learning Inuktitut and throat singing and how to hunt—the culture that Southerners attempted to destroy is returning slowly but surely. This makes her feel hopeful. Her grandson Barney tells her that in the future there will be flying cars in Clyde River. “I’d like to live long enough to see that,” she says, unexpectedly.

Sunday, August 21

I take another tour, appalled, around the Northern supermarket and bump into what now feels like many old friends. One of them, an extraordinary climatologist called Shari who lives here full-time tells me a story. She was shopping with an Elder, and he wanted to buy meat. Not speaking English, he asked her to translate the label on the beef he had picked up from the counter. “Does this say where it was caught?” he asked. “No,” she replied. “Does it say who caught it, then?” She said “No,” and explained that all the label said was what kind of meat it was, what preservatives were used, if any, and how much it weighed. He stared at her, aghast.

“Then how do you know if it’s healthy?” he asked. “We don’t,” she said. He put the meat back, telling her he would never eat something he knew so little about. A lesson to us all.

Shari also tells me that she is encouraged by the climate scientists who are recognizing that they can’t fully understand climate change without indigenous knowledge—which is as layered and ancient as the ice itself. Hard science is decades old. Indigenous knowledge is millennial.

And then she tells me one of the best things I have ever heard. The Inuktitut word for “weather” is sila. But it also means “oneness” and “consciousness”. There’s no better word for describing the indivisible unity between human beings and their planet.

Monday, August 22

Right thigh covered with a fascinating map of bruises all received from dragging myself in and out of the top bunk.

I visit the wonderful health center but am confused by the fact that a lot of the staff are Southerners—surely it would be better to have all the staff trained locally and speaking the indigenous language? Another example perhaps of the continuing unconscious colonialism that exists here.

Twenty-nine solar panels have been put up on the community center. The engineer, Duncan, tells me that all humanity’s energy needs over one year could be provided by 88 minutes of the sun’s energy. Just think—an hour a year, more or less, is all we need. And once it’s in place, it is free.

There are a lot of artists in the hamlet and—having found out we like to buy things—people come up and ask us if we would care to purchase their work. They are diffident about asking, it seems. Commerce isn’t big round here. Buying and selling have never been a part of Inuit culture. Rather, sharing is central to their way of life, and family is the most important thing to all of them. Deities are not much needed—their faith in nature provides all the wonder and the discipline they require.

Tuesday, August 23

Terrible cough. What have I learned? That the hunt is, above all, the story of life and relationships. That there is a need to co-develop different ways of understanding the universe. That the social seismic changes wrought here are deep and dreadful, and climate change is just another challenge on top of that.

And that the Arctic isn’t just about ice. It’s about people.

Correction: An editor’s note in the original version of this story misstated the findings of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. The commission found that, while the RCMP did not fully inform Inuit about why the RCMP killed the dogs, the RCMP’s actions were not a conspiracy.

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