A local police officer has just returned from a month- long adventure policing in the snowy hamlet of Whale Cove, Nunavut. Constable Tim Harper, of the Columbia Valley detachment, jumped at the chance to spend 30 days as an RCMP relief officer in the tiny northern community.
As one half of the two-person policing team, he faced integrating into the tight-knit Inuit community, the harsh northern climate and learning a more hands-on style of policing, which included anything from maintenance of the detachment building to taking school photographs.
“I always wanted to do a northern stint,” Constable Harper explained. “When the opportunity became available I took a chance and was granted permission. The North is very intriguing to me; it’s a chance to experience the different cultures of Canada and it’s somewhat of an unknown up there.”
Constable Harper left the Columbia Valley at the start of May, making the two-day journey by air from Calgary to Winnipeg, then Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba, and a short hop by plane up to Whale Cove, or Tikirarjuaq in the Inuit language.
The plane doors opened to -37 degree temperatures, with snow blowing across the frozen landscape. At the tiny one-room airport, he met his partner, Constable Michel Mignon, who became his mentor, friend, partner and guide; providing a crash course on northern policing.
“He was absolutely excellent to work with,” Constable Harper said. “He has a really good relationship with the Inuit. It is paramount up there to have a good relationship with the community and your partner and he was very well versed in everything I needed to know.”
The vast majority of the 360-person population of Whale Cove are Inuit, with many living a very traditional seasonal lifestyle, including hunting and fishing and hand sewing traditional clothing.
The elder residents speak the language of the Inuit, Inuktitut, with the younger generations mostly speaking English, meaning a translator was often required.
“It is a massive cultural shock,” Constable Harper stated. “I was dealing with a lot of issues I’ve never dealt with before, while at the same time still respecting their culture … One side is completely traditional, while the other side has sadly fallen towards alcohol and drugs.”
The main challenges faced by the RCMP in the hamlet are social problems, such as domestic violence, and alcohol and drug related issues.
“Unfortunately the children of the community suffer the most due to the domestic violence, drugs and alcohol that they are subject to at home by their parents,” Constable Harper explained. “To avoid being exposed to home life the children will walk around all night, sleep in garages, or have been seen on top of sheds wrapped in muskox furs to stay warm.”
Whale Cove is a restricted community, meaning that alcohol is not freely available and residents must apply to receive a certain amount of alcohol when the delivery plane arrives. It falls to the RCMP to approve or deny such requests and to handle the problems the shipments cause.
Given the large number of hunters, there is also a high level of gun ownership, adding an element of risk for officers whose nearest backup is hundreds of kilometres away.
“We had some very high-risk calls which really brought home how isolated it is,” Constable Harper added. “You have to learn to be innovative and how to get around obstacles. It’s your own personal challenge every day.”
The remote location means a high cost of living, with a four-litre jug of milk costing $13.99 at the grocery store and a small block of cheese going for $25.
Working in such an isolated spot requires officers to be jack-of-all-trades, Constable Harper quickly discovered. Duties normally covered by other staff, such as administrative work, ordering water, pumping oil for heat, and social care are all part of a constable’s role.
As Whale Cove relies on restorative justice, the social side of policing is very important, with police officers and the community taking an active role in rehabilitation of offenders.
“You work 24/7,” Constable Harper recounted. “Working hours are Monday to Friday, nine to five, but you’re on call at all other times.”
With just two hours of semi-darkness at this time of year, Constable Harper found that he was kept busy day and night. As the area does not have a lot of money, he and Constable Mignon also took on out-of-hours community work to help out, such as taking the school photos.
In return, the Inuit residents took him along on hunting trips for caribou and seals and showed him how to navigate in the snowy wilderness.
“I tried to experience the local traditions,” Constable Harper explained. “They took me out on the hard pack ice to go caribou hunting and I ate raw caribou right there on the ice, and beluga whale.”
After a whirlwind 30 days, Constable Harper’s Nunavut adventure came to an end. The community’s children, who had shied away when he first arrived, ran to say their goodbyes as they saw him heading off to the airport. After another two-day leapfrog by plane across the country, he returned home on June 2nd.
“It was an excellent adventure from an RCMP and personal perspective,” Constable Harper added. “It is one of the best experiences I have ever had … Despite so many social problems it is a very unique community with some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”