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Story Gone Cold: A Reporter Finds an Unexpected Angle in the Arctic

Village de Salluit, in Québec (Photo: Louis Carrier, Commons.wikimedia.org)

I bet you can’t find Salluit on a map.

Look for Quebec – six times the size of France – then move your finger north. Way, way north to a spot just past the Arctic Circle, which lies at 60 degrees. You can only reach the Inuit town of Salluit by air. There are no roads. And you can only fly into it via Air Inuit, coming to and from places like Aupaluk and Inukiak.

I visited in late-December in the mid-1980s. We took a jet north from Montreal to Kuujjuaq, a two-hour flight, before switching to one of the tiny DASH-8s, small aircraft specially designed and built for use on the Arctic’s short frigid runways. The kind of runways where all you’ve got to work with is a lot of snow and ice and little room to maneuver before skidding off into seawater, the temperature of which will kill you within minutes.

I was a reporter then for the Montreal Gazette, sent north on an assignment typical of the paper’s tastes. The story was meant to be heart-warming. I fucking hate heart-warming stories.

No one would speak to us, he said. We had only 24 hours there. The flights had cost about $5,000.

The publisher of the paper had heard that the village of Salluit was desperate for warm clothing and footwear, so the Salvation Army gathered a huge number of boxes filled with goods to deliver to the putatively grateful natives. It would, our publisher thought, make a terrific Christmas story, and it was my job to chronicle this touching journey and the delighted smiles of the Inuit receiving our Southern largesse.

As we flew out of Kuujjuaq in the small plane packed to the roof with boxes of clothes, I sat with a Gazette staff photographer and a television reporter from the CBC and her cameraman.

After a certain point, you leave the green of trees and vegetation far behind. You’ve passed the tree line and are now in a land of ice and snow where trees cannot grow.

By the time we landed in Salluit at 2:00 p.m., daylight already quickly waning, the terrain boasted nothing but ice and snow. The town of 500 looked like a handful of Legos tossed onto a sheet, bits of color in a mass of white. Everyone came out to greet us, and a man named Paulusi Okituk headed the delegation on his snowmobile, his coat open in the cold.

We stepped out of the plane, we journalists suddenly, oddly, ourselves the center of attention.

“We have a problem,” Paulusi said.

“Problem?”

I had filed a story about our journey and its intent the night before from my hotel room in Kuujjuaq, and he was not pleased. How on earth had he read it? Decades before the Internet and cellphones, I hadn’t even seen my own story yet.

“Fax,” he said.

And the villagers were furious. No one wanted the damn clothes or our patronizing feel-good holiday bullshit. No one would speak to us, he said. We had only 24 hours there. The flights had cost about $5,000.

And now I had no story to tell.

So Paulusi and I sat in the local radio station, a particle-board shack made of the stuff you see on the back of Ikea bookshelves, and he asked me questions in English and I answered and he translated them into Inuktitut and we tried to calm everyone down enough that I might, possibly, be able to salvage a story out of this mess.

By now, though, it was dark. Pitch dark. By 3:00 p.m. in late December, evening had begun. And the CBC television reporter was ready to kill me – no images for her!

We finally managed to sufficiently mollify everyone enough that they invited us to a feast in the village hall. There was red Jell-O and caribou. Women carried tiny babies in the hoods of their coats. It felt as though the entire town – all 500 of them – were there.

I kept asking anyone standing close enough to me, desperate to salvage this disaster of a trip, feeling like a fool, certain there couldn’t possibly be a story herein a world of white and wet and snow and ice and polar bears, “What’s new?”

What they told me wasn’t new — but it was horrific, the sort of mismanagement and subsequent fallout that would have made front page news anywhere else but here.

The Quebec government, in its infinite Southern wisdom, had built a community center for the village. But they’d designed it poorly and, because the permafrost on which it lay had shifted, the walls were twisted and the floors sagged like a cheap mattress. Enormous steel beams crisscrossed the walls to buttress them against collapse. There was nowhere in town now, despite all that expense and a wasted building in a place with no better options, for people to play basketball or volleyball or just hang out in a large, warm comfortable space.

This was only the latest indignity in a town where the only toilets were “honey buckets,” garbage cans lined with a plastic bag with a toilet seat on top.

Because there was nowhere to go to be warm, dry, safe and entertained, local kids were huffing gasoline, high and dying, frozen to death in snow banks.

No one down south cared much. Out of sight, out of mind. And with no political clout and no money and no access to powerful national media to advocate for change, Salluit was stuck.

Until we arrived with a planeload of unwanted charity – bringing four reporters able to tell their story, embarrass the hell out of invisible-yet-powerful provincial bureaucrats and, for once in a lifetime, tell a story that might actually make a difference.

“News” isn’t only what happens day to day, as people without power and access know all too well.

Whether it’s tweeted or faxed, it’s still too often defined only by what journalists and their editors see, understand and choose to share.

What I learned in that cold, white, isolated place changed the way I think of my work – teaching me that some of the best and most powerful stories are waiting, quietly, in the least likely of places.

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Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin Kelly, a writer in Tarrytown, NY, is the author of “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, a memoir of her 27 months as a sales associate in a suburban New York mall. “A clear-eyed account” (The New York Times), it was nominated for the Sidney Hillman Award, which honors "journalists who pursue investigative reporting and deep storytelling in service of the common good." Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award for humor, she has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Marie-Claire, Glamour, More, New York, Smithsonian and many others. She has been a freelance contributor to The New York Times since 1990. Her first book is “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (Pocket Books, 2004). A graduate of the University of Toronto, she blogs at broadsideblog.wordpress.com with 15,000 readers worldwide.

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