Caitlyn Baikie's Story

On Inuit culture, the Franklin expedition, and growing up in a remote northern community


Caitlyn Baikie was twelve years old when she went on her first polar bear hunt. Her group of hunters travelled twelve hours over sea ice to her grandmother’s hometown. They stayed five days in the abandoned community, in simple fishing shacks that are left there for public use. When I tell her I’ve never been hunting, she’s shocked.

“I grew up eating way more wild food than chicken. It’s expensive to buy those meats [in remote northern communities], and they’re not always the best quality, either.” Her family relies on hunting for sustenance, stocking three huge freezers with ptarmigan, polar bear, seal, duck, and other game to feed their family throughout the year. They are residents of Nain, the northernmost community in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“People lived farther north than Nain in the past,” Baikie explains, “but in 1959 the government forced them farther south, so people got relocated. My family was among those that got relocated south.” Just two hours below the treeline by snowmobile, Nain is home to roughly 1,200 permanent residents. It is accessible only by flights starting around $2,000 CAD, or by travelling over the sea ice (or by ship in the summer) from the nearest community.

Early Years

As a child, Baikie stayed busy despite the remoteness of her community. “I grew up hunting, fishing, travelling on the land, and learning about my grandmother’s hometown,” she says, however, “I did feel isolated growing up, like there was so much more in the world to discover.” In high school, her curiosity about what else the world had to offer increased. “I became interested in learning how the land I grew up in fit into the rest of the world.”

She pursued an undergraduate degree at Memorial University in St. John’s, initially studying Political Science and Communications. She shifted her focus to Geography and Aboriginal Studies: “I could talk about my culture and my lifestyle in terms of academics, but it didn’t [initially] occur to me that I could study it.” At times her Inuit upbringing, with its emphasis on Traditional Knowledge and oral histories, clashed with the more European scholarly tradition and its reliance on scientific knowledge. “Some of it was a struggle, a frustration, a fight.” She cites climate change as an example: “When I was home for Christmas, I saw it. My elders know about it. Obviously the climate is changing, I can tell you that it is.”

Students on Ice

Baikie has slowed her degree in order to pursue an opportunity as Arctic Student and Partnership Manager with Students on Ice, a program that offers educational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. “Our main target is high school students, so it reaches them at an age that will leave a lasting impact on them for the rest of their lives, and so [they can] become ambassadors in their respective homes.” The expeditions bring together a fascinating collection of influential educators, this year including “botanists, oceanographers, glaciologists, one of NASA’s Mars specialists… We also had political leaders, Inuit elders, artists, musicians, authors, and just a full scope of people.” Baikie calls the diversity of the group “so fascinating and cool.”

“It’s all education-based, so every stop has a very specific reason, and before we get there, we have workshops and panels… One day, before we were heading into the Victoria Strait, to Beechy Island where Franklin’s ships were lost, we talked about that with participants, what does it mean? So we would talk about it from various perspectives and we educated everybody about the history, what’s happening now, and what’s the future of this place. And we do that for every single location.”

The Search for the Erebus

Last summer, Baikie had the opportunity to join the Franklin expedition that located the Erebus, which was lost in the mid-19th century. She was there as part of a program funded by Shell Canada, which sent two students on the expedition. She was working at an internship with Inuit Tapariit Kanatami (the national Inuit government body) when she got an email about the competition. She sent in her letter of intent, detailing why she wanted to go and why she’d be a good fit, and got called a few days later.

“The expedition then took place a month later, so I finished my internship, and got on a plane to Newfoundland, because I had to get expedition gear — I was living in Ottawa for the summer, I packed all my summer clothes.

“I was actually really nervous about going, because I didn’t have a clear role, I didn’t know what I would be doing… I’ve done a lot of ship-based research before, and I was really excited, but as I got closer and closer to the Franklin search, I didn’t have any information about what I would be doing, I didn’t know who would be there, I didn’t know anybody else who was going, and they didn’t fill me in on what would be involved. The only information that I had was the press releases.”

While on board, each member of the expedition was asked to prepare a presentation. Before leaving, Baikie had asked the national Inuit government which of their initiatives she should highlight in her presentation. She was advised to give an overview of Inuit culture instead.

“So I did,” Baikie recalls, “and everybody was shocked because previously they knew so little. And from that day on I became a spokesperson. It was challenging because I’m not from there. I’m from the East. I don’t have any of that Traditional Knowledge. I can’t tell you the oral histories about Franklin.

“So it was good in the sense that I gave them an education about what Inuit society looks like today, our history, what we live like today, and what we hope for the future, and what it means to have our own self-government, a national self-
government. Because nobody really knew anything about Inuit culture and society, which was so shocking and so sad.

“It was a big honour to be there with everybody, and to be a part of history in that way, but it was disappointing that I didn’t get to be a part of the search.”

Due to the high level of secrecy on the expedition, Baikie didn’t learn that the Erebus had been found until after she returned home. Out for brunch with her roommate, she learned about the success of the expedition via CBC news alert.

Inuit knew the location of the ship as part of their oral history, but this knowledge had not previously been used when searching for the lost ships, a fact which infuriates Baikie. “If somebody told you that you dropped your keys right here, isn’t that where would look first? I mean I get it, it’s the Arctic, and it’s the ocean, and erosion happens, and movement of seabeds happens, but the general area… So that’s one of my biggest criticisms, and a way that again, we are not included, with our knowledge.

“They’re still looking for the second ship; this year’s expedition is incorporating Traditional Knowledge. It has a member of the community of Gjoa Haven on board, the closest community to the place of the ship... this year’s expedition has an Inuktitut name.” Baikie has not been a part of the search for the Terror, the second of Sir John Franklin’s lost ships. Like the rest of us, she has been following the status and involvement of Inuit through the media and press releases.

“It is an important part of our history, and it is an important part of the Arctic, and I agree that Canadians should have sovereignty over that, but the timeliness of everything, and the manner that they’re doing it in…

“The book exists of the Traditional Knowledge around Franklin. There is a published book —you can buy it— about the Inuit oral history of the Franklin expedition. If you go to Nunavut today or twenty years ago, fifty years ago, community members could tell you where things were. They knew the history, because it was oral history that was passed down for decades. And it has always existed.

“So I think that while Canada is telling the narrative of its nationality and sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic that, before it starts celebrating a failed expedition of a British man in Inuit country, that first it should talk about who lives there. Who has always lived there. Who has always survived and thrived there. First you tell that narrative, and first you support those people.

“To me it’s ingrained, because it’s who I am; my Inuit culture and identity is who I am, that’s what I think about first. And I understand that Southerners, people who do not belong to an indigenous culture, don’t think about it that way. But why celebrate a British man before your own people? Why continue to ignore that perspective?”

Looking Forward

Despite her recent fame, Baikie plans to return to school to finish her degree. She only has a few courses left, two of which are on a second language that she hopes will be Inuktitut (Inuit language). “I don’t speak Inuktitut, unfortunately,” says Baikie. “With colonization and the introduction of religion, people were ashamed to speak it. So my grandmother didn’t speak it to my dad, who in turn didn’t teach it to me.” Her father did learn aspects of the language eventually, but it was not his first language. “It was only in his generation that English came first.”

Baikie has been trying to learn Inuktitut, but states that it’s “very difficult to find resources, especially outside the community. We have it on Rosetta Stone; I just got it two months ago. But it doesn’t work for Mac, so I will have to explore another avenue.”

Her plans for the future are still up in the air.

“I’ve got a lot of research in my background, out in the field, in various Canadian Arctic locations, and my other passion and work interest is around government. I have worked for the Nunatsiavut Government (Labrador Inuit self-government), for the executive council and for the Torngasok Cultural Centre, and I’ve worked for Inuit Tapariit Kanatami, the national Inuit government in Ottawa. There I got experience at their Inuit Knowledge Centre, the hub for scientific and Inuit knowledge research priorities. I have two different passions, and I’m just sort of following them as they go.

“I’m not ready to go back [to Nain] yet. I want to gain more experience in the outside world, and in higher levels, so that when I go back, I can be in a position to make positive change, I hope. My overall goal is to go back home, and bring what I’m gaining from the outside world. I don’t really have a timeline, and I’m not restricted by one, so whenever it feels right.”

This year, the CBC named Caitlyn Baikie as one of the top 5 indigenous leaders under 30 to watch. However, as a child growing up in a remote subarctic community, she had humbler ambitions.

“When I would go and visit my cousins in Newfoundland, my cousin worked at Wal-Mart, and I always loved those smiley stickers they would give to you at the door. In all of my pictures in school, I was wearing the blue vest and I had the smiley face stickers on. That’s what I wanted to do!”

However, at the age of eleven or twelve, this changed abruptly: she decided she wanted to become Prime Minister. Baikie’s father worked as a negotiator for the Labrador Inuit Association, and in 2005, the Inuit people voted in favour of the land claim. Baikie remembers the ensuing celebration at her family home:

“I remember getting up in the middle of the night to get something to drink, because it was so loud... and my dad introduced me to the national Inuit leader, and here I was in my pajamas, trying to go to sleep. And I thought, wow, our house is full of all these people, everybody is working towards this huge advancement for our people. Politically, things were changing in my community and in my region so drastically at that time, and at such a ripening age for me, that I woke up and I thought, I want to be a part of this. How can I make positive change?”