Live from Rankin Inlet
In this Nunavut community,
Darrell Greer is the news
BY Kathleen Lippa
Photography by Doug Mclarty
Day breaks in the hamlet of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. A dog barks in the distance. Another howls back. An Inuk buzzes loudly down a snowcovered road on his all-terrain vehicle. Its Monday morning, and the temperature is -60 C with the wind chill. Darrell Greer is trudging over to Maani Ulujuk high school for an assignment: Ive got my long johns on. Then my jeans. Ive got my quilted windpants on, Greer reports. Im wearing a t-shirt, a regular shirt and a woolen sweater. Then I haul on my 20-pound Arctic parka, and my sealskin fur mitts. Once he gets to the climate-controlled school to interview a student, hell take notes with sweat dripping into his eyes.
This is a typical day for the one-man show that runs the weekly Kivalliq News, where school events and town hall meetings are an important source of copy. The paper tends to follow stories that the areas Inuit, who make up the majority of his readership, will most likely be discussing at the coffee shop that week. Recently, the News had a story about a rare albino caribou that was mistaken for a wolf and shot dead in Baker Lake. A pilot who grew up in Rankin Inlet was featured after partnering with Kenn Borek Air to start Rankin-based airline Unaalik Aviation. And there was a story about Coral Harbour getting a house-numbering system so emergency crews can find people in need faster.
But the News is not all happy hometown pieces and grin-and-grip photos. During his eight years at the paper Greer has won more than 50 awards, primarily from the Manitoba Community Newspaper Association, for documenting subjects as varied as domestic violence, suicide and the triumphs of the junior boys hockey team. Hes also lost at least as many friends. As Greer says matter-offactly: You cant pick and choose your stories. You have to put the bad news stories out there, too. But I really believe if you had everybody in a giant community hall and asked them, theyd say they want a real newspaper. But you have to have thick skin to do it. You are going to hurt people.
Whether his stories are fuzzy or infuriating, Greer is one of the few journalists in Canada who knows every piece he writes will be read. Because of the papers community focus, and the fact that getting other papers such as The Globe and Mail can be difficult, the Kivalliq News enjoys a wide, essentially captive readership of its 4,000 copies each week.
Most people in Rankin Inlet read the Kivalliq News, confirms recent resident Jaime Hunter. It allows everybody to be on the same page about local issues. We like the fact that we recognize somebody from every weeks paper, something that is almost impossible to say in the south. Greers pieces will either be cut out and put on peoples fridge doors, or even framed, or they will be brought up by a ticked off reader who ambushes him in the lineup at the grocery store.
I was stopped at the post office and a man ragged at me for 15 minutes because there was too much damn good news in the Kivalliq News. He was upset I wasnt reporting on the number of people in the drunk tank, and the number of people trying to B&E into places, says Greer, who prides himself on the quality of his publication. People can get any paper they want on the internet. You cant fool them. Either youre doing a legitimate newspaper, or you arent.
From a distance, the 49-year-old Greer could easily be mistaken for an Inuk, with his handlebar moustache, short stature and baseball cap snug to his close-cropped dark hair. His voice is the giveawaypure Cape Breton. He grew up in Port Morien, a one-time coal town and the site of the first coal mine in North America. By the time he was old enough to work, the coal was gone, but there were still jobs at the H. Hopkins fish plant. When the fishery collapsed in the early 1990s, the federal government paid for retraining. Greer, a natural storyteller, decided he wanted to be a journalist, despite his peers skepticism. There was no money in writing, they said. Greer pressed on, getting his journalism diploma from Holland College in Prince Edward Island.
The Timmins Daily Press was one of the first newspapers to offer Greer a full-time reporting job. Reluctantly, Greer, his wife, Debra, and daughter, Lindsay, then 10, relocated. Greer worked there for about a year before moving across the street to report for the Timmins Times. A year after he joined the Times, he heard Conrad Blacks Hollinger empire was taking control. Greer feared his job wasnt safe under the new management, so he fired off resumes again. This time, the call came from Northern News Services in Yellowknife, a mini-chain of local papers in the North. The fact that the company was independent appealed to Greers fighting spirit, even though the workload for employees is heavy, involving writing 15 to 20 pieces a week and doing his own photography.
With his Timmins experience, and general toughness, Greer was seen as a suitable editor, and simply told, Youre going to Rankin,a one-person operation known for burning reporters out. That was 1998, four years after the first issue of the Kivalliq News appeared.
The Kivalliq region, which is in the middle of mainland Nunavut, includes the communities of Baker Lake, Repulse Bay, Chesterfield Inlet, Coral Harbour, Arviat, Whale Cove and Rankin Inlet, and is about one-third of Nunavuts two million square kilometers. There are no roads connecting 25 of Nunavuts communities, so plane travel is key (airports in Nunavut are like bus stations in other parts of the country). Government-sponsored trips and media junkets are less common now than they were in 1999 when the territory was created, so Greer has used his hockey referee job to get around. Trips are paid for by Hockey North, Hockey Nunavut or the host community, depending on the type of game. While in a community, Greer takes pictures and meets people for stories. The rest of the time he relies heavily on people emailing him pictures from digital cameras in the far-flung Inuit communities he covers. A majority of the residents are Inuktitut-speakers, so the paper is translated.
There are jokes locally that the Kivalliq News should be called the Hockey News because of Greers obvious interest in the sporthe refs local games four times a week and even says once he realized the community was hockey crazy, he felt right at home.
Greers gruff, frank way of speaking is one measure of the effect on him of working in a largely Inuit community. Inuktitut has been described as a no bullshit language. While he may not speak it fluently, its essence permeates his every stubborn word. His tough attitude sometimes gets him into trouble with his editors in Yellowknife, where the paper is laid out. I dont always pay attention to the lawyers of the world, and I get my knuckles rapped for it, he says. Some of the hardesthitting editorials Ive ever written will never see the light of day. Thats just the nature of the beast in a world run by lawyers.
But his often-contrarian stances on issues help keep the paper interesting, and people talking. For example, Greer does not hold the popular view on predictions about global warmings dire effect on polar bears. He has attended his fair share of meetings where he says the views of visiting scientists are put ahead of the voices of Inuit who have their own views of whats going on in their land.
Greer explains: The polar bear in its environment is a shining example of adaptationto not just adapt, but to flourish in the harshest, most unforgiving climate the good lord put on the planet, Greer says incredulously, raising his voice. To say this animal will be wiped out? Please. He continues, My roots are in the east coast fisheries. I saw literally thousands of people lose their livelihood because science refused for the longest time to listen to the opinion of the uneducated fishermen until it was far too late.
In fact, hes decided to pass on covering global warming at all, if he can help it: Gloom, doom and despair translates into industry. Right now, global warming is becoming a multi-billion industry as more studies, more exploration teams head up North and sail around gathering data. Or theres his refusal to do what he calls government storiespieces that expand on studies by Statistics Canada on subjects such as suicide rates or teenage moms, because he thinks statistics are essentially meaningless.
Readers can also have some strong views about some of his material, and its hard for him to escape their reactions. As Greer says, I appreciate the ones who come into my office, far more than the ones who start hollering at me in the middle of the Northern Store: Boy, I was really pissed off by that editorial Wednesday, Greer!
Rankin Inlets mayor, Lorne Kusugak, who was a CBC journalist for many years in the North, admits hes disagreed with Greer in the past. Kusugak once recalls being angry over coverage he felt cast him in an unfairly negative light. But overall, he respects the journalist, admiring, for example, Greers decision to write an editorial praising Nunavuts lone MP, Nancy Karetak- Lindell, a Liberal, for her support of the same-sex-marriage legislation, Bill C-38. Karatek-Lindells stance was deeply unpopular: the Kivalliq region prides itself on being socially conservative. Greers editorial praising Karetak- Lindells stand drew fire from residents who had long believed Greer didnt understand their culture and views. Greer himself admits, You could do this job for 100 years and never be given a chance to have a ringside seat to the formation of self-governance, especially Aboriginal self governance, he says. But Kusugak admired Greers guts on this issue: Hes not one to shy away from controversy in his paper.
Greer has also tackled issues few other journalists have, including the insidious hold the much-loved game of bingo can have on people in small towns. Greer won a national award in 2002 for his bingo series, Under the b for balance, about how bingo revenues were helping northern communities, but how the game can be dangerously addictive.
The hardest part of his job, he admits, has been the not-sogood news stories, when Ive had to phone somebody that has become a good acquaintance, or who I deal with at the rink four nights a week, and I have to ask them some tough questions.
Greer answers his critics with a story. In 2000, he visited Arviat, south of Rankin Inlet. Greer focused on the MuchMusic video dance party that swept into Arviat for two nights. You have no idea how great that was for those kids, a sense of belonging like they were just like any kid in Canada, he says.
The other story he did was about Arviats new daycare, built by funds raised by local people. There was also a reporter from Iqualuits Nunatsiaq News in town. That papers headline screamed, Babies having babies. Greer wasnt impressed. In this period of history, Inuit are a young race of people. Nunatsiaq does this sensational story under the guise of probing journalism. Well, you dont need to be a probing journalist to go into a Kivalliq community and notice the populations are rather young.
With the North, there are problems here. Of course there are. Were a new territory. If you want crap, open your window every morning and throw a dart out. Youre sure to hit something where we are with health care, education, he continues. The real challenge is in trying to fill a newspaper with positive stories because they are harder to find.