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Only 800 kilometres apart

The airplane was old, even then. It was 1992, and I was buckling my seatbelt for the flight to Nuuk, Greenland, from Iqaluit, on Baffin Island, when it was still part of Canada's Northwest Territories. The Hawker Siddeley HS-748 twin-engine turboprop was shaking and bucking as the pilots put the plane through its warm-up procedures, while the stewardess (dressed in dark blue flight-crew overalls) checked that all of the passengers were properly strapped in. It was an exciting moment; soon our plane would be lifting off from southern Baffin Island to fly the relatively short distance across Davis Strait, about 800 km, to the west coast of Greenland.

Eventually, an hour or so after take-off, we could see that we were approaching the enormous Greenland ice cap, even more impressive because of the relatively low altitude our plane was flying at. The passenger beside me, a Canadian fisherman who was returning the fast way to his boat after a vacation trip home, turned from gazing out the window and, shaking his head, lamented, "Nothing down there but ice." That was just when I was getting excited.

I had island-hopped across the North Atlantic by ship from Norway to the Faeroes and on to Iceland, and then by plane to Narsarsuaq on the southeast Greenland coast. The last leg was by coastal ship along the coast northward to Nuuk. All the way across that stormy expanse of cold and heaving ocean, however, I had been in Europe. Baffin Island was suddenly something else, altogether. Arriving by airplane in arctic Canada directly from Greenland, and now on the return flight, homeward bound to Europe, the sheer contrast between the European and the Canadian sides of Davis Strait was difficult to fathom. It had long fascinated me that when looking at a map of the northern hemisphere, Greenland was so close to northern North America, yet directly part of Europe because of its connection to Denmark. As a Canadian with a life-long interest in the Nordic countries, it seemed remarkable that when I was growing up it was almost impossible to find any books about Greenland in libraries or bookstores.

Greenland was way off the horizon in the minds of Canadians, and going there was out of the question. The day when I found out that there was a regular flight connecting Iqaluit, the soon-to-be-inaugurated capital of Canada's new territory of Nunavut, with Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is still clear in my memory; mental maps dissolved and barriers came crashing down. Suddenly, there was a direct link between the worlds. Greenland appeared to slide just a bit closer to North America that day.

The weekly flights, in those periods when there were flights, that is, were usually flown by First Air, a Canadian Inuit-owned airline, as part of a route maintained by it and Greenlandair (now Air Greenland, owned jointly by the Danish State, the Greenland Home Rule Government and SAS Group). The route was flown only sporadically, so that booking a flight was often not possible, and finally closed in October, 2001, after twenty years of intermittent operations, with the argument that business was too meager to justify it any longer. (Neither of the two flights that I took were more than half-full). The closure of the route nevertheless marked the end of an era and a new definition of transportation absurdity. Traveling to the two capitals 800 km apart on either side of Davis Strait now means a trip of several thousand kilometers, unless you charter your own aircraft, that is.

The present situation is still better than it was in the periodbefore direct flights were available. Now, with Air Greenland's new route to Baltimore, it is possible to fly on scheduled flights between Iqaluit and Nuuk with only a detour via the United States. Earlier, when the direct route was not in use, it was common to have to travel south from Baffin Island to Montreal, then fly across the Atlantic to Copenhagen and then back again to Nuuk. It's no wonder that business, the exchange of ideas and collaborative ventures for a long time to flourish

Because of their proximity, eastern Nunavut and western Greenland bring the cultures of North America and Europe much closer in a geographical way than most people realize. Although the shared elements of Inuit culture remain to some extent, residents of Iqaluit will excitedly watch baseball's World Series, while those in Nuuk mostly prefer World Cup soccer.

Charming Danish architecture dominates the towns and villages of Greenland, while across the waters in Nunavut, stodgy Canadian functionalism prevails. It had been mentioned to me several times by hunters in Iqaluit that they envied the established outdoor markets where Greenland's hunters could sell their game to the townspeople, while the Nordic-type daycare centres and maternity leave were things they had a hard time imagining.

Greenlanders, on the other hand, were amazed at the new kind of political autonomy that had bee achieved in the name of Nunavut. The contrasts and parallels could be drawn at length; the essential point is that nowhere else are Canada and Europe so close and, for the same reason, so obviously different. It still seems remarkable that their interaction, even if it has increased during the last decade, remains so minimal, and that it is now no longer even possible to fly directly between the two arctic capitals, so near yet so far.

In that summer of 1992, I remember talking with Robert Petersen, the University of Greenland's first Rector, himself Inuit, about the future of tourism in Greenland. He predicted that it would grow, but admitted that one ironic difficulty for Greenlanders would be to learn to take money from people who were their guests. Just recently, indications that Petersen's predictions are coming true could be seen in Sermitsiak, the prominent Greenland newspaper, where it was reported* that travel to Greenland would be increasing by up to fifty percent in the coming year. The reason? Because of climate change, people living in the south want to see the ice before it disappears. "Nothing but ice down there," the fellow had said. You don't know what you've got until it's gone.

By: Richard Langlais previous Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio

* Sermitsiak (Nuuk) editorial, "Turister valfarter til polarområder," (29 October 2007), viewed at For extremely interesting reporting on Greenlandic and Nunavut society, Sermitsiak (Nuuk) and Nunatsiaq News (Iqaluit), respectively, are excellent reading. The latter can be found at