Ambassador program connects cruises with Nunavut communities
Oxen Network program offers opportunity for Inuit to experience cruise industry, says founder
When Pond Inlet’s Mariah Erkloo isn’t studying sociology at the University of British Columbia, she’s sailing through Arctic waters as a community ambassador.
Erkloo, 21, got her first taste of life at sea last year when she joined the Oxen Expedition Engagement Network’s Cruise Ambassador program. She travelled through the Northwest Passage on a 21-day Lindblad Expeditions cruise that began in Greenland and ended in Alaska.
“We were the first ship in the season to be going through the Northwest Passage and the first ship [to sail in the Arctic] right after COVID. So, it was quite the experience and it was amazing,” she said.
Veteran expedition leader tour guide Alex McNeil founded Oxen in 2010 after being inspired by his interactions with the Nunavut communities that hosted cruise ship visits.
“The highlights of my experience was going to the communities and meeting people and learning more about my own country,” he said.
“I saw so much room for improvement, where we as a cruise company or an expedition company come in and take a very transactional approach to the relationship with communities.
“The community [was] really very heartfelt and wanting to engage on a personal emotional level, and I felt that it was a real shame that there wasn’t more of that in the way that the companies interacted with the communities.”
The Oxen program helps connect cruise operators with locals to create a closer relationship between the tourism industry and the communities that cruises visit.
Working in the cruise industry often requires a lot of training, specialized certificates and language requirements, as well as a passport, which can feel like “a huge barrier” for people to overcome, McNeil said.
The ambassador program is designed to make it as easy as possible for anyone to share the expedition experience.
Ambassadors generally are paid an honorarium of about $200 per day, including travel days, and travel to and from the ship is taken care of.
“[Ambassadors] are like honoured guests,” McNeil said. “There’s no responsibility. It’s not like, ‘You can come if you give a presentation on residential schools.
“You can wake up at 11 a.m. You can come to breakfast or lunch in your pajamas. If you want to do some beadwork or you want to play some Inuit music in the lounge after dinner, you can … It’s more organic.
“And if you want to take that further and seek training, there’s other pathways that you can get the certifications.”
That includes programs through the Government of Nunavut that offer training and certification for prospective cruise industry workers.
Erkloo herself had previously worked as a shipping monitor with Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., but hadn’t had the chance to work on an actual ship.
“There are so many requirements that are needed. It’s a job that you don’t typically think to apply for,” she said.
Having the opportunity to go on a cruise ship as an ambassador was a great way for Erkloo to both dip her toe in the cruise industry and to share her culture onboard.
The trips range from 14 to 27 days, and two ambassadors join each voyage.
Erkloo was paired with an Inuit elder who had experience working as a cultural ambassador, so Erkloo shadowed her as she learned what life working on a cruise ship is like.
Typical days would include sharing meals and conversations with some of the 150 passengers, giving presentations on topics like Inuit culture, the history of place names and community life, and joining tours of destinations on land. For Erkloo, those destinations included Devon Island, Gjoa Haven and other communities in Nunavut and Nunavik.
She also assisted her elder partner in a traditional sewing workshop she taught to the passengers.
“I didn’t know her before the cruise in Greenland, but it was just amazing being able to connect to others when we were passing through the Northwest Passage,” Erkloo said of the partnership.
There were challenges onboard, like when there was a COVID-19 outbreak on the ship. Passengers had to quarantine, and some visits to land were cancelled or rerouted to prevent the virus from spreading.
The weather also presented some obstacles — too much sea ice and harsh conditions delayed parts of the voyage.
And while she loves sharing her culture with others, Erkloo said it was a personal challenge to present to such large groups of people on the ship.
“I did have a mentor on the ship and I feel like he really helped me through that,” she said.
The Oxen program welcomed six participants for three voyages last summer, which also happened to be the return of Nunavut’s cruise season after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a two-year hiatus.
This year, the program has tripled in size, partnering with three different cruise companies to offer at least 18 ambassador positions over nine voyages.
McNeil said he hopes the program can grow its engagement and allow locals from each Nunavut community where cruises stop to have a chance to become ambassadors.
“If you only have two weeks of summer, and you’re curious about the expedition industry, rather than spend two weeks just training you can spend two weeks on a ship and then if you if you like it, you can invest your time to go and get the certifications to advance yourself in that industry,” McNeil said.
“I think that the guests onboard the ship and the companies probably get just as much if not more out of this than the ambassadors do.
“When I go somewhere, I want to hear local people and hear their stories. The visits that ships make to communities are too short and too fleeting to really develop connections, but when you share a 27-day trip with someone you see every day and you share some meals with and go out on the land and go hiking, you can really get to know that person.”
Erkloo said the ambassador program has helped her make contacts in the industry and given her firsthand insight into what a career in cruises could look like.
She’s even preparing for a second journey this summer, sailing with Aurora Expeditions from western Greenland to Cambridge Bay.
“In the future, I imagine myself doing this. It’s such a great opportunity,” she said.