Review: Northerners will love CBC’s High Arctic Haulers

Reality television series follows the eastern Arctic sealift

The crew of the Sedna Desgagnés pose for a photo. It’s one of two eastern Arctic sealift vessels featured in the new reality television series High Arctic Haulers. You can watch the show every Sunday evening at 8 p.m. on CBC. (CBC press photo)

By Jim Bell

Once you get past its cringe-worthy introduction, High Arctic Haulers becomes the kind of reality television series that northerners are bound to fall in love with, offering a rare inside look at one of the eastern Arctic’s most life-essential services: the annual sealift.

The first 60-minute episode in the new seven-part series, shot almost entirely in and around Nunavut, kicked off this past Sunday evening on CBC television and on the CBC Gem streaming service.

It’s built around the same concept as Ice Pilots NWT or Ice Road Truckers. Rugged teams of blue-collar heroes, mostly male, struggle against bad weather, bad luck and other hardships to transport the necessities of life to isolated northern communities.

Nunavut’s lands, seas and communities also function as stars of the show, revealed in stunning digital video, some of it shot from overhead drones. Future episodes will feature communities like Naujaat, Gjoa Haven, Kugluktuk, Pangnirtung and Hall Beach.

Though the producers claim each episode is “unscripted,” they create dramatic tension by honing in on obstacles, usually created by poor weather or mechanical breakdowns, that the show’s heroes use their talents to overcome by the end of each episode.

The Sedna Desgagnés, commanded by Capt. Michel Duplain, anchored off Pangnirtung. It’s one of two vessels featured in the new reality television series High Arctic Haulers. (CBC press photo)

In this case, their cameras follow the people who operate two Arctic-bound cargo vessels, the Taïga Desgagnés and the Sedna Desgagnés, owned by Groupe Desgagnés Inc., which serves Nunavut from a port at Côte-Sainte-Catherine in south-west Montreal.

Through its subsidiary, Desgagnés Transarctik Inc., the Quebec-based Desgagnés firm is well-known throughout Nunavut as the operating partner in Nunavut Sealink and Supply Inc., or NSSI, a company formed by Desgagnés, the Qikiqtaaluk Corp. and Arctic Co-operatives Ltd.

The introductory scenes leave no cliché unspoken. Harsh environment! Only the toughest dare stay! Perilous! The haul must get through!

But that’s forgivable. The annual eastern Arctic sealift, which operates during the short ice-free season between mid-July and the end of October, really is a vital lifeline. In the early scenes, community leaders like Grise Fiord Mayor Meeka Kigutak, former Iqaluit mayor Madeleine Redfern and community leader Larry Audlaluk all attest to this.

And because of population growth and economic development, more cargo vessels must make more resupply voyages to the Arctic than ever before. The modern Canadian Arctic couldn’t function without the sealift.

Jennifer Amagoalik and her boy Sau gaze at the Sedna Desgagnés anchored off Pangnirtung. (CBC press photo)

We’re reminded of this halfway through the first episode, when Yvonne Bedford, the manager of the Pitsiulak Co-operative in Chesterfield Inlet, shows us the bare interior of the co-op’s nearly empty warehouse.

“We don’t have any more flour. We’ve run out of a lot of stuff, pasta, sauces, soups,” Bedford says.

Also in Chesterfield Inlet, Vicki Tanuyak, a single mother of three, waits for a bright red Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck she’s spent two years saving for.

Meanwhile, the Taïga Desgagnés, commanded by Capt. Olivier Nault, Desgagnés’ youngest commanding officer, pushes his ship through a summer storm that’s raging across Hudson Bay.

To get to Chesterfield Inlet on time, Nault orders his chief engineer to run the ship’s engines at full speed so the vessel can outrun the storm. He overcomes the obstacle and on a sunlit Arctic afternoon, in a calm sea, the Taïga Desgagnés drops anchor in deep water off the community.

Capt. Olivier Nault, the commander of the Taïga Desgagnés. (CBC press photo)

After that, the viewer gets a visual reminder of the near-total absence of marine infrastructure in most Nunavut communities—another hardship that the deadline-driven commercial shipping industry must cope with every year.

The vessel’s crew uses a crane to drop a tug boat and barge into the water. The tug will push a barge that will carry the front-end loaders they’ll use to lift goods onto the beach, where lead checker Roma Laframboise, the crew’s logistics boss, takes charge of the complex offloading operation.

Later, Tanuyak’s gleaming red pickup truck rolls across a ramp from the barge to the beach. Loaders drop the co-op’s sealift containers and workers start re-stocking the store’s bare shelves. At the same time, teacher Glen Brocklebank’s kayak club at Victor Sammurtok School gets a new set of survival suits.

“It feels good. When they’re happy, you’re happy,” Laframboise says.

Meanwhile, the other vessel, the Sedna Desgagnés, commanded by Capt. Michel Duplain, a white-haired veteran who’s spent more than 30 summers working in the Arctic sealift, gets stuck in a huge field of rock-hard multi-year ice in Hudson Strait.

That’s a reminder that in the future, climate change could actually make Arctic seas more difficult to navigate. That’s because of dangerous old ice that breaks away from the polar ice pack and Greenland’s glaciers and floats into shipping lanes, pushed there by winds and currents.

As the first episode of High Arctic Haulers draws to a close, Duplain and first mate Simon Charest await the return of the icebreaker CCGS Pierre Radisson, which is to lead them through the ice to their next destination.

High Arctic Haulers is produced by Great Pacific Media, the B.C.-based company behind two Discovery Channel favourites that valorize the work of Canadian winter highway tow-truck operators: Heavy Rescue: 401 and Highway Through Hell.

You can watch it on CBC television every Sunday evening at 8 p.m., or view it on demand at the CBC Gem streaming service. Hint: if you watch it on Gem, you can avoid those annoying commercials.

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(5) Comments:

  1. Posted by Far Out Arctic Tern on

    The well beloved Sea-Lift Company that makes it’s annual trip to the far north is surely to show many viewers that this part of Canada is one of the most expensive regions in the world to live in. Inuit have much to be appreciative of the help we receive from the sea-lift that starts from the south to the north as they continue to show what challenges the world faces in many fronts. Nakurmiik High Arctic Haulers!

  2. Posted by kenn Harper on

    I was tremendously impressed with this episode. I have known many sealifts in my years in the Arctic, but always on the receiving end. It was very interesting and informative to me to see the logistics in Montreal, loading (briefly), and then the actual work on the ship and the conversations with captains and crew. I learned a lot.

    It presented a positive look at Nunavut. We all know there are a lot of social problems in Nunavut, and they need to be looked at too. But that isn’t the job of this series. This is a refreshing series that allows Nunavut to feel good about itself. In Chesterfield Inlet, it focused on an Inuit woman who was waiting for her new truck; a Co-op manager whose shelves were bare, waiting for merchandise; and a kayak-building class in the school, waiting for some supplies.

    The Globe & Mail had an article about this show on the weekend. It is the brainchild of a young Dene filmmaker from the Hay River reserve, who studied film in BC, came up with the concept and pitched it to a BC production company who sold the idea to CBC. A good concept, and well executed. Way more interesting than Ice Road Truckers. Southerners can learn a lot about the north from this program, but so can northerners, many of whom take the sealift for granted, or see it (as I did) from only one side.

  3. Posted by Patrick Toomey on

    As a retired Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Captain, (including command of the CCGS “Pierre Radisson” shown in the first episode”), I wonder why the series has to manufacture “crisis” moments when the whole enterprise of each voyage is winging it according to ice and weather conditions – when delays are part of the landscape and schedules only work on paper before the voyage actually begins. The obviously fake procedures of the Chief Engineer when the shaft bearings “overheat” add nothing to the show, and always make me cringe. Just telling it like it is carries all the drama required. My 27 years of participating in sea-lifts with the Coast Guard aboard many different icebreakers, and a further 24 Arctic summers as Ice Pilot with expedition cruise ships watching the Sealift at work in most of the Arctic settlements and DEW-Line Bases, always provided me with something new and exciting without making anything up for dramatic effect.

    Captain Patrick R. M. Toomey, Canadian Coast Guard (retired).

  4. Posted by beneficiary on

    I wonder if Mr. D.Desgagnes has any Inuk employee with all the money he’s making from the Great White North. Or is he just using the northerners. Now it seems he found a new way to make even more money. Oh so how we the northerners are just used to make $.

    • Posted by Truly Pathetic on

      What an embarrassing comment and attitude to hold for all Inuit. So much whining.

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