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One-Stop Shopping in the North: Iqaluit’s Christmas Craft Sale

Published on December 16, 2013 by Anubha Momin

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If you’ve been following my column on Go Girl Travel Network, you will know that things are different in Nunavut. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the arts and crafts culture of the territory. Nunavut is definitely (and defiantly) the most artistic place I have ever been. As stated before, over 85% of Nunavut’s population is Inuit, and Inuit art is not only recognized worldwide but a highly lucrative trade; for example, at auction in Toronto, “The Migration” by Joe Talirunili sold for $290,000 CDN, a record-selling price for Inuit art.

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“The Migration” by Joe Talirunili. Photo courtesy of Waddingtons.

For the more budget-conscious, there is a wide array of prints, carvings, and clothing for purchase in town. Seal skin mitts, polar bear pants, and handmade parkas, baleen pendants, walrus ivory earrings, and caribou antler pins: items that are made-in, and representative of, this land and its history. And it’s not just what you can buy that’s special but the ways in which you acquire each piece. Iqaluit has a few brick-and-mortar retail locations that sell arts and crafts (a good place to look is the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum), but, more often than not, you will stumble upon these items throughout your day. Sit down for wings and a beer at the local bar, and you will be approached by artists selling not mere trinkets, but glorious soapstone or bone carvings of dancing polar bears, twisting narwhals, or playful seals. Log into Iqaluit Sell/Swap on Facebook to search for seal skin brooches or kamiik. Bartering is alive and well in the north, and while many of these handmade items are quite expensive (a very popular item is a pair of seal skin mitts, which can cost over $150 for an adult pair), you can still manage to score a good deal if you’re in the right place at the right time (or on Sell/Swap all of the time).

Now, this spontaneous shopping experience is fun most of the year, but this is December, and Christmas is coming. Northerners are on the hunt for gifts, and we can’t rely on good fortune or Facebook to fulfill our wish lists. Enter the Annual Christmas Craft Sale, a three-hour event held every December at the Inuksuk High School. As you can imagine, this one-stop shop for all things Arctic is equally chaotic and convenient. A cross between a flea market and an artists’ showcase, the Christmas Craft Sale is so popular that the customer line-up begins hours before the doors are scheduled to open.

So is it worth it? In my opinion, yes (and I don’t really like shopping). There is a mix of items available, but the focus of interest is on local, handmade, and artisanal products. For the selection, prices, and festive feeling, the Craft Sale is not to be missed. Scroll down for photos from this year’s offerings.

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Beaver mitts (front) and seal skin mitts with fox fur trim.

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Various brooches and pendants made from baleen (black), ivory, or bone.

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Seal skin coats made by Rannva.

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Beautiful art cards made by Sarah and Sara of In Fine Feather (Full disclosure: Sara Statham is my blog partner!).

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Sterling silver and walrus ivory jewellery by Dan Wade.

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Ulu with wood or caribou bone handles. Ulu are traditional Inuit knives used to cut food.

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Seal skin ottomans and teddy bears/seals made by the fabulous Peter Workman.

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Shoppers in the Inuksuk High School rotunda.

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My Christmas Craft Sale purchases: three ulu with caribou bone handles, caribou antler earrings, walrus ivory studs, art cards from In Fine Feather, postcard from Olive Photos.

As soon as I left the sale, I couldn’t help thinking, “I really should have bought that book about ravens,” and “I forgot to buy one of NuSchool’s new t-shirts!” There’s no need to panic, though; there is another major craft sale every April for Toonik Tyme, Iqaluit’s spring festival. Or I could just hang out at the grocery store or in my office lobby, waiting for an artist, hoping that their handmade wares will make for the perfect gift. Christmas may only come once a year, but the sale of arts and crafts in Iqaluit is a year-round affair.

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