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Our Trip to Nunavut With a Royal Couple

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Iqaluit, Nunavut -- It was at once one of the most beautiful and the most surreal moments of our lives. We gazed out across seemingly endless kilometres of empty Arctic landscape. It's a vista that one Canadian in a thousand might ever witness, yet we were out on the tundra with a Canadian Ranger and His Royal Highness The Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.

Last week we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accompany Prince Edward and his wife Sophie, The Countess of Wessex, on their historic visit to Canada's northern territories.

The wind was bitingly cold. We were so swathed in toques and parkas we could barely hear, yet the Earl was bareheaded so he could better listen to Ranger Paul Nuyalia talk about his life and work in the Far North.

The Canadian Rangers are a branch of the Canadian Forces most Canadians have likely never heard of. They are volunteers -- Inuit, First Nations, Métis and non-aboriginals -- who patrol the vast frozen lands of the north, upholding Canada's arctic sovereignty, conducting search-and-rescue operations, and training Canadian soldiers and others in arctic survival.

Nuyalia's patrols often last for weeks, but for the Earl, he arranged a two-hour hike. With a positively ancient bolt-action rifle slung across his back, Nuyalia explained to the Earl that while he patrols he and his colleagues hunt and employ traditional Inuit practices to live off the land.

At a lonely tent pitched on the plain we stopped for a lunch of tea and caribou stew cooked over an open fire. Nuyalia offered up his hunting harpoon and a rope made from seal skin, which he chews to keep supple.

He also discussed his other project, helping Inuit young and adult offenders learn the traditional ways of their people by taking them out onto the tundra for up to a week to teach survival skills.

Despite the cold and the lines of fatigue around the Earl's eyes -- he and the Countess keep a travel schedule that would bring veteran politicians to their knees -- his attention never wavered. He attended raptly to everything Nuyalia said with sincere interest.

That's the aspect we'll likely remember most: how the royal couple interacted with everyone they met, and how people responded in turn.

Before departing on the hike, the Prince met with 12 members of Nuyalia's Ranger group. As they stood on parade in their signature camouflage pants and red sweatshirts, the Earl took time to speak with each man, gloves off so he could shake hands and personally thank them for their service.

Earlier, the Earl and Countess visited the general store where the people of Iqaluit shop for their food and supplies. Again the Prince engaged every single person in the store individually, giving each his undivided attention as he asked about their lives, families, hopes.

One older Inuit woman, groceries in hand, recognized the Earl and greeted him with a surprised, "What are you doing here?"

"I'm here to meet you," he replied.

With many northern aboriginals old enough to remember residential schools, it would have been easy to understand a certain antipathy towards this couple whose historic titles could be seen as a lightning rod for anger towards the past baggage of white colonialism. Yet the community was clearly thrilled with the visit.

A special community ceremony was organized to welcome the royals. Before the event the kitchens of the community centre were a hive of activity, with women frantically preparing whale, seal and other traditional foods.

There was no big PR blitz to promote the event. News spread by simple word of mouth. Yet when the royal couple arrived, the local parish hall was packed to the rafters, and they were greeted with thunderous applause.

Entirely funded by private sources, this was the Earl's 33rd visit to Canada but his first to the North. Throughout the trip they stopped to recognize those like the Rangers and nurses at a shelter for battered women, and present Queen's Jubilee Medals to those who serve the community -- RCMP officers, and community members who raised the funds to rebuild Iqaluit's St. Jude's Cathedral, which burned down in 2005.

Everyone we met seemed simply pleased the royals chose, of all the places, to fly to the top of the world and meet with them. For many of these volunteers, who have given years of their lives in service, this was the first time anyone of note has ever recognized their contribution.

Watching the tears well up in people's eyes as the Earl pinned on their medals, while their families snapped hundreds of photos to preserve the moment forever, we wanted to tip our virtual hats to the Earl and Countess for the care and attention they give Canada, travelling to the smallest towns in the farthest corners of the nation to show their appreciation for all our unsung heroes.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com