OTTAWA - Gov. Gen. David Johnston and his wife Sharon leave Monday for Nunavut, their first official visit to Canada's Arctic as the vice-regal couple — but not their first as Canadians.
Johnston is rekindling a love affair of sorts with the North, having previously visited the Yukon and Northwest Territories with his family after growing up in northern Ontario.
But this will be Johnston's maiden voyage to the Eastern Arctic, and also marks the first time any governor general has visited two isolated and traditional communities due north of Hudson's Bay, Kugaaruk and Qikiqtarjuaq.
"I'm particularly excited about this trip because I'd like many, many more Canadians to have the same experience my family's already had in other parts of the North — to see what a vast and diverse country this is and how wonderful it is," Johnston said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Qikiqtarjuaq is sometimes called the iceberg capital of Nunavut and is known for its traditional craft in making sealskin parkas and boots. One of Kugaaruk's claims to fame is having recorded the coldest wind chill ever in Canada — minus 78 degrees in January 1975.
Both are a world away from the experience of the vast majority of Canadians who live huddled within 100 kilometres of the Canada-U.S. border.
His visit, said Johnston, is "showing respect for the people who live in those northerly areas and are living with customs that come down over thousands and thousands of years, and are still extant."
Johnston said Canada has a unique challenge in nation-building because of its geography.
"It's a striking feature of Canada, the second largest land mass in the world with extraordinary variety and a very small population spread over that," said the Sudbury, Ont., born vice-regal.
"That's a unique kind of challenge: How do you make a country when you're spread so far and spread so thin? Yet we have."
The seven-day trek includes a turn on the skates for the hockey-playing Governor General at a hockey camp in Iqaluit and the observation of military training exercises — Operation Nanook — in Resolute Bay.
As commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces, Johnston looks forward to the military element of the Arctic trip "but at the same time to do other things as well."
The former law professor and university principal will tour the Nunavut Research Institute in Igloolik, the Polar Continental Shelf Program in Resolute and visit an ancient, early Inuit Thule site in Repulse Bay.
"I'm a university teacher, have been all my life, and I'm very interested in the research — both fundamental and applied, both social science and natural science and humanities — that is going on in the North," said Johnston.
He'll also discuss educational challenges with teachers in Iqualuit and help promote a new Northern Global Vision Riding Ambassador Program — designed to foster civic engagement in youth — at Tusarvik School in Repulse Bay.
While it will be a learning experience for Johnston and his wife, he also hopes Canadians at large follow his trip's progress and learn along with them.
The Governor General's goal is to "take some of the lessons of how those communities manage themselves and govern themselves and make them understandable to the rest of Canada."
Ultimately, it's all about understanding the diversity of the country, he said.