Caring for the North
A nurse's tales from off the land

Glen Vienneau
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 15/00) - Audrey Woodget came North in 1962, a young nurse looking to make a difference.

What she found was a world far removed from life in her native England and Ontario, where she and her future husband, George -- also a nurse -- emigrated in 1957. She asked a friend what clothes to bring North and was told to pack black shoes, stockings, a skirt, jacket and a cap.

"We went up to Hall Beach, and found there were no houses there at all, it was all iglus. You know, crawling around in black stockings and shoes, etc ..., they (clothing attire) went out the window," she laughed.

Hall Beach is located on the Melville Peninsula in what is now Nunavut, and there were only three cabins, a government office, a building to house the generator and, of course, the nursing station when Woodget arrived

"Everybody lived on the land in those days. Nobody lived in towns. They lived in iglus all over the country. They lived in camps, little camps," said Woodget.

She got over the initial feeling of isolation and culture shock and enjoyed a 36-year career working throughout the North.

Woodget now lives in Sidney, B.C, but recently returned North to receive an honourary life membership to the NWT Registered Nurses Association.

The presentation was made during the association's biennial conference, held in Yellowknife. Gail Wolfe, now living in Cold Lake, Alta., also received the award for her years of work in the NWT capital.

"This actual presentation was very memorable for me, to be recognized by your peers," said Woodget.

The challenges of her job were evident from the beginning.

"When I got there (Hall Beach), they (Inuit) had just had a measles epidemic, and 30 had died. In those days, there were no nursing stations north of Hall Beach," said Woodget.

"They were way out, so it took a long time to come in the nursing station sometimes. They had to travel a long way when people were sick, and they had to come by dog teams, so it took a long time, they were lucky to be alive sometimes when they did arrive.

"And you couldn't get them out to a hospital, and when there was an epidemic, we had 30 people on the floor, on mattresses."

There was telephone service available, but the line was often severed after being run over by dog teams.

It was only in 1966, when she was stationed in Cape Dorset, on the Foxe Peninsula, that snowmobiles began to be used on a regular basis.

After Hall Beach, the couple spent a year in Iqaluit before moving on to work in Cape Dorset where they worked until 1970.

She treasures the time she spent with the Inuit and the relationships she made.

"It was a close-knit community in those days -- we knew each other more."

The time she spent in the North has given her a unique perspective of the social changes that have taken place in the last 40 years.

"Maybe in the Eastern Arctic, there are some who still go out in the land," she said.

"Now, the old ones go out hunting and fishing, and the young ones do fish, (but) they don't have to rely on that, they got the catalogues now to send away."

She has seen improvements in the level of health care thanks to better communication and transportation, but believes the quality of life for Northern people may have suffered.

"I think, in a way, they were happier," said Woodget.

"It's better now that a lot of people are not so sick anymore but, in a way, it was better for them (in the past because) they were fishing and hunting, everybody had a job. "In these camps they all had a place, they all had something to do because they had to -- to survive."