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Q&A with Annemieke Mulders

Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Nov 12/01) - Annemieke Mulders' job is to market Northern products for the Yellowknife-based Arctic Trading Company.

But her job takes her outside the boundaries North of 60. The 30-something Mulders went on a trade mission to Belgium and Holland last year.

NNSL Photo

Annemieke Mulders shows off Northern-made birch bark baskets marketed by the Arctic Canada Trading Company. - Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo

This year the long-time Northerner, who lives and works in Yellowknife, travelled to Russia and participated in a women's circumpolar conference. The experience affected her so deeply, she's teaching herself Russian and hopes to return.

First, your job. Northern products, what are they?

McPherson Tent and Canvas. Raw products, also. Muskox leather, for example. We have been buying the hides from the hunts up at Banks Island, the annual culling that's done there. We have them commercially tanned. Some of it's kept here for local producers but it's too much of a volume for the local producers so we send them down south in Canada.

Our newest product is the Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur line. Wild Northern furs that have been manufactured into coats. D'arcy Moses designed all the coats. And there's individual carvers and groups of carvers. Other individual artists that make special stuff like drums. There's so much cool stuff in the North.

The trip to Russia, what was that about?

That one wasn't really Arctic Canada. That was a group of women from the Northwest Territories and Yukon. We went over and put on a women's conference in Siberia on basic women's issues.

Organizing women's shelters, for example. Organizing support as we have here in Canada. That made me realize how lucky we are. My area was on marketing and small businesses, and small business development. So sharing ideas of what we've done that works, whether or not it applies over there, that's for them to decide. And to learn...we have so many of the same challenges. I learned more from them than they did from me.

What makes you say that?

They did seem awfully interested in basic concepts of marketing arts and crafts but I saw things that gave me a million new ideas. I saw living conditions that I couldn't imagine people lived in, and to still be able to create beautiful artwork. There was warmth and hospitality in what we'd consider unlivable circumstances. It's not just survival. It's creative, artistic. There's love. There's a joy in life. Incredibly inspiring.

Earlier you mentioned Norilsk, the most polluted city in the world.

They say that in the winter time the snow comes down black. They've never seen white snow. It just doesn't happen. It's so unbelievable. You ask, why would you live here? And they say, well, it's not so bad. We're used to it. I think they've been given the facts. I don't think anybody's lying to them. But for economic reasons it makes sense to live there because the wages are so much better.

Why is it so polluted?

It's all mining. Norilsk mines is the largest mining company there. It's the biggest nickel producer in the world. But they also have gold and silver there. It's one of the richest ore deposits in the world. When they realized that they had these reserves up there, they built the gulags -- the prison camps. They sent the prisoners up there to build and work the mine. Some atrocities happened there.

What a difference from what we have here in Yellowknife.

Yes. And when you look at a movie like Erin Brokovitch where there's something in the water. It's like give me a break. You've gotta be kidding me. They just wouldn't get that movie.

You were saying that life expectancy is really low?

I'm not sure exactly, but they say it's somewhere around 45.

You mentioned a boat ride?

We landed in Norilsk, the big city, then drove to Dudinka, which is a port on the Yenesi River. That's where all the ore is trucked to, and by ship they go along the Yenesi River to the Arctic Ocean, and from there the ore is transported to wherever it's going. We travelled up that river to some of the small aboriginal communities. We were with about 150 Russian women. In the mornings we would stop and visit a new community. Oh, we were so well-received. Unbelievable. The whole town would be waiting on the shore. Hugs from everyone. They would show us everything they were proud of in the community.

Are these Inuit communities?

There's lots of different groups. They're not called Inuit, but it's quite evident that they were part of the same group at one point. Each community put on a community concert, and then a feast and then lots of vodka. At lunchtime the vodka started. There would be bottles of vodka on the table at lunchtime.

You see that bottle of vodka pulled out in the movies. It's literally like that?

I'm not sure if it's day to day. They say that there are alcohol problems in the small communities, but I also think it was for us. They were being hospitable. Luckily it was all women so we got off easy. Sipping was aloud. I think men who go on delegations have it much more difficult. They probably have to down it. I don't think I would have survived that.

Did you see much art?

In each community they would show us their art. It was beautiful. In only one place though was it for sale. And it was just one small table with a few things and we were clawing at each other. I think we pretty much cleaned them out.

So art, if none was for sale, you're talking clothing?

There was clothing. There was stuff, but it was all gifts. There's a lot of similar stuff. Beading, birchbark.

The colours are different. Those deep colours on black. It's beautiful. But for the colours, we're talking about very similar arts and crafts to Nunavut and NWT. Dolls, baskets, moccasins.

Very similar, very similar. They also do a lot of reindeer herding.

What are the communities like?

It's very similar. Similar people, very similar environment. Similar challenges, cost of transportation, social problems. We have so many advantages over them. The idea of isolation is a lot more intense over there. They can travel by boat on the Yenesi in the summertime. But in the wintertime... We have no community in the Northwest Territories that is inaccessible. Even in the winter. There, maybe in an emergency, they might have a military helicopter.

What's it like for the women?

They've gone through so much in the past 10 years. The country is embracing capitalism and democracy. Every individual in the country is involved in the process. It's a period of adjustment. They're looking around the world and asking, "what can we apply here?" Women are taking on this task of reshaping their country. They are making themselves so well-educated.

Feminism is not what it is here. It's kind of still seen as a bad thing. I was interviewed by the press and it was, "You're not a feminist. You're young. You're reasonably attractive. Why would you want to be a feminist?" The meaning there is that you must hate men. A lot of times I explained that feminism does not mean hating men, it means living equally.