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Two Feet and 12,000 Hooves

Two Feet and 12,000 Hooves

After 100 years, reindeer in Canada’s Arctic have gone from outcasts and undesirables to tourist attractions and culinary staples. Meet the herd and the man at the forefront of a new Northern tradition.
By Tim Edwards
Jan 13
From the January 2016 Issue

Three thousand reindeer approach the ice road that stretches between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Coast. You can hear their tendons click and the snow crunch under their hooves. You hear them grunt—“uh, uh, uh”—and you see the fog rise off them as the Arctic air meets their bodies, warm from movement. It’s the end of March and a crowd has gathered around to see the animals make their grand crossing. But no one knows their movements like Lloyd Binder, their owner, who’s in amongst the crowd. He’s known this herd since he was a child. He can control them. So when the first one hesitates at the lip where the snow slants down to the ice road, he knows what will drive them forward: a clear signal from the herders. “When you’re moving the reindeer, they’re intensely aware of what you’re doing, and even with minor body movements as you ski or walk or ski-doo, they tend to immediately respond.” The reindeer does respond, and begins to cross, and all hesitation fades from those who follow.

CLOSE TO 80 YEARS AGO, these reindeer’s ancestors were making one man’s life extremely difficult near that very spot. In 1934, the fifth year of a journey that was supposed to take two, Andrew Bahr and 2,300 reindeer reached the Mackenzie River. They’d started out more than 2,000 kilometres to the west, in Alaska, and pushed through mountains and bogs, summers haunted with blackflies and mosquitoes, winters beset with freezing Arctic temperatures and cruel winds. Now so close to his goal—Kittigazuit, a town that no longer exists today, on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula—another fierce Arctic gale picked up and scattered his herd. He and his herders slowly gathered the reindeer back up, tired and dejected, and watched as weather conditions and the health of the herd made his situation clear: they would have to wait out the thaw, summer there, and then attempt the crossing after the next winter’s freeze-up. It wouldn’t be until March 6, 1935, that the reindeer would reach their new home. And they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.

In Alaska, the Americans had found much success with reindeer. With their wildlife in decline on land and marine life decimated by whaling, indigenous Alaskans were starving. An enterprising sailor had seen reindeer provide food and livelihood to the people of Siberia, and after lobbying and fundraising, 1,280 reindeer were taken to Alaska between 1892 and 1902. By the late 1920s, there were more than 400,000 reindeer—the Scandinavian-Asian domesticated cousins of North America’s caribou—in Alaska, many of which were owned by the indigenous population. They were bringing in serious cash. Between 1918 and 1925, 2 million pounds of reindeer meat was shipped to the lower 48 states.

The Canadian government saw an opportunity to wean Inuit off caribou (which the government was being pressured to conserve amid rumours of decline) while immersing them in a pastoral lifestyle, closer to the Western way of life than their hunter-gatherer traditions. They saw the possibility for a sustainable, lucrative economy. So they bought 3,400 reindeer from the Lomen Brothers, Alaskan meatpackers, and hired Andrew Bahr (a Sámi man later referred to as Arctic Moses in recognition of his prowess throughout this journey) to bring them over. Though they numbered at 2,370 when they arrived, enough calves were quickly born to make up the difference. The government hoped the Inuvialuit of the Delta would take up reindeer herding with gusto, and that the animals and practice would spread east throughout the Arctic. But despite all that energy, that perilous journey, and the economic opportunity, reactions to the reindeer ranged from disinterest to disdain.

The herd of reindeer as they're driven across the NWT tundra. Photo courtesy of Jason Van Bruggen/NWTT

If caribou were in decline anywhere in the North, they were plentiful in the Inuvialuit’s corner. According to J.P. Richards, who was observing the difficulties of establishing the reindeer industry, Inuvialuit maintained that subsistence hunting and trapping was much better—it was not only what they knew how to do, but game and fish were abundant and the lifestyle was much more pleasant.

The Inuvialuit calendar focused on which food was best available when—muskrat in the spring; fish and beluga in the summer; berries and caribou in the fall, turning to trapping mink and hunting seal and then fishing pike and loche into the winter. It was a pragmatic schedule that let resources come to them. Reindeer herding meant wintering in the hills, then steering reindeer across ice and tundra to reach the calving grounds at Richards Island, tucking in among the deer at night to stay warm while keeping watch of the herd.

The reindeer project also carried cultural affronts. The government set a huge swath of land aside for reindeer herding, and made hunting on it illegal. And the slaughter of the reindeer was highly regulated, so Inuvialuit were not allowed to share meat—a tenet of their culture. Even if Inuvialuit showed interest in herding, to do so would risk alienation from their community.

Still, nobody could ignore that there was money to be made, and by 1952 there were seven Inuvialuit partnerships managing seven herds with varying degrees of success—albeit short-lived. Just four years later, the partnerships had dissolved: some men had died in a boating accident, some had found better work constructing the DEW Line, and the herds were all in decline. By 1960, after 25 years and 1.25 million dollars spent, the government gave up hope and began looking for a way out of the industry. The herd was bought by Silas Kangegana, who then sold it to William Nasogaluak, who formed a private company called Canadian Reindeer Ltd. in 1974. The herd grew 16,000-strong, and the company sold meat as well as velvet-covered antlers, which were popular overseas as an aphrodisiac. For a while, business was booming. The Los Angeles Times published a story in 1992 on Nasogaluak’s venture, referring to him as the only man in Tuktoyaktuk to own a Cadillac.

But his operation was mired in lawsuits. The Inuvialuit land claim agreement was finalized in 1984, and the reindeer grazing grounds fell within collectively owned lands that were now administered by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which began sending Nasogaluak a bill to use them. He thought that as he was Inuvialuit, he should share in the benefits of the land claim agreement by being allowed to graze his reindeer there, so he didn’t pay.

A man named Otto Binder and his son Lloyd watched from the sidelines as the legal dispute waged on and on, from 1985 through to 2001. Otto was a partner in one of the Inuvialuit operations back in the 1940s and ‘50s, and had wanted to make a move on the herd when Kangegana was selling, but Nasogaluak beat him to the punch. Lloyd, whose mother was a Sámi reindeer herder brought over to train the Inuvialuit, had grown up around them in a little village called Reindeer Station, near Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. He felt a connection to them—that certain connection to them that you need, he would later say, to power you through the tough times of herding, of which there are many.

"In the long run if you don’t have some sort of affinity and commitment to the industry, it’s just another business, and if it fails you walk away. Well I couldn’t do that."

Soon, the Binders got their chance. In 1998, as the legal case began winding down to a settlement, Lloyd was contracted to manage the herd while the last legal issues were being ironed out, with the promise that he would be given first priority on the purchase when they were ready for full sale. “So we actually took over in a win or lose proposition,” says Lloyd. “The deal being we could do what we could do with the herd and if we made money, good, and if we didn’t, well too bad for us.” He owned the herd by the early 2000s, dropping the “Limited” but keeping the already established brand of Canadian Reindeer. 

Today's reindeer herders have snowmobiles and SPOT devices at their disposal when bringing the herd from Richards Island, across the Mackenzie River, to Jimmy Lake each winter. Photo courtesy of Jason Van Bruggen/NWTT

“SOMEBODY ONCE SAID that Canada’s reindeer was the best-kept secret in Canada and that’s changing,” says Lloyd. The herd is around 3,000-strong and had, last March, rallied more people out to watch it cross the ice road than it ever has before. “I could see, even as early as next spring, [tourists] going out to ski with the reindeer and moving the herd.” He speaks with measured optimism. The operation is strong now, but it has been a rough road to get here.

In 2004, the antler aphrodisiac market tanked, so Canadian Reindeer had to look at getting back into the meat business. They didn’t have much success until 2009 and 2010, when caribou populations began to drop and local interest in reindeer meat picked up. Binder is now harvesting up to 500 head a year, working with the community and the IRC to bring a little extra benefit to the Inuvialuit. “We give food to elders, we reduce prices, we give food to the food bank and do what we can for people with low incomes.”

His operation has evolved. Binder doesn’t herd if he doesn’t have to, but instead manages the homefront, cuts up and sells the meat, and coordinates with his Sámi herders, who link up their cellphones with Garmin SPOT devices to send texts back and forth. As we spoke last November, the herders were out combing Richards Island to gather up the reindeer that had grazed there freely since May. By the beginning of December, they would gather all of the reindeer and bring them back over the Mackenzie River to the winter camp on the mainland, about 35 kilometres north of Inuvik at Jimmy Lake. Then they harvest three to four animals a day until March, utilizing the freezing temperatures to conduct a sterile processing and storing operation, where the meat freezes immediately and doesn’t thaw until its buyer defrosts it.

In March, the herders will bring the reindeer back across the Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk ice road, and across the Mackenzie River on their way to Richards Island, where the herd fawns in April. “And then it’s herd surveillance and protection,” says Binder. “That’s about all we do until we can’t Ski-Doo anymore, which is about mid-May, and then we leave the animals.” And the herd is on its own on that big island until next November, when the cycle starts again. 

“The thing about reindeer,” says Lloyd, “is in the long run if you don’t have some sort of affinity and commitment to the industry, it’s just another business, and if it fails you walk away. Well I couldn’t do that. I have a family legacy and a personal interest in seeing this herd persist.” And it’s not just his heritage that makes him the right man for the job. It’s also his CV. Lloyd made a career working for the territorial government in economic development, and beyond the resource industry, the North’s lifeline is tourism. He’s curious to see just what else the reindeer can provide. The opportunity might lie in that spring journey back to Richards Island.

“In terms of the general migration, one really doesn’t want to do that too quickly, because between the north range and the south range there’s really a lot of grazing potential,” says Lloyd. “You can do it in three days but why not do it in a week or two weeks, and why not involve tourists in that?” There’s plenty of potential in giving visitors a hands-on experience, but Lloyd says he doesn’t want to create a “Mickey Mouse” operation—he wants it to be real. Camp life isn’t exactly luxurious, but to live as the herders do and learn to interact with the reindeer is an experience like no other. Binder says it’ll take some brand-and trust-building to convince people the trip is worth it, but the idea is something special—and unique to the Canadian North.

“If a person really wanted to do just the reindeer tourism thing, it would be easier to fly to Finland or Norway to do it,” says Binder. “But if they wanted to have a sense of the Canadian side of this continuing project—I mean reindeer brought to Alaska in the 1800s and brought to Canada in the 1900s, and the involvement of the native people and the transmission of the reindeer husbandry skills and techniques—there’s something there. And why not have the unique Canadian side of the story? It’s about cultural interaction, and that’s really what the North is about.”