With warm weather comes Toonik Tyme

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The 54th Toonik Tyme kicks off with an opening ceremony April 11, with the naming of the 2019 Toonik, as well as the Honorary Toonik.

Outdoor games at Nakasuk School, such as the blanket toss seen here, drew a crowd on the afternoon of the first full day of Toonik Tyme April 13 last year. This year, Toonik Tyme begins with an opening ceremony April 11, followed by outdoor games Friday, April 12, a civic holiday so families can join together in celebrating spring.
photo courtesy Toonik Tyme

“When Toonik Tyme started we used to have a toonik come over from a hill. This toonik would be in caribou-skin clothing, and his face would be covered until the games start. They would finally show his face,” explained Pitseolak Alainga, one of the festival organizers.

“But before that, the Inuit used to guess who the toonik could be. They had a hard time guessing who it was. But today we don’t have that luxury anymore of having caribou-skin clothing and kamiks. We just get an honaroray toonik and a toonik from town that was practically born and raised here.”

Sometimes distinguished guests are named Honorary Toonik, such as the very first: former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

A toonik is a person of the Tuniit people.

“They were bigger than Inuit today, and they were stronger. They would walk with one dog and a very little bit of equipment and food, and come to a village. That’s where the competitions and food would be,” said Alainga, who adds a committee of elders and not-so-young adults discussed creating what would become Toonik Tyme in 1964.

While Toonik Tyme, which launched in 1965, makes it onto top winter-festival lists, the fact is the Iqaluit festival has always been to celebrate the arrival of warmer weather, explained Alainga, himself the honorary Toonik in 2016.

“It was to celebrate the people who were travelling. They would play games in a village back then. We would welcome everybody,” said Alainga.

“In Iglulik or Arctic Bay, where it is above the Arctic Circle, they have 24 hours of no sunlight. When the sun finally comes up, they celebrate the arrival of the sunshine. Down here we celebrate the arrival of spring and warm weather, for the hunters and families to celebrate.”

Alainga says there were always Ski-Doo races, organized by another group this year, and seal-hunting contests.

Seal hunting is out this year.

“Because of the bad ice and for us to have a seal-hunting contest we would have to have big insurance. If there was to be another accident and we lose another hunter, we’d be liable. So we’re taking that off this year,” said Alainga.

“In the past, when they did the seal-hunting contest, we could read the ice better than we can do today.”

The community mourned the loss of hunter Sandy Oolayou during Toonik Tyme in 2015.

Alainga is looking forward to Toonik Tyme 2019.

“It’s a family thing. We try and get all ages involved. From babies to the oldest person in town. And everything is free to enter,” he said.

“We’re looking to keep the people of Iqaluit happy. And it’s not just for Inuit. It’s for everybody. In the past when my father used to run Toonik Tyme, he would always say it’s not just for Inuit, but everybody – all kinds of people.”

Alainga says this year’s schedule of events will be mostly the same as last year’s. Toonik Tyme 2018 was the first year the new group – 123 GO! – has organized the popular spring festival. The group is made up of life-long friends: Alainga, Gideonie Joamie, Adamee Itorcheak, Jimmy Noble and Matthew Alainga.

Alainga said, as of April 4, the group, which has had the goal to resurrect the old-time outdoor activities from the ’70s and ’80s, is still finalizing the schedule, with the wild card being the weather.

“We’ll play it by ear, see if the weather is going to cooperate. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to go indoors,” said Alainga.

When the festival took place at the end of April, outdoor games included Inuktitut wrestling and Inuktitut baseball, with a sealskin ball.

“We would have teams that were named after birds. For instance ptarmigan – aqiggiq – would be for people born in the fall to winter and for people born in the spring to summer they were named aggiq … They’re ducks but smaller than the eider duck,” said Alainga.

Those team names were also used for other outdoor games, such as tug of war.

This year’s outdoor games take place Friday the 12th, which the City of Iqaluit has declared the official Toonik Tyme civic holiday, as per its bylaws, so families can enjoy the activities together.

Alainga says Nunavut and Nunavik musicians will perform this year.

“We might even do some late night music for people who like to stay out after hours, probably 10 until 12, and there will be no children,” he said.

Other activities include a whipping contest, and a tea and bannock-baking contest.

“We’re really trying to bring back the old Toonik Tyme,” said Alainga.

“There’s a fishing derby, a giant bingo. All week our group and the city is doing activities.”