Bear Country: A Tale of Two Halloweens

Halloween is a big event along the Hudson Bay coast. Along with the costumed trick-or-treaters you can find an armed patrol of RCMP, Manitoba Conservation Officers and community volunteers all dispatched to ensure that no polar bears enter the community.

Before the sun rises, Manitoba Conservation’s Polar Bear Alert program begins their daily patrol for bears. A bleary-eyed officer cruises the back-roads and main streets of Churchill, checking polar bear traps and scanning the rocks and edges of town with a massive truck-mounted spotlight.

As the day progresses, a helicopter is dispatched to circle the community and seek out polar bears hiding in the rocks. Volunteers begin to gather around 3 p.m., the Churchill fire department sets up along the east side of town, the RCMP park on the beach and all Polar Bear Alert vehicles are dispatched.

However, there are almost never any bear encounters. In fact, I can’t think of the last time there was even a bear around the community during Halloween. By 7 p.m. the sun is down and the patrols slowly peter-out.

While Churchill trick-or-treats, its neighbours in Arviat, Nunavut are getting prepared for a very different, yet equally important community event. Halloween night is their polar bear draw. Everyone from the community gathers in the Mark Kalluak Community Hall for a feast and a chance to win a polar bear hunting tag.

Names are drawn for the nine tags, down from the 20 they used to draw. Everyone 16 and over is eligible, including women, much to the consternation of some of the men. There are a few who feel that polar bear hunting is part of the Inuk male identity and women should not be allowed to join. At the very least, it makes for some juicy community debate.

Once the names are chosen, each person will have two days to hunt a polar bear. If they are successful, they keep the hide and the status of being a polar bear hunter. If they cannot find a bear, the tag is returned to the Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO) and they allot it to the next person drawn. They, in turn, have 48-hours to find a bear. The quota is usually filled within a week.

Those drawn early have the opportunity to trade in their tag for polar bear skins from animals shot in self-defense. This is actually a pretty appealing option to many people as the price of gas, the time off work to hunt bear, and the cost of preparing the skins can add up quite quickly.

Regardless of whether you are a hunter or not, Halloween night in Arviat is a pretty big event on the annual social calendar, which mostly consists of square dances, snowmobile/dog sled races and poker.

This year, snow arrived in time for Halloween and a nice frost has settled into the ground. It should make for a good haul, whether it is candy or polar bear.

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