The news across the nation this week has been ripe with stories about the opening of Tim Horton’s kiosks in the territory of Nunavut. This was the last territory (or province) without a Tim Horton’s franchise. The excitement has built for weeks, even years depending on who you talk to. Anticipation of this event has definitely had its share of mixed reviews, those who are hardcore Timmie’s loyalists and those who despise the entry of a new fast food franchise into the almost virgin megacorp community of Nunavut. I sit somewhere in the middle, to me Tim Horton’s is the lesser of two evils. It doesn’t offer greasy deep-fried factory farmed crap, yet it does carry positive attributes of the fast food that distinguish it from other franchises. I am quite choosy about my coffee and my feelings about Tim’s is one of ambivalence. Its arrival does raise questions about the growing presence of fast food and the love affair many of the citizens of Nunavut have with these franchises. To best explain the thoughts I have about these companies and their relationships with their customers I have to return to the brutally cold January day in 2004 when I moved to Nunavut:
I stepped off the plane Rankin Inlet, Nunavut and began what was a springboard site to ‘cook my way around the world’, happily I haven’t left yet. I saw darkness everywhere. Well, it was only January the fourth and daylight is sparse this time of year. I would be getting about a five or six hours of sunlight day. That’s OK, ‘Night time is the right time!’ as my friend Chris would always say reveling during the perpetual dark of the Arctic Winter. At the small terminal building I met my new co-worker who was there to pick me up. I took up my bags and threw them in her Jimmy. Getting in I quickly realized the manner of people transformed a bit when living so far away from their southern comforts. I reached for my seat belt out of force of habit. “We don’t do that here!” said Noreen in a commanding tone. Surveying the hamlet, I saw how vastly different it was to where I hailed from. I was a Southern Ontario boy and I had finally left the endless landscape of mini malls, car culture and fast food outlets that litter the Can-Am Auto Alley in a myriad of commonalty, or had I?
Before embarking to Nunavut, I had the good fortune of having a contact in Rankin, an old cohort named Chris. He and I knew each other from the not-so-old days in the restaurant scene in Stratford, Ontario. I had received over a few lengthy, yet brief phone calls my Nunavut 101. All the normal advice was given and amenities described. He had informed me about a KFC/Pizza Hut outlet in Rankin. The main point being in how it was grossly expensive compared to the cheap fast food I never ate back home.
Settling into Rankin, I spent most days exploring with evenings left to work and meet people. Getting to know people happened fast since Chris had been there awhile already. I met people from all over Canada with many tall tales to tell. The others I met who lived in the hamlet their whole lives had welcoming information to share and grand stories in tow. Something became apparent to me very early on, a strange association people made with fast food culture. When upcoming trips ‘down south’ were to occur people who were returning home would always reference fast food. “The first thing I’m doing when I get to the airport is getting McDonald’s” or “I’m going to wolf down two big mac’s as soon as I get there.”. This seemed and still is odd to me. When I return home the first thing I want to do is visit to a park, see a tree, see friends, go to a bar, get some sushi, or maybe just walk around. I don’t associate fast food with my home, even though its abundance is impossible to miss. Yet, even people who lived here exclusively most or all of their lives share in this sentimentality of fast food. You only have to get off the plane in Winnipeg from the Kivalliq region of Nunavut to catch the droves of people heading to the famous slop-and-plop Chinese Buffet, ‘Foody Goody’. In Baffin, some may choose to spend most of their trip to Ottawa in the Hotel and at Wal-Mart. This phenomena speaks volumes about the rapid entry of consumer culture and corporate food chains into the psyche of a host of Northerners and Southern expatriates alike.
One of the most endearing qualities of Nunavut is the lack of big box stores and fast food chains. There are corporations operating here at a franchised supermarket level. They are community oriented and strive to provide necessary and quality service to the people of the territory. They have a rich history and tradition in the communities, and some trace their roots back before the communities existed. Hundreds of years in fact. Being devoid of Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, Starbucks, and Chapters complements the barren beauty of the land in Nunavut. It also leaves the ability for small business to prosper. The mom and pop business model thrives in Rankin. Living there my favorite places to go were the Red Top Variety Store and the Sugar Rush Cafe, both successful small businesses. Back in those times, Chris and I did our share of ordering things, but it was never KFC and Pizza Hut. For one a ten inch medium size pizza was well over twenty dollars and the preparation and food handling was always questionable in the worst way. The real reason was our solid experience in the finer avenues of the restaurant world. Our respective parents hadn’t raised us on the greasy molestation of questionable meat and processed cheese that fill the mouths of the drooling denizens of food courts across our country.
The culture of fast food has embraced one of the last magnificent, untamed lands of our country. The barrage of television commercials in a place that has only had the tube since the mid-eighties has contributed significantly to the novelty and want for these items, products, and brands. Of course, not everyone is subscribing to this false manifestation of southern hospitality. There are those who prefer to hunt for their food, cook their own meals, or perhaps moved here to leave that monolithic slime bucket of genetically modified mad cow burgers and freedom fries behind. I would never generalize to that end, however, it is apparent that most people love this culture of convenience. They have bought in to the almost mythic commercial branding the giants of the quick service industry have done so well with, wherever they send their troops.
To indulge in creäture comforts is something we all enjoy. For some it seems that fast food is the solace they require to make life in a remote place more familiar and cozy. For others it is an escape to the ‘big city’ or it brings feelings of a long-awaited vacation. The exclamations of how many Big Macs one is going to wolf down or the extreme anticipation of a DQ Blizzard is only a harbinger of the innate desire for satisfaction. A satisfaction that can never arrive because fast food will never make you truly happy. It may arrive here in battalions of drive through and delivery some day. Perhaps then this surreal association with comfort and pleasant feelings will dissipate. The hunger will never disappear and it’s not just because the calories are empty. The desire for something different from the norm or the same as the south will always plague the people who desire these brands with such exaltation. The void will never be filled. When it does arrive the cultural impact will be immense, Nunavut will lose a part of its territorial identity that helped make it one of the most unusual societies in the West. The culture that follows these food entities will have a monumental impact on the communities. Health problems such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and many others will increase. The environmental impact will be tremendous volumes of waste. Mom and pop restaurants that provide friendly places to dine and meet won’t able to compete. The architecture of the towns will become more homogeneous. Towns and cities in the south fight a tough fight to deter these transformations from happening. Much would be lost with a disproportionate amount of fast food and big box stores in our hamlets and municipalities.
Wednesday December the first heralded the opening of Nunavut’s Tim Horton’s. The people were heard, the signs were up, the coffee was flowing. Someone even liked it so much they had twelve extra-large on the first day. The burn off of that high must have been heavy. Tim’s went the extra step of ensuring they hired people from the territory and made their famous oval logo include Inuktitut syllabics, one of the official language of the Nunavut. These are the steps of a company committed to community involvement and presence, and is duly noted. The Inuktitut lettering in the logo pictured reads ‘Always Fresh Coffee’ roughly translated. Many people are unilingual here and that is a nice gesture. It is pragmatic since language laws will enforce bilingual signage in the near future. Any effort made to include the city and territory or support of culture and local interest will not go unnoticed.
Plainly, Tim’s provides better food than most fast food outlets and has been fixture in Canada for a long time. Canadian again after a splitting from Wendy’s a few years ago. It is pleasing to hear that Tim’s returned to its Canuck roots and left that superpower of the fast food world behind. A chicken salad sandwich from Tim’s versus an offering from the Wendy’s value menu is markedly different in calorie content, sugar and salt levels. They appear as a benevolent proprietor of a brand of coffee Canadians love. Sponsoring hockey camps will be an asset to the avid hockey programs across Nunavut. Their environmental platform is sound, it’s too bad Nunavut doesn’t have the recycling or composting infrastructure to support it. They may provide fast, quick service food but asides from the pastries there are healthy choices. The coffee is highly popular around the country, and even if it’s little more than 401 driving coffee to me, people want it. I trust everyone will exercise moderation, especially with the pastries.
My only hope is that the opening of this new Tim Horton’s will not usher in a wave of other larger and negative entities of the fast food nation. Roll up your rim and enjoy Nunavummiut, but let’s try to keep our territory from getting overrun with chain stores and fast food. A cup of coffee and a donut is a Canadian tradition but lets not get carried away with lofty dreams of golden arches and underpaid store greeters wearing smiley face logos, for that will not complement our territory’s identity in a positive way.
Footnote: In the title, ‘Aasi’ means always in the Inuktitut language referring to the Tim Horton’s jingle.