Life saving survival suits now free to use in Nunavut

Boaters in 18 Nunavut communities who want to brave the frigid Arctic waters can now sign out survival suits, thanks to a new Government of Nunavut program.

‘It kept us afloat and kept our head above the water,’ says survivor of boating accident in Nunavut

'It made a huge difference when we went into the water,' says Iqaluit's Pitseolak Alainga. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

After six months of being frozen solid, the waters in Frobisher Bay are ice cold, even in the summer months.

If you fall in, hypothermia can come quickly. In these conditions wearing a survival suit can mean life or death — but now boaters won't have to take the risk, thanks to a new program from the territorial government.

Boaters in Nunavut who want to brave these waters can now sign out survival suits free of charge.The full-body suits are available in 18 communities across the territory and can be found where Spot Devices are available.

'We were in the middle of nowhere out in the Bay and it kept us afloat and kept our head above the water,' says Alainga. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Iqaluit's Pitseolak Alainga has firsthand experience with how a survival suit can help save lives in these conditions. In 1994, he set out on a walrus hunting trip near Iqaluit with nine other people. 

Only two came back.

Alainga and his friend Billy Kownirk clung to the wreckage of the boat for four days before being rescued. The survival suit his friend was wearing was a life-saver, said Alainga.

"It made a huge difference when we went into the water," he said.

"We were in the middle of nowhere out in the Bay and it kept us afloat and kept our head above the water even going through 10, 12 foot waves. It's very good to have a floater suit."

Community-driven initiative

The territory's department of health is behind the program.

"The communities came to us to let us know that this was something that they see as an important program," said Daman Dhillon, with Nunavut's health department.

The GN has also launched a campaign on water safety. (Government of Nunavut)

The program started this spring and includes an education component about water safety, with posters and brochures being distributed across the territory.

The floatation suits purchased by Nunavut are Transport Canada approved, come in various sizes and can be adjusted for fit. Their vibrant red colour also make them ideal in a search and rescue effort.

In most hamlets, people can sign out the suits from their local hunters and trappers offices or from their search and rescue team. The full list of locations where they are available is online.

In Iqaluit, they can be picked up at Baffin Gas Bar.

Caroline Rennie from Iqaluit's Baffin Gas Bar showing how the survival suits can be signed out. (CBC)

"This is a logical stop for boaters to come get gas and supplies, so I had no problem agreeing with having these life suits dropped off so that we could sign them out," said Caroline Rennie, the manager for the gas bar.

Iqaluit boaters will be able to sign out the suits seven days a week — from seven in the morning until 10 at night.

"I think it's a great thing I was there today and there was only one left on the shelf," said Iqaluit's deputy mayor Romeyn Stevenson at Tuesday's city council meeting.

"That's a very important step for people who might not be able to afford the very expensive floater suits but want to have them on their boats for safety's sake."


Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.

With files from John Van Dusen and Qavavao Peter