High Arctic Haulers·Video

100,000 tonnes of cargo, 40 remote communities, one frontline delivery person

"You see the UPS guy that comes to your house to make you sign for a box? I do that. It's just that I don't have a truck. I have a full ship worth of stuff." 

The sealift brings everything from food to firetrucks to Canada's North—and someone's got to keep track of it.

Unloading cargo ships in isolated Arctic communities

3 years ago
Duration 1:41
Faced with the lack of port infrastructure and a schedule that's set by the tides, unloading cargo ships in remote Arctic communities is a challenging job.

Stress at work is a given, but for Joshua Desgagnés-Sirdey, the pressure can be acute — and he can't lose his patience. He works on ships that deliver hundreds of thousands of tonnes of essential goods to remote communities in the High Arctic every year. With no railways or roads connecting them to the rest of the country, these resilient, yet isolated, villages rely on the annual sealift.

Desgagnés-Sirdey is a lead checker, which means he ensures every item on the ship is delivered to the right place and in the right hands. It sounds simple, but deliveries in the North can get complicated. 

"You see the UPS guy that comes to your house to make you sign for a box?" says Desgagnés-Sirdey. "I do that. It's just that I don't have a truck. I have a full ship worth of stuff." 

Joshua Desgagnés-Sirdey, Lead Checker for international shipping company, Groupe Desgagnés. (CBC | High Arctic Haulers)

Complications on the water

The window to complete deliveries is tight: between July and early October. Over the course of a season, they will make three or four round-trip journeys from Montreal to roughly 40 Arctic communities. Each voyage takes between four and six weeks. Many people have been waiting for their items, including food to restock co-op shelves, building materials for houses and ambulances for emergency workers, for months — sometimes years. 

But Mother Nature is unpredictable; severe storms and heavy ice flows can cause delays. With the changing climate, large chunks of ice (some the size of cars) break off ancient glaciers. They're called growlers because of the sound they make as they scrape along passing ships. If a vessel hits one the wrong way, it can tear a hole through the steel hull. 

During a delivery to Kangirsuk, a village of 567 people in northern Nunavik, Desgagnés-Sirdey's ship was stuck in a channel clogged with growlers. Because so many ships were stranded in need of rescue, the vessel had to wait three days for the Coast Guard to reach them, clearing a path and leading it to open water. Losing time caused Desgagnés-Sirdey and the other 17 crew members a lot of stress, but they know it's not worth risking their lives — and the ship — to meet a schedule.

Complications on land

As the sealift nears a delivery destination, crew will radio ahead to make sure community members move their boats out of the water and clear the beach. Isolated hamlets and villages in the High Arctic don't have the infrastructure for the ships to dock and unload, so the massive vessels have to anchor offshore and ferry hundreds of tonnes of cargo by loading it onto barges and pushing them to the beach with tugboats. Depending on the size of the load, the process can take as long as 18 hours.

As the crates and shipping containers arrive onshore, Desgagnés-Sirdey makes sure every item is delivered to the person who ordered it. Decades ago, the annual sealift was a monumental event and the entire community would come and watch the ship offload. The deliveries are still important, but they've become more routine and sometimes people don't come to claim their orders. 

When that happens, Desgagnés-Sirdey has to search the community until he finds the person — and the ship has to wait, losing precious time. 

"People are fishing. People are out for a hospital visit," says Desgagnés-Sirdey. "People are out for, I mean, you name it."

You see the UPS guy that comes to your house to make you sign for a box? I do that. It's just that I don't have a truck. I have a full ship worth of stuff.- Joshua Desgagnés-Sirdley, lead checker, Groupe Desgagnés

Besides managing a massive delivery operation, Desgagnés-Sirdey is also a liaison with the community. He wants to make sure everyone is happy and feels an obligation to get the job done accurately.

 "If I don't do my job [well], I feel bad. I feel like I let people down, either in the community itself or my crew — my team."

Cargo on the upper deck of the Sedna Desgagnés. (CBC | High Arctic Haulers)

Job well done

Finishing a successful sealift is a huge relief; the entire crew is happy and Desgagnés-Sirdey can relax a bit until the next port. Despite the stress, he loves his job, after all, shipping is in his blood. 

His family started shipping along the St. Lawrence back in 1866, before Canada was even a dominion. Eventually, they formed the company, Groupe Desgagnés, and began shipping to the Arctic. This is the business he works for today. His name is even on the side of the ships. 

Members of the Desgagnés family continue to work for the company both on the ships and in the head office.

"My grandfather is an old Desgagnés captain. Brother of the people that started [Groupe] Desgagnés," he says. "[I'm] pretty proud of that. Who wouldn't be?"

See Josh in action during Episode 2 of High Arctic Haulers: Patience is the Arctic. His ship, The Sedna, struggles to maintain its course in drifting ice, while high winds and massive swells force one of their sister ships, The Taïga, to bypass a delivery stop in Hudson Bay.