Wednesday, July 13, 2022

My travels to the Canadian Arctic- July 2022

  Going north to the home of the Inuit.  Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada

                                               June 2022


As usual, I took a lot of pictures on this trip.

1 Pictures of Iqaluit and surrounding areas can be seen at:

These pictures give a sense of the landscapes of the North in the summer period and of the housing in Iqaluit.

2.  Pictures of Inuit art I saw around Iqaluit in the museum, stores and at the airport are at: 

I took these pictures in various places around town as I really love Inuit stone carvings. I have collected some pieces for many years. 

As I often do, I prefer to offer the reader my conclusions up front. This gives you my thinking as you read the rest of this travelogue.


In conclusion, I can say I feel enriched by my short visit to this unique part of the world. There is surely a lot to be found there: the hospitality of the people, the richness of nature, the huge landscapes, and the contrast between summer and winter. I was lucky to have Francis Choquette as my guide as he gave me so many insights into life in the North. 

But, I  sensed that tragedy permeates the atmosphere there.  It is a sense of the loss of a way of life. After living free as nomads for thousands of years and having mastered the skills needed to survive in this part of the world, the Inuit way of life is disappearing.  No longer are they nomads roaming the vast North and living off their hunting and fishing skills.  Today, Inuit towns and villages are only groupings of houses on stilts where former nomads are housed but not living as their ancestors.  It brings into question whether they are better off today, surviving off food flown in from the south rather than living off their hunting and fishing. But regardless of how one feels about these current conditions, there is little doubt that the richness of their traditions will no longer be available to the generations to come. Only in the smallest most remote villages and hamlets of the North do Inuit live as Inuit used to live. It is the sad contribution of "development".  It is the result of the intrusion into their world by outsiders who considered they were helping these people.  But did they really need that help?


In 2021, I had decided that I wanted to go north to see how and why people would 

live in the northern part of the North American continent. Like many 

people,  growing up, I had been fascinated by the stories of Eskimos, as

we knew those people who now are called by their proper name of Inuit. I could not see why anyone could be able to and would want to live under such harsh conditions. I had always been fascinated

by the ways these people had managed to survive in what has to be one of

the harshest and least humane climates on this earth.  I admired 

how they adapted their way of living to be able to survive. I had been 

impressed that they had invented so many useful and intelligent tools 

to allow them to hunt such as kayaks, dog-driven sleds, harpoons, houses out of 

snow, and clothing from the animals they hunted for food. These brave

hunters had learned to hunt ferocious animals such as polar bears,

walruses, and whales.  They had perfected hunting tools

and equipment allowing them to live off the meat, fat, and skins of all

these various animals while also perfecting hunting skills in their

search for seals, foxes, wolves, and caribous. Only listing these numerous

animals underlines the rich bounty of wild animals living in these areas. They have allowed these Inuit people to live in this far north for thousands of years.

At first glance, one sees only the pictures of the vast expanses 

of these northern plains as white, desolate, and treeless waves of stone

as far as the eye can see.  

Looking down on Iqaluit

But then, looking at these areas with the eyes

of the Inuit peoples, in fact, these barren landscapes hide wildlife 

that, to some extent, is as bountiful as what is found in Africa. 

Musk ox



The difference is that most, if not all of the wildlife of these northern climes 

are edible and useful to the local inhabitants. They provide food and skins to keep the Inuit warm and fed. That cannot be said of the many animals that one finds in Africa.  Thus,  one starts to understand why and how these peoples have survived and thrived in what most of us consider a hostile environment.  These people have adapted to their environment and perfected their hunting skills and tools which has allowed them to live their lives in their traditional ways for thousands of years. 

As I  prepared for my trip north, I read about these people and watched many films and documentaries about them. 

I started by watching the movie "Nanook of the North". It was filmed in 1922.

The quality of the film is certainly not as clear as in modern movies, but in fact,  the graininess of the film

adds to the sense of how cold and hard it is to live in the North.  The

movie follows an Inuit family as they move on a hunting and buying trip 

to reach a trading post, far away from their everyday living area.  Each day 

they set out with their packed sleigh and with the small children sitting on

the family possessions including the collected furs they will trade.  During 

the day, all is stopped if the father spots some animal that will be 

dinner that day.  As the short winter day ends, the father builds an igloo for the family to sleep in that night.  The building takes less than an hour and soon the family is snug in the igloo.   The mother

prepares the evening meal while the family sits on the furs spread out 

on the floor as carpets. While the wind howls outside, the pack of sled 

dogs hunkers down outside for the night to survive the minus 50 or 60

degrees of the cold night. The family lays down to sleep covered in furs in temperatures that hover around

freezing as otherwise, the igloo would melt.

The next day the family packs up its belongings, hitches the dogs to the sled, and heads off again

into the white flat expanse on their journey.  The film is available free on YouTube and it is 

worthwhile watching.  It shows a way of life that as it was 100 years ago that does no longer exists.

 I learned about the Inuit traditional manner of singing, called Throat singing. 

You can hear this at:

 It is a very strange-sounding way to sing with sounds that seem to come from deep in the body. It also is rendered mostly by women singers who are able to make up to three different sounds simultaneously.  Throat singing was a traditional kind of game played by two wives while the husbands were out hunting.   Going deeper into this traditional singing, I was led to groups of singers from Mongolia, deep in Asia, north of China where they have very similar singing traditions.  

This seems to indicate that the Inuit who moved across northern  America, Asia, and Europe originated from Mongolia bringing this tradition with them. When these people came on this long trek has never really been established with much accuracy. I am fortunate, as during the week I spent in Iqaluit, the annual arts festival Alainait took place. I was able to attend a number of concerts that featured throat singing.

One of the types of animals that populate these northern regions is herds of Cariboo.  These animals are still found in most regions but in far fewer quantities than in the past. Overhunting and disease have decimated the herds to the point that hunting is banned or highly restricted in North America.  It is said that in the past, the migration of the Cariboo herds in America, saw herds of thousands of animals move from the east side of the Hudson/James bay to the west side depending on seasons.  This size of herds is almost the same as seen in East Africa where herds of gnus, zebras, elephants, and other animals move from the south of Tanzania to Kenya each year in the rainy seasons which produces green grass for these animals. 

Interestingly, the Inuit of northern Scandanavia and Russia, known as Laplanders, have perfected the husbandry of the Cariboo and maintain herds as domesticated animals much like cattle in western America.  The American Inuits never took on this habit but rather hunted Cariboo for their needs without ever domesticating them. The Laplanders even use the Cariboo to pull their sleds. They also live off the meat and other by-products that they consume and sell in stores in the southern regions.  Cariboo meat is available in most big Scandinavian cities.

Another animal the Inuit hunt is the walrus. 

This is a huge roundish animal that measures about 6 feet in length and can weigh a thousand pounds. It usually has two huge ivory tusks which can reach 4 feet in length. Francis Choquette, who has shown me around during my visit and who has been married for 39 years (today) to an Inuit lady, told me about going hunting with his father-in-law.  

They went out on the ice with the dogs and sled to a point where the ice is actually fairly thin. Here, walrus tend to break the ice to breathe. The ice is so thin, that it actually bends when one walks on it.  Here the hunter waits for the walrus to come up to its breathing hole. Apparently, the sounds made by the walrus are chilling as it combines roaring and breathing that can be heard from far away. In addition, the walrus has a horrible smell that can turn the stomach. When the hunter sees a walrus, he shoots the animal several times in the head in the hope that some of the bullets will penetrate the thick skull of the animal and kill it. When the animal is mortally wounded, the hunter harpoons it to avoid it sinking under the ice. He then sets up a double pulley and, with the help of his dogs, he drags the dead walrus out of the water and back to the thicker ice. There, the animal is skinned and its meat carved out. Its ivory is valuable and is preserved.

The visit

Enough background, let us get to the trip.  

Although I had decided in 2021 to go up to Iqaluit, I had already tried twice to get there without success. First, I was rejected on checking into my flight out of Ottawa as I did not have the required Covid visa which I never knew I needed.  Then on my second try, I boarded the 9 am train in Montreal to get to Ottawa in time for my 1 pm flight.  As it happens, the train broke down and I had to abandon my flight for the second time. The airline, Canadian North was good to me and each time gave me a credit for a future flight.

This time, on June 26, 2022, I decided to take no chances and went to Ottawa the day before my flight.  I overnighted with my daughter Tanya and her husband and took the flight the next day. If anyone is thinking of doing this trip, be aware that it is a 3-hour flight out of Ottawa which costs Cdn$ 1400 for the return fare. If one wants to fly out of Montreal to Iqaluit, the return fare is a bank-breaking $ 3,600! No wonder there is not a lot of tourism here. 

The flight was bumpy but aboard a fairly new Boeing 737 which was only half full. We arrived on time at Iqaluit airport which has the second-longest airstrip in Canada (8000 feet). The town was originally called Frobisher Bay.  The airstrip was built by the American Air Force as part of the Norad air defense system. The yanks left in the 50's but the strip is still in daily use. It is the only year-round link to Iqaluit, as there are no roads to this area.  

The city sits at the end of the long Frobisher Bay inlet and tides are as powerful as in the Bay of Fundy, for the same reason. As the tide rushes in from the open ocean, it accelerates as the bay becomes more narrow and the water gains some healthy speeds. I am told that each year boaters are taken out in the swift currents. 

Even polar bears hunting for seals find themselves swept out to sea and have to wait for the tides to get back ashore. I understand that the occasional bear lands on the beaches of the city which creates an emergency situation as these can be very aggressive animals that stand 10 to 12 feet and have huge 3-inch claws on their racquet-sized paws.  People are advised to stay in their homes while the bears are tranquilized and brought somewhere far from town.

I was picked up by Francis Choquette.  Francis had worked in the film industry with my brother-in-law Gilles Aird. Gilles had put me in touch with Francis who offered to help me during my stay here.  Francis is 68 and married to an Inuit. They have 4 kids, 2 in Montreal and 2 here in Iqaluit.  Francis came here as a young boy and grew up here.  He was hired by Gilles Aird and his film company to be the local manager. As he speaks the local language and knows, or rather knew everybody it was a perfect fit.  They worked together on a couple of films and then Francis went to Montreal where he spent 27 years making movies. 

After more than 25 years,  he decided that he had had enough of films, Montreal, and spending a huge part of his life away from his family.  He packed up and returned to Iqaluit to live a more peaceful life.  He is now the purchasing director for the city of Iqaluit managing all the contracts let by the city. He is a great lover of his life here and has a cabin out in the backcountry where he goes at the slightest drop of a hat.  He had promised to take me there. More on that later.

Francis spent the first day and half of my stay here showing me around and introducing me to people at stores, restaurants, and the local museum. I mentioned that I wanted to buy some Inuit carvings so we visited the upscale and less upscale stores in the city. The population is mostly Inuit and they are mostly English speaking.  There is a small part of the population that is francophone. Interestingly, there are quite a few Africans here. They sure have had to adapt to new circumstances here. I found out that there is a thriving Camerounian community here. I met a number of them and it would seem that the employment and high salaries here are an attraction. In fact, most people get hardship payments, rental subsidies, home leave and only have to pay 5% income taxes (compared to 50% in Quebec)

Francis lent me an ATV which was a great hulking machine that goes anywhere. It had been years since I drove one and it took a while to get the hang of it.  It was fun to use and with little traffic here, one can easily cruise up and down the hill.  The Airbnb I am staying at is at the top of the hill looking down on the town and the ocean.  The view is spectacular as one can look over the bay and see the mountains on the other shore. But it is a 45-minute hike up the steep hill from the town below.

 There is quite a bit of snow on those mountains and each morning ice forms on the bay and shoreline. It melts during the day when the sun shines. Francis tells me that this is the start of summer and they have 3 months to enjoy it before the snow comes back and the bay freezes over again. I did not see the mosquitoes that are famous here but I expect they will be around soon.

I  visited two of the biggest carving stores and their collections are quite impressive. It is still a big business here although I am told that the number of stone carvers is falling quickly. It seems the younger generation is not interested in that activity. This could mean that the industry will gradually die away as fewer new pieces are made. Prices here are quite high but well below the gallery prices of large cities in the south. Transport adds to the cost although one local gallery told me that they can ship even larger pieces for around only $200. This would not explain why prices in the south are twice or even three times higher in the south. 

I spent a couple of hours with the owner of one store, Bryan Hellwith. It was a small store of about 30 by 30 feet yet he had stock there which had cost him $400,000. The economics is that he doubles the price he pays and tries to sell at that price. We did do a bit of negotiating to arrive at mutually acceptable prices for a couple of small pieces I chose that are shown below:

A piece of Cariboo horn:

An Inuit in ivory beside his igloo and kayak:

An Inuit couple with child:

 Bryan indicated that he rarely has to do that.  It was an instructive visit and I may go back again to visit before leaving. 

 The next morning I went to town to pick up another small piece I had ordered from a carver called  George. When he saw me, he said he had forgotten my piece at home and would return within the hour. No George showed up so I am out $40.  

I had waited in the upscale store, Innnuit Carvings which has twice a much stock as Bryan does, and prices that are also twice as high. I really did not want to buy anything but I did see a box full of Cariboo horns which looked interesting.  I got a small one which I have put on the wall in our lake house in Labelle. The girl running the store allowed me on the internet as my T-Mobile phone did not pick up the local network so I have neither phone nor internet at the house where I am staying. As the internet comes in by satellite it is expensive and spotty.

I also spent some time at the Arctic College which is the trade school here. It is a modern well-equipped facility. Students were off on summer vacation so I was only able to speak to a few instructors.  The local people are very friendly and interested in hearing from visitors.  I hear the locals talking in Inuititut which seems more widespread than I thought.  All the street signs are written in French, English, and Inuktitut. The local language has its own alphabet developed by early missionaries who translated the bible for the locals.  I am told it is inspired by Pittman's shorthand which used to be taught to all secretaries. It is a guttural language that uses lots of q's which are actually ch sounds as in German and Russian. I understand that the spoken language varies in the different parts of Nunavut but that the people can understand each other, even as far away as Greenland.

On Tuesday afternoon, Francis announced that we would head out of town on our 2 quads, ATVs, and go to his backcountry cabin. He said it would take about an hour and that some of the trails would be rough. He emphasized that I should feel free to stop if it became too much. The nice thing is that even though the sun goes down at 11 pm, it never gets dark here at this time of year.  So there is no rushing about to get back before nightfall. There is no nightfall.  

So we set off through the center of the city, went past the end of the airport runway, and then all the way parallel to the other end of the runway which is 8000 feet long.  All this was great as we were on a nice flat gravel road.  But at the end of the runway, we took a hard right and started on a narrow track. No more nice gravel road.  The track was on the tundra which here tend to be more rocks than earth.  And we are talking big rocks of more than a foot in height over which the quads worked their way. It was tough and slow-going bounding from rock to rock with areas where there were 3 feet-deep ruts with flowing water. Francis, who does this trip 2 or 3 times a week was obviously going slow for my benefit. The problem was that my benefit was being bounced around like a ping-pong ball. It was definitely not a nice Sunday drive.  At times, the path had a mean slant to it and I was not at all convinced that the whole machine would not tip over on me. My innards were starting to wonder whether we were inside a clothes dryer... My teeth were beginning to become unstuck. The closest description I could give would be to try and ride a bucking horse going 3 miles an hour.  This was not fun. My arms and legs felt that we had been hanging on cross bars for hours although we had hardly done 30 minutes. At one point, Francis stopped and waited for me to catch up.  He asked how I was doing and I lied through my teeth that I was doing fine. He announced that the hardest part was up ahead about 15 minutes. I hung in for another 10 minutes but then realized that not only would things get worse up ahead but that we would then have to go this same route to get home.  That was it!  

I signaled to Francis that I was packing it in. He was very gracious about it although he had really wanted to show me his Cabane. Well, I decided that the Cabane would survive without my visit but that there were serious doubts whether I would survive the visit.  I rationalized that I was too old for this type of cross-country traveling and that my survival and that of my bones would take precedence over my honor and pride. That is how bad it was.  So we turned around and headed back to the gravel road which felt like a thick carpet compared to the Tundra path. I was relieved to have survived. I never got to see the cabane, but I am alive to tell this story.

On the way back, we stopped at an overlook (above) with a magnificent view of the falls of the river that flows into Frobisher bay.  It starts at a lake 100 km upstream and of course, is frozen over in winter. But before it freezes, thousands of arctic char fish swim upstream to spend the winter in the lake. In spring, they come down and spend the summer in the salt waters of Frobisher Bay.  Francis told of standing at the falls in the spring and throwing lines in with 3 hooks and hauling in 3 fish at a time, so plentiful are the fish. In fact, Frobisher Bay city has taken back its Inuit name of Iqaluit, which means place of lots of fish.  By the way, arctic char is a wonderful-tasting fish. I had some for lunch today. It has the pink color of salmon but is more dense and very tasty. Francis gave me three pieces of smoked char which I have in our freezer for a special day. 

We then headed back and I returned to my house on the hill, stiff but happy for a great outing, even if I did not get all the way.  I dread to think how bad the track would have become further down.  I slept well that night and awoke in the morning rather stiff from hanging on over the bumps. But, as you see, it gave me a story to tell.

I discovered that the local college has a downtown building that serves lunch each day for $15 and provides free internet. I went there and had a nice lunch looking out across the street onto the Legislative Assembly building of Nunavut.  After lunch, I went into this very nice building which is built almost in Scandinavian style with lots of wood and nice decorations.  The assembly was not sitting so I could not visit the main room. As I was leaving, an important-looking white chap came in and was greeted by security.  I asked him where I could get a flag of Nunavut.  He said, " Wait for me here. I'll see what I can do. He returned with a small Nunavut flag with a small desk stand which he gave me.  Nice people.

This is the Legislative building of Nunavut. Note the 4 runners in the middle representing the dog sled.

This is the mace of the Nunavut Legistature. It is a carved tusk from a narwhale with a Nunavut diamond on the top.

This is the main hall of the Legislative building of Nunavut

I then went back to the Inuit Carving store to ask the manager, Crystal whether she had seen my elusive carver friend, George.  She confirmed that he had not come in that day. But, she added that George owed her money also. She then provided me with his address and I said we would follow up.  The next day, Francis and I went to 1610a in Happy Valley and found George. When I demanded my carving he admitted he had already sold it. Francis said he would deal with George. Later that day, Francis returned the money I had given to George and said George would be run out of town in the near future. I am not sure how that works as there are no roads out of the city. But Francis is a serious guy who works for the city. Too bad for George, he picked the wrong guy to try and play with.  This story sounds like something out of the far west. 

On Thursday, I had the pleasure and privilege to invite Francis and his charming wife Ruth to lunch at the Discovery hotel. I say it was a privilege as I enjoyed meeting Ruth and hearing the story of how Francis and Ruth met and married 39 years ago.   I show below pictures of Ruth and Francis.

Francis told of how he had seen Ruth the first time when she was a student at the Arctic College in Iqaluit and how he had been smitten by her. He pursued her for several years until she agreed to marry. But, he first had to go with her to her village, Igloolik, 532 miles north of Iqaluit. There he met Ruth's father and her family who vetted him. Obviously, he passed muster and was accepted into the family. He then went hunting with her father which was also probably part of the testing. Ruth works for the Federal government in Iqaluit.  It was a fun lunch. The next day, Francis told me his wife had enjoyed the lunch and had commented that: "That man talks a lot". I told Francis that I had been accused of that quite often...

 Thursday and Friday evenings, I went to the Alainait Arts Festival concerts.  They played music which is popular with the Inuit including some hard rock. Not my favorite. One of the singers did some throat singing which was fun.  It was attended by some 150 people which was capacity in the school gym.  This is the same gym where the Pope will be pontificating when he spends 3 hours in Iqaluit on his way back to Rome on July 27. I cannot say I found that there was a lot of excitement in the city about the visit. One of the reasons is that most people in Iqaluit are Anglicans...

On Friday morning, I mounted my quad beast and set out on my own to explore the mountain tops of the city. On my map, I saw there was a lake Geraldine which supplies the city water to Iqaluit. I decided to visit the lake which is located on the top of the highest mountain. Not surprisingly, the approaches to the lake were blocked as they do not want people messing with their only water supply.  From atop the mountain, the views of the city and the bay were stunning.  I noticed a number of towers and radars on the top adjoining mountains with roads or paths leading up to them  So, for the next 2 hours, I drove up and down these roads and visited most of the most sensitive electronic equipment bringing in phones, tv, internet, and other communications as well the radar and control equipment used by the air traffic control of the Iqaluit airport.  No security. Nobody challenged me. As a matter of fact, I did not see a soul there. The views were beautiful in all directions.  I show a few of the views from the high perch.

The only human thing I saw way on top of the mountain was a truck belonging to the local moving company.

 It was in a ditch with its front wheels in the air. The truck was full of someone's personal belongings.  What the driver of moving had been doing on top of the mountain was not clear but I suspect he may have been drunk. I am told that some 75% of the local population is addicted to alcohol and/or drugs.  A horrible situation. In fact, they only have one store selling only beer and wine. One cannot buy hard liquor,  We drove by the beer store on Saturday morning and there was a line-up of 50 people.  Francis said that on the days before holidays and weekends, the line can extend a kilometer from the store.  There is a movement underway that is trying to shut the beer store. Some people think that that would only make matters work as the drive to find alcohol in houses and elsewhere would increase the crime rate.

The other thing I saw on the mountain top was a huge black crow sitting on the top of a pole and making a huge racket. 

 Francis told me the story of how crows are so intelligent that if someone treats them badly by, say, throwing stones, the crow will not only remember and harass that person but will also inform other crows who will also harass him. Luckily, I greeted the crow in a pleasant voice and went on my way.  Sure enough, the next morning when I came out of my house, there was a crow on the house across the street making a huge amount of noise.  It happened a third time later in the day in another part of the city with the or maybe just a crow greeting me.   Coincidence? Who knows? But it does make for a great story. And, I now have a crow friend in Iqaluit...

We started off Saturday morning again having breakfast at Brian's Brew restaurant.  Brian is a cancer survivor and a real supporter of good causes in the city.  He is anglo and comes from Lasalle in Montreal.  He makes pizzas which Francis delivers on some evenings of the week. Francis states that Brian's pizzas are the best in the country. In fact, Brian told me that a foodie pizza reviewer based in the US who is well followed wrote that the best pizza he had had in US was in Philadelphia but it was not as good as the one made in Brian's Brew in the northern Canadian town of Iqaluit.  When I asked Brian what his secret was, he walked over to a huge shelf and pulled back the curtain to reveal dozens of boxes of peeled tomatoes imported from Italy which form the base of Brian's pizzas. I promised not to reveal the name but I will see if I can buy the tomatoes in the south, meaning Montreal.  I have since bought aloop

 number of cans in Little Italy in Montreal and my wife has promised to use them in her next pizzas.

Brian then informed that he had located a very talented Inuit carver who works only in ivory and does exquisite work. Francis promised to commission a piece for me and would have my name inscribed in Latin and Inuit script.  He proposed that the carver be asked to do a crow, in line with my crow meeting described earlier.  He will send the piece to me or deliver it when we meet during his annual visit to his home in Terrebonne, near Montreal. 

I suggested we meet at our house on Lake Labelle on a day when he expects to visit another friend in L'annonciation, which is the village after Labelle.  I look forward to returning some of the hospitality he showed me during my stay up north.  

Francis loves his north and even in the short time I spent there, I could start to understand how people can become attached to living there.  There is a truth in the expression that you can take the man out of the North, but you cannot take the North out of the man.  Francis is a case to prove that.  He spent 27 years in the south working in the film industry until he felt he was missing this life in the North.  He has returned and one could sense the joy he has being there just by the enthusiasm he radiated when showing me around his town.  I gather his favorite season is winter, but I am afraid I will not be able to share his pleasure in the near future.

Looking at the falls of the river which flows into Frobisher Bay

Flying over Nunavut,

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Blogger Nico said...

This blog entry is a nice breakfast read with good photos imbedded. (I not yet looked at the drive photos).

It looks flat in photos, even though you describe hills, mountains and waterfalls. I guess without forest, it's hard to grasp the contour of the land.

I am glad you found an animal spirit, the inquisitive, intelligent bird that talks a lot. �� Caw!

July 14, 2022 at 7:31 AM

Blogger Ève said...

What a wonderful trip! I really enjoy the reading. Thanks.

July 14, 2022 at 8:02 AM

Blogger rick said...

Great storytelling Sander...I appreciate you keeping those of us with a yearning for travel informed about places many of us would never think of visiting.

July 14, 2022 at 8:45 AM

Blogger Virginia von Hahn said...

Hi Sander, I really enjoyed reading your blog and experiencing Iqualiquit through your eyes. The story about George made me chuckle. The ATV trip was cool, but wish you had made it to the cabane. And Francis' pursuit of Ruth was sweet

July 14, 2022 at 1:04 PM


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