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20 Questions with Newfoundland circumpolar archeologist and filmmaker Latonia Hartery

Newfoundland and Labrador circumpolar archeologist and filmmaker Latonia Hartery.
Newfoundland and Labrador circumpolar archeologist and filmmaker Latonia Hartery. - Contributed

Sitting down with Latonia Hartery you can’t help but feel you are meeting a real-life Lara Croft, the protagonist from the Tomb Raider video game and movie series.

While Hartery may not be swinging into ancient tombs and navigating secret ruins with adversaries breathing down her neck, her adventures as a circumpolar archeologist and filmmaker are just as intriguing.

Hartery has made numerous Arctic sailings, including several expeditions through the Northwest Passage, and 13 circumnavigations of Newfoundland. Her research has taken her to the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Iceland and Scandinavia.

She’s piloted Zodiacs through tricky ice-filled fjords and trekked over potentially hazardous — though beautiful — ice and frozen terrain.

And while she may not be outrunning huge boulders after triggering a trap set to guard a lost treasure — like the fictional archeologist Indiana Jones — she has had to push herself physically to get through some tough situations.

“I once broke my arm playing soccer in Itilleq, Greenland, but then I had to continue on in the north for two weeks with no doctor,” Hartery said. “So I physically had to set my own arm cast or splint, but I still had to work hauling in Zodiacs, because I was on a ship, climbing on top of bunks, hiking up the sides of mountains and fjords, and I didn’t get a cast until two weeks later at a Calgary hospital.

“I have first aid, so I had set it pretty well. But I still remember the pain.”

In 2018 Hartery became the first Newfoundland and Labrador woman to be made a Fellow of New York City's famed Explorers Club. As a member of that club she has rubbed shoulders with many famous explorers of the world including those who went further than any other humans in the history of the Earth — the living Apollo astronauts. She has chatted it up with Buzz Aldrin and Charlie Duke about walking on the moon and space exploration.

Director Latonia Hartery puts the finishing touches on a scene from “Hopeless Romantic,” the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival closing-night feature.
Director Latonia Hartery puts the finishing touches on a scene from “Hopeless Romantic,” the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival closing-night feature.

When not at archaeological sites in the Arctic and sub-Arctic area piecing together the history of Arctic people like the Dorset, or out in the field analysing plant residues on uncovered stone tools, Hartery takes a break in her film producer’s chair. Her company, L.J.H. Films Inc. produces both short and long format documentaries and narratives.

“My big project this year is a co-producing project with the National Film Board called the ‘Labrador Doc Project’,” she said. “It will be four films directed by Inuit artists.”

Just before the major snowstorm hit St. John’s over a week ago, Hartery finds some time to meet at a downtown coffee shop.

It’s a beautiful, sunny day but chilly outside, the calm before the storm.

The smell of hot fresh-brewed coffee hits our noses, and the drone of voices from the other tables mixes in with the background music. 

With a warm smile, Hartery starts in to answer The Telegram’s 20 Questions.

1. What is your full name?
Latonia Jane Hartery. 

2. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in a hospital in Grand Falls-Windsor, but grew up in Bay d'Espoir.

3. Where do you live today?
St. John’s.

4. What is your favourite place in the world?
Karrat Fjord in Greenland. I use to go there annually but in 2017 there was a massive landslide down of the side of the fjord that caused a 90-metre tsunami (and now people can no longer visit there because it’s a safety risk. It’s just gorgeous, there’s lots of icebergs in this fjord and there are very high mountains, in a way similar to the Torngats. The mountain edges are very jagged on top, so it’s very picturesque, and the weather is always beautiful there, and ice entering the harbour. It’s really stunning.

5. Who do you follow on social media?
I follow archeologists, filmmakers, news outlets and my friends. And a lot of space accounts, too. So astronauts, NASA, and things like that. I’m very interested in astronomy and things about the solar system, and space.

Explorer Dr. Latonia Hartery of Newfoundland and Labrador operates a Zodiac in the Arctic during an expedition.
Explorer Dr. Latonia Hartery of Newfoundland and Labrador operates a Zodiac in the Arctic during an expedition.

6. What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I think it’s that I’m shy. Everybody laughs when I say it because of my profession which involves a lot of public speaking, but it actually takes a lot of effort for me to meet new people, talk to new people and socialize in crowds where I don’t know anybody.

7. What's been your favourite year and why?
Does it have to be one that I have lived in as a person? Because I’ve been reading a lot lately about the years 1833/34 in St. John’s. And those years are very fascinating to me because there is a lot of change in political structure, legal structure of Newfoundland and our city. The layout of the city, the beginning of the building of the Basilica. It’s just a fascinating, fascinating time. 

8. Can you describe one experience that changed your life?
When I was younger, my younger sister died, and I was giving her CPR. And I have felt since that time that I have been living for two people. And what I have learned from that is, now in my life, is to really seize the day, enjoy your life, and have courage.

Be brave to do the things you want to do, just go for it. The other one would be to get things done, because you don’t know when you are going to get that other chance. 

9. What is your greatest indulgence?
I think it’s chocolate and bacon. And if there ever comes a time when someone can find a perfect way to combine the two then, I don’t even know what I’m going to do. My life would be made forever.

10. What is your favourite movie or book?
As a filmmaker it’s hard to have a favourite movie because different movies bring different things into your life, but I’ve always loved “The Shawshank Redemption” because sometimes we think about love or romantic love being between two partners alone, but there is also something that is true love and true friendship, and the interesting thing about this movie is that this real love for one another, this friendship, occurs in a prison. Such a great movie, such great actors

11. What are you reading or watching right now?
I’m reading a book called “Fire Upon the Earth: The Life and Times of Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming” by J.B. Darcy. I’m reading that book because I’m researching for a film I’m making

12. How do you like to relax?
Because my schedule is so busy, I’m travelling a lot, I’m in isolated places quite frequently, that when I relax I just like to be with my family having dinners, sitting, talking, socializing at home or at their house. 

Dr. Latonia Hartery is pictured here at Canada Point, North Baffin Island. — Photo courtesy of David Newland
Dr. Latonia Hartery is pictured here at Canada Point, North Baffin Island. — Photo courtesy of David Newland

13. What is your greatest fear?
The feeling I feel when I walk alone at night. 

14. What is the most interesting thing you have ever found as an archeologist?
It’s not just about one singular thing we find, but how everything we find comes together to tell a story of a people. And I specialize in Dorset culture and one of my sites, for example, even though they are known as seal hunters at some of our sites in Bird Cove, we find a lot of birds, wolves and beavers which shows that when they came from the Arctic to the south, they really expanded their diet, what their diet consisted of, and that is a story of itself.

15. What is your most treasured possession?
A pair of earrings my grandfather made me out of cod fish otoliths. The otoliths are white, and he painted them with a little bit of coral nail polish. He passed away a few years ago at the age of 90. 

16. What physical or personality trait are you most grateful to a parent for?
My father is a pilot who works in the Arctic, so he has nerves of steel and I think luckily, for my line of work, I have inherited those, too. And my mother is really the best person I know. She is very giving and very kind, and I try to emulate her and her behaviour any time I can. 

17. What three people would join you for your dream dinner party?
I think it would be Catherine the Great, Frederica Annis Lopez de Leo de Laguna — the first female archeologist who worked in the Arctic, and Margaret Atwood. These three women have done things much differently than the way people were doing them before, and I admire that a lot.

18. What is your best quality?
I like to be positive as much as I can.

19. What is your worst quality?
Not as bad as it use to be when I was younger, but patience. I’ve had to really learn a lot about patience and the value of it, and the benefits of it and work towards being patient in all aspects of life. 

20. What's your biggest regret?
I don’t have any. Absolutely no regrets. And any mistakes I’ve made I’ve tried to find the quiet and introspective time to figure out what went wrong and be thankful for the learning, the lesson that it taught me and move on from there. It’s the only way to survive.

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