Two new books ask, “Are we still in the same world?”
He had the Eskimos to help him — Nanook and three others: Wetaltook, Tookalook, and Little Tommy. They did everything for him. They brought water for developing the film, chiseling six feet down through river ice and bringing it in barrels sloshing with ice and deer hair that fell into it from their fur clothing. They strained it and heated it. They built a drying reel out of driftwood, combing the coastline for miles to pick up enough wood to finish it. When Bob’s little electric light plant failed to give a light steady enough for printing, they blacked out a window all but a bit the size of a single motion-picture frame, and through this slot Bob printed his film, frame by frame, by the light of the low arctic sun.

Reality never impinges on Flaherty’s Nanook; his “kindly, brave, simple Eskimo” is a man in perfect harmony with his world. We see warm shining faces framed by luxuriant fur, deep clear pools of water from which fat fish leap. Much silent laughter. We can only imagine the mournful yowling of the dogs and the incessant hammering of one of the coldest winds on Earth.

By the early 1950s, Robert Flaherty’s son Josephie and the community of Inukjuak in which he lived were utterly dependent upon the qalunaat, the white man. Instead of hunting for food, the Inuit mostly hunted for white fox and were paid in Hudson’s Bay store credits. Their settlements were no longer nomadic and farflung, but close to white communities, which by this time consisted of fur traders and factories, an rcmp constable, a nurse, a teacher, and staff for the joint US/Canada meteorological and radiosonde stations; Josephie was the chore boy for the radiosonde station. Missionaries and priests and senior bureaucrats came through regularly on the supply ship C. D. Howe. This proximity brought changes in living habits and diet, greater exposure to diseases like polio and tuberculosis, and a reliance on welfare in years when the price for furs was low or food sources were threatened. The Inuit had fallen under the purview of the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources. They were known individually only by numbers until 1960 (Josephie was simply e9701) and were referred to collectively as the Eskimo Problem.

In 1953, the Department of Northern Affairs decided to relocate seven Inukjuamiut families from Inukjuak to the High Arctic; the stated rationale was to alleviate the pressures of dependency. There was a history of shuttling the Inuit around in their forbidding landscape, but underlying this essentially bureaucratic response to what were, in many cases, terrible conditions was an ingrained racism. The Inuit (the meaning of the word is simply “the people”) were not treated as people. They were a problem for which there had to be a solution. In this case, the welfare solution (returning Nanook to his real North) happened to coincide with larger strategic considerations (politicians wanted a Canadian presence in the High Arctic).

The Inuit were not consulted. Thirty-three people (chosen or who “volunteered”) were loaded onto the C. D. Howe with their motley possessions, including sled dogs not bred for the region and kayaks too flimsy for the heavier northern ice. Many of the promised and essential supplies and provisions never arrived at either Resolute Bay or Grise Fiord, where the families, arbitrarily divided, ended up. The Inuit were seen as returning to their traditional way of life but made to live in campsites chosen by their white overseers, close — but not too close — to an rcmp detachment. They were to hunt and fish in the traditional ways, except that there were rules and penalties: no muskox could be hunted at all, and the constable decided how many caribou could be shot.

From the government’s perspective, this exercise was merely a relocation — logistics to be dealt with as they arose — and for the most part, damn successful. For the Inuit, this was a cruel exile from their families and their homeland, banishment to a foreign, dark land — dark meaning a place where the sun never rises for the four coldest months of the year. Even those white men with long experience in the Arctic and a genuine if paternalistic affection for the Inuit did not grasp, apparently, that a move from Ungava to Ellesmere Island was like a move from Toronto to Timbuktu.

Melanie McGrath’s book The Long Exile is a compassionate, absorbing account of this exercise from the Inuit perspective. This British journalist spent time, in spring and summer, in both the Barrens and the High Arctic communities of Resolute and Grise Fiord. She took considerable effort to understand the subtleties of the Arctic seasons and landscapes, to hear the lament of the softspoken Inuit and to imagine — in detail worthy of Flaherty — their fear, their despair, and the shock of being deposited in a vast, vacant place (empty, because unknown) and being expected to just start hunting.

The intentions of the Department may have been honourable, but the relocation was surely a travesty in its execution, mostly by rcmp constables — a travesty of ignorance, indifference, and deceit. It was meant to be a volunteer process; it was at best a profound cultural misunderstanding. At worst? More of a cull, a coercion of language and power.

Canadians did hear relocation stories, from the 1950s in the passionate, enraged books of Farley Mowat, and then in a more cautious forum, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the early 1990s. The Commission concluded in 1994 that the relocation was not done because limited game resources were causing dependency but, put bluntly:

“The concern was with the ability of the fur trade to sustain the income levels to which the Inukjuak Inuit had become accustomed. . . . It was recognized in the Department that the cyclical nature of hunting could and did lead to periodic famine and starvation. This was considered to be the natural state for the Inuit. The goal of the relocation was to restore the Inuit to what was considered to be their proper state. . . . Moreover, many Inuit were kept in the High Arctic for many years against their will when the government refused to respond to their requests to return.”

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