Land of the lost
- Land of the lost
By PETER WORTHINGTON, SUN MEDIA
Last Updated: 6th December 2009, 5:02am
The relocation of the Inuit (in the early 1950s) to Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord is a horror story that is unmatched in Canadian history
The settling of Grise Fiord, one of the most shameful events in Canadian history, was back in the news this past week.
There's no question the relocation of the Inuit (in those days they were "Eskimo," which they still are in Alaska) to Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord is a horror story that is unmatched in Canada.
Some 87 families, comprising 250 Inuit, were dumped into cruel conditions throughout the High Arctic -- eight of these families at Grise Fiord -- in an attempt to establish Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic.
Paul Watson, the Toronto Star's Arctic correspondent (a first for the Star and Canada), had an article the other day lamenting how the Inuit were used as "human flagpoles." In 1992, over 17 years before the Star and Watson discovered the relocation of the Inuit, Sun photographer Veroncia Henri and I were sent to write about Canada Day -- July 1 -- at Grise Fiord, the most northerly settlement (150 people) in North America.
Grise Fiord is 1,200 km north of the Arctic Circle on Ellesmere Island. Grise Fiord is Norwegian for "Pig Inlet." Its Inuit name is Aujuittuq, which means "place that never thaws." While there, we discovered and visited the old settlement where the Inuit were relocated in 1953. Even 40 years later, it was horrific.
I don't know if the camp site still exists, or if Watson visited it. Certainly the Star ran no photos, as the Sun did of the site. It was a 30-minute snowmobile ride across the bay from Grise Fiord. The sea ice was still six feet deep on July 1. Our Inuit guide, Ray Mercredi, gloomily recalled the history.
The poor Inuit families were dropped off by the Coast Guard vessel C.D. Howe. They were housed in tents and the site was still strewn with rotting canvas. Crumbled shacks were made from packing cases. Rusted oil lamps, a bullet-riddled washing machine, a rotted shoe, complete with metal clicker on the heel, animal bones, were mute testimony to hardship. An Arctic gulag.
To me, it was comparable to the forced relocation the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin imposed on the Chechen-Ingush, Crimean Tartars, Volga Germans, Kalmyks and other minorities that earned him the title of "nation-killer." How could the Inuit families survive the -40 degree winter temperature in tents, with the Arctic wind a constant harassment on a 100-metre strip of land? Talking to local Inuit, their survival likely hinged on the RCMP based at Craig Harbour, a day's travel down the coast. Mounties took it upon themselves to visit and even bring food and limited medical attention to the exiles -- for which there had been no advance planning.
While Arctic sovereignty was an issue, a motive for relocating the Inuit was economic. They were from the Ungava region around Hudson Bay, where it was felt there were too many people to sustain the hunting of caribou, moose, etc.
Ottawa "experts" who dreamed up relocation were apparently unaware that all Inuit are not the same. Ungava Inuit had no experience in the High Arctic of muskox, walrus and whales. Grise Fiord's environment was maritime, and the new arrivals had no skill in harpooning Beluga whales.
Were it not for the humanitarian efforts of Mounties, the eight families might well have died on the ice that first winter.
Inuit we chatted with at Grise Fiord were resigned. Bitterness may have endured, but they were now re-adjusted. Later, the federal government put aside $10 million to atone for the relocation, which though voluntary, was based on lies about a land of plenty and the promise they could return home if they didn't like Grise Fiord.
Apparently, a memorial for the relocation is planned. Some hope Prime Minister Stephen Harper will attend in the summer and apologize on behalf of the government for the misguided policy.
The time for apologies seems long past. Regrets, maybe, but Grise Fiord is now a thriving community. When Veronica and I were there, it had a new community centre with medical and dental facilities, but no doctor or dentist. It had a modern power plant capable of serving a small city. The community had just won a struggle to keep an RCMP officer in Grise Fiord, who didn't have much crime to deal with but who was essential as the only independent adjudicator for disputes.
One hopes there is still an RCMP presence in Grise Fiord -- reputed to be the safest, most crime-free community in North America.
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