The High Arctic Relocation

THE FIRST public act of Canada’s Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, John Duncan, came today in the form of an apology to the nineteen Inuit families of Inukjuak and the three of Pond Inlet relocated to the barren landscapes of Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord, on Cornwallis and Ellesmere Islands, respectively, in 1953.

One today commonly refers to this region as “the northernmost inhabited part of Canada,” Cape Columbia being the northernmost point on the map of Canada. However, during the Cold War, when these eighty-nine Inuit were taken on a 2,000 km journey (the trip was shorter for the Pond Inlet residents, relocated to assist the southern Inuit in adjusting to their new life) and then unceremoniously divided up and abandoned to an entirely foreign ecosystem in their ill-adapted clothing, the United States and Greenland had at least as much substantive claim to the territory, if not more.

This detail matters because since the 1980s, when the Inuit initiated their claim against the Canadian government, a stumbling block of negotiations toward a proper settlement has been the suggestion that the relocation was part of an effort to assert Canada’s sovereignty over the “High Arctic.” Arctic Sovereignty is a pressing matter for the Canadian government of our own day, and would have been in the 1950s, when the menacing prospect of Soviet encroachment in the North constituted something beyond a political and economic challenge. It was the Communists after all that drove the Canadian military north in the first place, and many Inuit living today went from tundra to TV, and caribou to cash, within a decade — most never having seen a white man or a dollar bill until the trucks rolled in. Few are the Canadians who have even tried to imagine the trauma doubtless brought on by this sort of encounter, and the truth in any case is that they couldn’t do it.

Canada’s position has always been that the 1953/’55 relocations were a well-intentioned solution to over-crowding, the decline of hunting, and welfare dependency in Inukjuak. (It’s odd to think a place named Giant in Inuktitut would be overcrowded.) Today’s Government apology reiterates the official position that the move had nothing to do with concerns over Arctic Sovereignty, hedging the matter by stating that the “Government of Canada recognizes that these communities have contributed to a strong Canadian presence in the High Arctic.” Those relocated however believe that, in addition to the physical and emotional suffering brought upon them by a poorly conceived and badly executed policy, lies the ironic insult of having been exploited by a Government eager to claim an uninhabited region of the North as its Sovereign Domain. If the claim is true, then the blows do fall rather below the belt. It means that the pointless and avoidable suffering of these individuals was all for the benefit of a colonizing power contemptuous of “its” indigenous people.

The Government’s claims raise many objections, among them the odd choice of destination and the all-too-convenient coincidence of the timing and geographical placement of the families with the evident Government agenda at the time. At the very least, Government officials would have been aware of the nice convenience of having preemptively populated contested land with individuals they could claim belong there anyway. The for-your-own-good line is a familiar convention, a self-serving trope brought out for public consumption on those frequent occasions when Government wants to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of having it both ways. Those who pay careful attention to language will notice that even the name of the department, “Indian Affairs and Northern Development,” is a contradiction as well as a confession.

I have further cause to doubt the Government’s position. The relocation is portrayed in two films, Marquise Lepage’s “Martha of the North” and Zacharias Kunuk’s “Exile.” As it happens, I know the Martha in question, and I knew her when only a few years ago she learned herself the reason why her family had been chosen to be among those moved across a continent. (Around that time I had lunch with her and Zacharias Kunuk in Iqaluit.) You will have to wait for the book she is writing to learn that, but let it suffice that her own relocation was not for the reasons given by Government. And so in at least one case I am certain the official version is wrong, from which it follows that today at least one person has received no more than one-half an apology.

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