On Wednesday, the Canadian federal government formally apologised for the botched relocation of 19 Inuit families from northern Quebec to the High Arctic communities of Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord in 1953 and 1955, respectively. The apology from new Minister of Indian Affairs John Duncan comes 14 years after a government report acknowledged the government had coerced the exiles to move north under somewhat false pretences and had ill-prepared them for a move to one of the coldest inhabited places on the planet. Afterward, the government established a CDN $10 million trust fund for the families that was so poorly managed that it still does not generate enough money to pay the costs of administering it ($2 million was distributed to survivors of the move in 1995-96). The apology commences a month-long series of events that includes the dedication of memorial monuments in both communities next month. The move was roundly welcomed by local residents, and some measure of closure has been achieved, as a formal apology was long on the list of priorities for the relocated Inuit and their families.
It wasn’t intended to be like this. The move was conceived by the federal government at the turn of 1950s to solve two problems. One issue (the government’s) was the issue of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. Establishing permanent settlements in the High Arctic was seen as a way to strengthen the position of Canada with regard to both Cold War/Distant Early Warning Line posturing and asserting territorial sovereignty in the face of possible expansionism from other countries. The other issue was the living conditions of the Inuit of northern Quebec who lived on the Ungava Peninsula in and around Inukjuak. Having previously thrived for thousands of years hunting and gathering in the region for subsistence, the amount of game available for hunting was no longer sufficient to feed the community; the residents were now collecting welfare payments. The federal government promised the Inuit that settling Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay would give them access to plentiful game and that life would be better. 19 families were relocated from Inukjuak plus three from (relatively) close Pond Inlet to assist the families moving from northern Quebec in adapting to the foreign landscape.
Resolute, 1953. Photo: Gar Lunny/National Film Board Of Canada/ Library And Archives Canada.
Whatever assistance was promised proved to be woefully inadequate. The new villages at Grise Fiord and Resolute were 1 200 km away from Inukjuak in a completely different environment. Rather than the grasses and marshes of northern Quebec roamed by caribou, Grise Fiord and Resolute were in the middle of a cold Arctic desert with harsh topography, few land animals to hunt, constant winter darkness, and temperature 20°C colder than Inukjuak (an average yearly temperature of -16.5°C, and that without the often-deadly windchill). Quite simply, the harshest terrain ever inhabited by humans on a permanent basis. Grise Fiord became North America’s most northerly civilian community. The new residents from the south were forced to completely abandon their traditional hunting patterns while being given no supplies of food, clothing or tenting to help adjust to the conditions. Initial government promises to relocate them back to Quebec if the adjustment proved unsuccessful were ignored. The nearly police detachment forbade them to kill any of the small local musk ox population; residents were reduced to eating bird feathers and making broth from snow boots. The resultant diarrhoea and vomit was used to feed dogs rather than let it go to waste.
Eventually, the new residents learned to adapt to the conditions. They learned to track the migratory patterns of beluga whales over a range of 18,000 km2 each year. Permanent houses, schools, stores and business cooperatives were constructed in the 1960s, followed even by hotels and restaurants as the communities were brought up to speed in the latter part of the 20th century. By the 1980s, the two towns were rather successful by northern standards. Attachments grew so much that when most residents were finally offered the chance to return to Inukjuak in 1989, they refused. While there is definite loyalty to town and country that shines through today, the pain and scars of the brutal conditions they suffered through in the 1950s and 1960s have not gone away. Their story serves as both a warning about human rights, and as an inspiration for the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
For more, watch this terrific feature on Grise Fiord from 2006 by the CBC.
Chai, C. (2010). Government apologizes to 22 Inuit families. Montreal Gazette, 18 August 2010. Available at http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Government+apologizes+Inuit+families/3413735/story.html. Accessed 19 August 2010.
Dussault, R. and G. Erasmus (1994). The High Arctic Relocation: A Report on the 1953-55 Relocation. Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
George, J. (2010). Canada says sorry to High Arctic exiles. NunatsiaqOnline, 18 August 2010. Available at http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/1808101_canada_says_its_sorry_to_the_high_arctic_exiles/. Accessed 19 August 2010.
James, M. (2008). Wrestling with the Past: Apologies, Quasi-Apologies and Non-Apologies in Canada. In M. Gibney et al. (eds.), The Age of Apology: Facing up to the Past. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
McGrath, M.(2007). The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic. New York; Alfred A. Knopf.
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (2010). Arctic Exile Monument Project. Available at http://www.tunngavik.com/current-initiatives/arctic-exile-monument-project/. Accessed 19 August 2010.