High Arctic Relocation: When The Canadian Govt Forcibly Relocated Inuit to Claim Sovereignty in The High Arctic

Apr 30, 2021 2 comments

In the summer of 1953, the Canadian government uprooted seven Inuit families from their homes in Northern Quebec, and dropped them high in the arctic, some 2,000 km away, with the promise of better living and hunting opportunities, and with the assurance that if things didn’t work out, they could return home after two years. But promises were broken. For decades, the relocated Inuit families suffered immense hardship, fighting extreme cold, hunger and sickness, yet unable to escape because they were so far away.

The Canadian government claimed that the relocation was a humanitarian gesture to assist the starving indigenous people and help them continue a subsistence lifestyle. In reality, it was an attempt by the government to assert sovereignty in the High Arctic during the Cold War.

A family from Pond Inlet on board the C.D. HOWE at Grise Fiord

A family from Pond Inlet on board the C.D. HOWE at Grise Fiord. Photo: Health Canada/Library and Archives Canada

The families chosen for the relocation were those receiving welfare support from the government. The actual method of recruitment is disputed, but the government asserts that the families had agreed to participate in the program voluntarily to reduce areas of perceived overpopulation and poor hunting, to reduce their dependency on welfare, and to resume a subsistence lifestyle. The Inuit, on the other hand, maintain that the relocation was forced and their life in Inukjuak in Nunavik was more than satisfactory. Inukjuak was a significant regional center at the time with a population of about 500. There was a police post, a weather and radio station, a harbor, a general store, a school, a nursing station, and church missions. It was also a traditional Inuit hunting and fishing area.

A total of ten families were relocated—seven from Inukjuak and three from the community of Pond Inlet in Baffin Island, situated further north. The purpose of the Pond Inlet families was to teach the Inukjuak Inuit skills for survival in the High Arctic. The families were split into two groups destined for two different settlements, but this fact was kept secret from the families until they had boarded the ship. Four Inukjuak families and two Pond Inlet families, totaling 32 people, went to Craig Harbour on Ellesmere Island. They later migrated to Grise Fiord about 35 miles west. Three Inukjuak families and one Pond Inlet family, totaling 22 people, were moved to Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island, a small outpost with a weather station and an airstrip. In 1955, the relocatees were joined by a further six families, four from Inukjuak and two from Pond Inlet. One Inukjuak family went to Craig Harbour, while the rest went to Resolute Bay.

High Arctic Relocation

When the families arrived on Craig Harbour, they struggled to survive in a completely new environment. The land was barren with no buildings and very little familiar wildlife. They had to endure months of total darkness during winter, and twenty-four hours of daylight during summer, a condition they were unaccustomed to.

“My parents, I know, felt trapped for many years," recalls Larry Audlaluk, who was two years old when he and his family was deposited in the remote island.

“It was awful for them. They had to learn to get ready for the dark season and they had to learn to get ready for very short warm sunny days, with very few vegetation in the land,” says Audlaluk.

In northern Quebec, Audlaluk's family ate cloudberries, Canada geese and Eider ducks. None of these were available on Ellesmere Island.

“My family, the older generation, were used to having lots of different kinds of birds and then shore creatures like clams and oysters,” says Audlaluk. “There were none here.”

Larry Audlaluk,

Larry Audlaluk, age 7 or 8, at his new home on Lindstrom Peninsula on Ellesmere Island. Photo: Larry Audlaluk

The relocation had such a profound psychological impact on Audlaluk’s father, a once outgoing man, that he became quiet and withdrawn and began to have fainting spells. He died ten months later.

Eventually, the Inuit discovered the local beluga whale migration routes and were able to survive by hunting and eating whale meat.

It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s, that those displaced got the chance to return to their ancestral home, often at their own expense. The descendants initiated a claim against the Canadian Government seeking $10 million in compensation. With mounting public pressure the government agreed to assist the Inuit to return to the south, and also put $10 million in a trust fund for relocated individuals and their families. Initially, the government refused to apologize, but in 2010, after more than fifty years, John Duncan, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, offered a formal apology on behalf of the government, stating:

The Government of Canada deeply regrets the mistakes and broken promises of this dark chapter of our history and apologizes for the High Arctic relocation having taken place.  We would like to pay tribute to the relocatees for their perseverance and courage.  Despite the suffering and hardship, the relocatees and their descendants were successful in building vibrant communities in Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay.  The Government of Canada recognizes that these communities have contributed to a strong Canadian presence in the High Arctic.

The relocation of Inuit families to the High Arctic is a tragic chapter in Canada's history that we should not forget, but that we must acknowledge, learn from and teach our children. Acknowledging our shared history allows us to move forward in partnership and in a spirit of reconciliation.

Inuit houses in Resolute Bay, as they existed in 1956

Inuit houses in Resolute Bay, as they existed in 1956. Photo: Gar Lunney/National Film Board of Canada

In 2010, local artists Looty Pijamini from Grise Fiord, and Simeonie Amagoalik from Resolute Bay were commissioned by Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated to build a monument to commemorate the Inuit who sacrificed so much as a result of the Government relocation of 1953 and 1955. Pijamini's monument, located in Grise Fiord, depicts a woman with a young boy and a husky, with the woman sombrely looking out towards Resolute Bay. Amagoalik's monument, located in Resolute, depicts a lone man looking towards Grise Fiord. This was meant to show separated families, and depicting them longing to see each other again.

Looty Pijamini’s monument to the first Inuit settlers in Grise Fiord.

Looty Pijamini’s monument to the first Inuit settlers in Grise Fiord. Photo: Timkal/Wikimedia Commons

Resolute Bay

Resolute Bay today. Photo: Dave Brosha/Wikimedia Commons

Grise Fiord

Grise Fiord. Photo: Northern Pix/Flickr

References:
# Jane Sponagle, 'We called it 'Prison Island': Inuk man remembers forced relocation to Grise Fiord, CBC
# Dussault, RenĂ©; Erasmus, George (1994). The High Arctic Relocation: A Report on the 1953–55 Relocation,
# Apology for the Inuit High Arctic relocation, Govt of Canada

Comments

  1. I don't get the "attempt by the government to assert sovereignty in the High Arctic during the Cold War." If you only move a few families out of a population of 500?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I can't imagine living like that. I'd be like that one man who died after ten months..

    ReplyDelete

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