Why Does Anyone Live in Resolute?—A Canadian Atrocity
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Canadian Film Society Documentary on the relocations https://www.nfb.ca/film/broken_promises_-_the_high_arctic_relocation/
My main source: http://pubs.aina.ucalgary.ca/dcass/82785.pdf
The full apology: https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100016115/1534786491628
Resolute is one of the northernmost continuously occupied settlements in the world. The average temperature only peaks above freezing for July and August and the sun doesn’t come up for four months in the winter. Agriculture is impossible. Who would willingly settle in such a place? The answer is, nobody. I’m Peter McGuire and this is my unlikely explanation.
I should clarify. The Inuit sent north to Resolute and its sister colony Grise Fiord went willingly but under false pretenses. They also had—or quickly developed—a dependency on agents of the Canadian government which makes it hard to determine exactly how willing the participants were. These questions have present-day consequences. Some still feel that The Relocated have not been properly compensated for the hardships they endured. So, why were Inuit sent to the high arctic? It takes some explaining I’m afraid. But first, context.
European colonizers of the Americas used conflicting policies to exploit American Indians, alternating between encouraging assimilation and exaggerating conflict to whittle away at the few rights European systems granted them. It’s the same strategy that European Christians used to exploit Jews for millennia. These statements might be controversial from a political perspective, but the historical record is very clear. We can argue about what to do about these facts but we have a duty to confront them, even if it makes us uncomfortable. History has a way of butting up into politics. It’s because we live in a hand-me-down world. We inhabit societies that predate us and occupy social structures that we didn’t create. One of those structures is the law. Despite the huge diversity of what is considered ethically right across cultures and times, all peoples have notions of fair and unfair ways to treat people and a system—often flawed—for demanding justice. Every society has codes for how they treat others of their society and how they treat outsiders.
Europeans who arrived in the Americas came from societies with complex systems of land rights that involved laws and contracts and treaties and these codes were a crucial part of their idea of fairness. These were also their tools for legitimizing their conquest of the Americas. They were as incomprehensible to the American Indians as American social structures were to Europeans. Increasing evidence has suggested that American Indians had complex and extensive settlements throughout the continental U.S. and their weapons and military tactics were comparable in effectiveness to the Europeans. The American Indians found Europeans as weak and child-like as the Europeans found them. Those who suggest that the American conquest was a forgone conclusion haven’t appreciated how much luck and failure early European adventurers experienced. American Indians actually were successful in throwing back Europeans in many confrontations where that was their goal. But what began as a stupidly lucky conquest of Mexico and an utterly tenacious colony on the Chesapeake bay—with the help of an epidemic the likes of which humanity had never seen before—became an unstoppable machine of laws, contracts and treaties, as well as of guns, germs and steel, and European societies conquered the continents. I live in Colorado and I can attest, it’s very uncomfortable to study how Colorado was settled. I was initially defensive when I started learning the history of my state because anyone with eyes and a heart can look at it and say, this land was not taken in a fair way. And that brings into question my own legitimacy in living here, as a product of white, western society. It can be a very emotional topic and a legally precarious one because, even though we can point to the laws and treaties that say we have a right to be here, there is that nagging worry that if the conquest was so unjust, how can I claim to have the right to live here?
But if I’m going to talk about the history of Colorado, I have to confront these facts because they are that: facts. There are bones under the battlefields of Colorado and they are not just the bones of brave warriors, they are the bones of old men, women, and children, shot down in their tents. These facts are embedded into the ground I walk on. Where we go from here, what we do about it, that is a matter of politics. But regardless of whether we ignore it or confront it, the record is clear and the past is the past.
These are the topics I want to discuss today: legitimacy, fairness, and how politics confronts the past.
The events I’ve just mentioned happened between a hundred and five hundred years ago. I find that somewhat hard to relate to. It was a time when mainstream science considered some races to be lesser than others. It was a time when empire was considered a good thing. Europe and the world underwent a huge shift in world war two and the allies emerged with a much different view of their own empires. So, I’m going to talk about something that happened after Canada gained legislative independence in 1931. After the Irish declared themselves a free state in 37. Even after Indian independence in 47. This happened in the ’50s, still a time of hubris but also of essentially modern ideas about race and culture. Plus, it has a twist, the Canadian government used Inuit to colonize formerly Inuit lands.
I knew about the horrors of the American conquest and I was also aware of how Australian society subdued and undermined aboriginal Australian society. But I was not aware until I started researching polar exploration, that Canada has a particularly contentious and late contribution to the mistreatment of aboriginal populations. In nineteen fifty-three, authorities in the Canadian government embarked on a social experiment that separated families and actively harmed its participants, largely because of the government’s high-handedness and cultural incomprehension. It’s a case study in what colonization looks like in the post-WWII world, motivated by many of the same impulses that colonization had for the previous half millennium, but perpetrated by a society that really should have known better. Here’s what happened:
In nineteen fifty-three, the Canadian government relocated seven families from Northern Quebec to the high arctic, creating the northernmost settlements in the Americas, and did not provide a way for them to return to their former communities as promised. Those are the facts that even the most defensive appraisal can’t dispute. In 2010, the Canadian government admitted that this experiment was marked by “mistakes and broken promises.” To understand why this happened, we need some more context.
And, before I forget, let me explain the nomenclature real quick. In my north pole podcast, I said “inuits” a few times to pluralize Inuit. That’s wrong because Inuit is already plural. They are the Inuk people and Inuk means “the people”. The people who live in the arctic had no term for arctic peoples in general, so Westerners generalized them as Eskimo. So, Eskimo remains that accepted term for talking about native polar peoples and Inuk or Inuit refers to a specific culture that lives in northern Canada. The Inuit of Greenland prefer the term Greenlander. There are related people living in Alaska, Siberia, and Northern Scandinavia. There is similar reasoning as to why I’m calling the peoples of America the American Indians. They themselves had no term for Americans in general and the Europeans called them Indians after Columbus’ mistake long, long after it became clear that the Caribbean islands were not in fact the Indies. The terms “American”, “Indian,” and “native,” are all historically and geographically inexact, so I’m following the consensus of today, which is “American Indian.” I have no doubt that this terminology will one day be obsolete.
The Inuk people came to Canada starting in 1000 CE and it appears they reached the east coast right around the same time the Norse. Anthropologists refer to the proto-Inuit culture as the Thule people. The term Thule comes from an ancient Greek term for the island furthest north in the world, which came to be the name of an island off of Greenland, which is where Thule artifacts were first discovered. The Thule spread out from the area around Alaska, across Canada, and into an area formerly occupied by the Dorset people, an area that is now the north and east coasts of Canada. It might be worth pulling up google earth or looking at a globe for this episode because you’re probably used to seeing this area on maps and virtually all mapping projections warp this area. On a globe, you can see that the shortest path took the Thule from Alaska, along the north coast, into Nunavut and the arctic islands, eventually reaching Greenland. You can also see how Norse, island hopping from Iceland, would also end up in this area by taking the shortest path. It is very peculiar to note that there’s no evidence of cultural OR genetic mixing between the Dorset people and the Thule people who replaced them. Seemingly the Dorset died out before the Thule arrived. A possible explanation for this is climate change. The Dorset developed their hunting and living techniques in a time when the arctic was relatively cold. Starting around 900 CE, the Earth went through a period of warming called the Medieval Warm Period. This perhaps made the climate more similar to the Alaskan climate that the Thule developed in. It’s also worth noting that the Dorset did not have dogs. The Thule used dogs for travel and hunting, which conferred a huge survival advantage and influenced their culture, which accentuates the differences between them in the archeological record. The Warm Period also allowed the Norse to expand north into Iceland, then the southern and western short of Greeland, and finally Baffin island and the Canadian mainland, an area they called Vinland. It’s also worth noting that the Norse also had virtually no effect on Thule culture or genes. What interactions they had with Medieval Europe were apparently brief and superficial. As they enter written history, we can start referring to the Thule as the Inuk.
The Inuk historically lived semi-nomadically, usually moving between a few different sites throughout the year. They were a primarily maritime people and you can see that in the way they spread, hugging the north coast of Canada and spreading across the islands. Unlike most hunter-gatherer people, the Inuk diet was predominantly animal-based, things like seal, musk-ox, fish and shellfish. As much as 75% of their caloric intake was fat. This is predominantly because they lived north of the arctic tree line where plant growth is sparse. You can see this on the map too: the Inuk stopped southern expansion when they ran into the First Nations people of the great lakes and northeast coast of the U.S., who relied on more settled and agricultural survival strategies. There is an Inuk saying that “The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.” A benefit of this reliance on animal meat is that it provides a source of Vitamin C during the long, dark winters. They hunted in kayaks and animal-skin rafts. It’s possible that the first Americans used just such rafts to reach the north pacific coast from Beringia, where trees were scarce but game was common. They lived closely with their dogs, sleeping, hunting and traveling together. They created intricate stone tools, expressed themselves with wooden carving and song, and conquered the north from Alaska to Greenland.
You can see how a period of global warming allowed the Inuk to prosper. You can then imagine how global cooling affected this predominantly maritime people. It is a fact of geography that at the same latitude, Alaska and Scandinavia are much warmer than Canada. This is a result of the direction of the sea currents and the influence of Hudson Bay. The huge, shallow inland sea acts as a cool sink. For the period lasting from roughly 1300 to 1850 CE, the Earth cooled. In Europe, harvests shrank and the hunger caused unprecedented political disruption that forged much of modern Western culture and pushed Europeans to the sea to find new places to live. For the Norse, the far-flung colonies of Vinland and Greenland could no longer be sustained. The last Greenland sites were abandoned in the 1400s. For the Inuk, much of their former territory became uninhabitable. The seas froze around the northern islands of Canada, and the Inuk were forced south. Ellesmere Island, which runs alongside northern Greenland, was finally abandoned in the 1500s. The little ice age ended transatlantic contact, but only for about a century.
Canadian colonization had a slightly different character than U.S. colonization but there is obviously a lot of overlap as geographically contiguous colonies of the British Empire. But initial native interaction with Europe in Canada and around the great lakes area was with the french and dutch, who took a hands-off policy compared to other colonizers. Their interest was predominantly in trade rather than production, like the Spanish, or land, like the English. Exploitation was still the main goal, but they saw the American Indians more as partners in that quest than other Europeans did. Even after Britain took over the dutch and french possessions of North America in a conflict that British colonists called the French and Indian War, the sparsely populated far north continued to be administered by a laissez-faire combination of private companies, religious missions and, increasingly, military outposts. Generally speaking, religious missions provided most of what we consider public services, things like education and healthcare, while the Hudson’s Bay Company traded furs for common goods like cigarettes, tools, and supplementary food, often with the intermediary form of company credit. In fact, they invented a de-facto currency called MB, Made Beaver, worth one prepared adult male beaver pelt. Prices were written in MBs. During the 20th century, many more military bases, mostly American, were founded in Inuk-occupied areas, and Inuk communities came increasingly to congregate around military presences because they made acquiring goods easier. Over time, these communities became more and more reliant on settled society and began to integrate with Canadian society. The resulting pattern is the same you see over and over again in history: they took jobs at the bottom and edges of society, living partly on assistance and party on temporary manual labor for men and temporary domestic work for women. By the nineteen fifties, many formerly nomadic Inuit formed an impoverished, uneducated, dependant class on the edge of Canadian society, prone to unemployment, illness, poverty, and crime. They had become the quote “Eskimo problem”.
In 1952 a committee was called that involved all of the interested parties: the northern
administration, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the churches, the Hudson's Bay Company, and the National Health and Welfare administration. Notably, no Inuit were invited. It was thought that the language and cultural barriers would make their input more troublesome than helpful. It was ultimately decided that the least expensive and most helpful course of action would be to resettle some Inuit in their quote “native way of life” further north, where wildlife surveys had determined that game would be more plentiful and the distance from settled society would produce a more independent and natural way of life.
There were also concerns coming from both the American and Canadian state departments that Canada was losing its sovereignty over the high arctic. Sovereignty refers to who has rights over land. We live in a world with remarkably clear borders, but through much of human history, countries overlapped or had conflicting claims or intermingled on the edges. I’ve heard a very simple way to determine who has control over a piece of land: it’s who the local people pay taxes to. Everybody reports to somebody. But what about places where people don’t live or live in very sporadically? In those cases, the international community looks to treaties between powers and who can enforce laws in the area. In the high arctic, the only real laws that needed enforcing were hunting and fishing laws. So, the Canadian government had set up mounted police outposts throughout the north staffed by skeleton crews to enforce the rule of law.
Concern had come from American state departments that most of the bases and men living in the high north were American. In World War Two, many air bases were constructed in the high north, and in the cold war that followed, the U.S. Air Force flew air missions to deter Soviet incursions. It’s a fact that our maps obscure, but the quickest way to get a nuke from U.S. territory to Soviet territory and vice versa was to send it over across the top of the globe, across the arctic. Concerns that the north was becoming too American led the Canadian government to pursue a policy of “Canadianization”, where the U.S. would hand over control and operation of certain military outposts to Canadian administration. This process was proceeding much slower than expected, mostly due to budget issues.
Besides security and sovereignty, the Canadian government had a strong economic incentive to keep their rights to the north current. Increasingly, geological surveys were revealing vast deposits of untapped natural resources. Canada wanted those profits for itself.
So, the Canadian government had two problems with one obvious solution. How could it get the Inuit off of government assistance and assert Canadian claims over the arctic? You guessed it, the answer was to relocate Inuk communities further north. In the aftermath of all this, motives became a key issue in assigning blame. Many people felt that if Inuit were indeed primarily acting as agents of the Canadian government tasked with defending sovereignty, then they should be compensated for their service to the state. An initial report claimed that protection of sovereignty was not a primary motive. This interpretation has been disputed by many subsequent reports. But the bottom line is this, even if sovereignty wasn’t a main motive to move Inuit north, it was the reason why Inuit were sent SO far north. And being SO far north caused the majority of their hardship.
Seven families were recruited from Inukjuak, then called Port Harrison, with promises of an easier life in a place with abundant hunting and a freer lifestyle. They were accompanied by three families from Pond Inlet, an Inuk community much further north, with the assumption that the more northerly Inuit would teach the more southerly ones how to survive. By the way, Inukjuak is the region where the 1922 film Nanook of the North was filmed. You might have heard of that film, it’s considered one of the first documentaries and ethnographic films. The filmmaker falsified many parts of it to make the Inuk seem more true-to-history (true to his conception of their history, that is) but for our purposes, it’s useful because it conjures up images of what is considered a traditional sort of climate for Inuit. Temperatures in Inukjuak range from negative twenty in the winter to fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. In the winter, sunlight goes down to just one hour a day. The diet traditionally consists of various wild leafy plants, migrating animals, and seafood including fish, shellfish, and seal. It is located around 56 and a half degrees north.
Resolute and Grise Fiord are much less hospitable. The literal translations of the Inuit-language names of these places are, “place with no dawn” and “place that never thaws” respectively. Grise Fiord is about twenty degrees north of Inukjuak, a distance of twelve hundred miles. It is on the southern tip of Ellesmere Island, which as I mentioned, had former Inuk settlements on it. They had been abandoned 500 years earlier due to the cold. The families were transported by boat along with their dogs for six long weeks in cramped quarters, living on little more than hardtack and tea. One woman gave birth along the journey, although this was considered somewhat fortunate as she was able to receive better care than was available in Inukjuak or Grise Fiord.
They were given inadequate and low-quality supplies due to issues of timing and budget, and when they would alter their supplies—for example adding material to make their socks higher—they were shamed for being wasteful and not following regulations. Despite the warnings from several planners involved in this operation, no wooden buildings had been built to support the new arrivals. Instead, they were given flimsy tents to live in. The first year, there was too little snow to build proper igloos, so they lived in their tents which they reinforced with buffalo hides they had been given for blankets. The hides kept the tents warm, but blocked out all sunlight, forcing them to choose between cold and darkness. Their traditional sources of food were nowhere to be found. There were no leafy plants, no open water, and there were strict regulations imposed on caribou and musk ox hunting. The fur-trapping season was coming to an end which was virtually their only source of income. Getting furs to trade for supplies would be a dicey strategy anyway because supplies had been marked up in price considerably to discourage Inuit from taking the easy way out and living off of the police supplies. Besides this, more supplies wouldn’t arrive for a year, so they had to be rationed. The Inuk did what they could to set up camp before winter. The sun set in November. It rose again in February. The Inuit from Inukjuak had never seen anything like it.
One Inuk man recalled, quote, “We sometimes would wait for hours by a fox turd thinking it was a seal breathing hole because it was so dark. After waiting for some time we would touch the hole and discover that we had touched a fox turd.” It sounds somewhat comical but imagine the disappointment when you’re living right on the edge of starvation, hunting in the dark.
The relocation project, or “experiment” as it was called, would have ended in brutal starvation that first winter of 1953 if not for the herculean efforts of the mounted police. The constables stationed near these new settlements had knowledge of Inuit language and customs and familiarity with the local wildlife patterns. Despite receiving no extra supplies, the mounted police shared food, fuel, wood, and tools to help the displaced Inuit survive the harsh winter. Motivated by little more than kindness and a sense of duty, with no instructions or support from relocation authorities, the police worked tirelessly to help the Inuk adapt. For their trouble, they received harsh criticism from their superiors for interfering in the Inuk quote “way of life” and undermining the project of making the Inuk independent. As late as 1990, the mounted police were blamed for the failure of the relocation project. If not for the police support, this would be a much darker story, more similar to stories of soviet relocations. Instead, everyone survived the first winter.
But the unnecessary hardships did not end there. The Inuit were not told ahead of time that they would be split between the two settlement locations and extended families were split. In fact, there was yet another location further north which couldn’t be reached due to ice conditions. Had they gotten through the ice, it surely would have been a death sentence. Despite numerous requests by constables working to save the Inuk communities, the northern administration maintained a hard line on segregating Inuk from the white settlements. For example, policy stated that Inuit were not allowed to scavenge the refuse dumps near the bases even though they were the only source of wood and sometimes food available. This policy apparently derives from a paternalistic attitude towards the new communities: that although it was hard to be cruel, the government needed to cut off as much assistance as possible to allow the Inuk to return to their “native way of life”. Of course, these conditions were not native to the Inuk way of life. Virtually no one spent winter that far north. This was a far harsher and scarcer environment to survive in. The Inuk had been dumped in an inhospitable wasteland without any of the supplies or training afforded to their white counterparts who had also been stationed in the region. It isn’t hard to see how animosity quickly grew.
While they were fighting for their survival, these communities were further taken advantage of. There was a strong sentiment amongst the politicians responsible that the “Eskimo experiment” should pay for itself. The Eskimo Loan Fund was created to pay for transportation and supplies and it was expected that Inuk work would pay it back and be used to secure future supplies. It quickly became clear that there was very little labor that Inuit could provide on base that didn’t interfere with their own hunting and trapping activities so that possible revenue stream was dropped from the plans. The Inuk would hand over the furs they collected along with quilts and figurines in exchange for a set price determined by the administration. These credits went into the Eskimo Loan Fund and were ostensibly used to purchase supplies for the stores the following year. The furs would then be sold at auction by the administration. Sometimes the difference between the price paid into the fund and the price paid at auction represented a 200 percent profit. Where this profit went is unclear. It wasn’t credited to the stores or to the Inuk fund. Worse still, prices at the stores were significantly marked up from the acquisition price, in the case of luxury goods like cigarettes, as much as 40%. So, authorities were double dipping into Inuk labor. Once in insufficient payment for the furs and again from the markups in the stores (on the goods that were purchased with their funds). This situation continued for seven years until the stores were turned into Inuk cooperatives and the communities were given control over what supplies they ordered for their communities. To this day, the profits from this practice are unaccounted for.
Then there’s the issue of the return. As part of the agreement to try out these distant lands, the families involved were told that they could return home if they wished after two years. It is interesting that there were so few requests to do so. It wasn’t until 1957, four years of hardship later, that the government stopped relocating Inuit north to these settlements, presumably because the communities appeared healthy. It wasn’t until 1982 that the government considered funding return trips, and even then contributed very little money to returns. It’s true that that life improved over the first few years. Lumber arrived to establish permanent and better-insulated homes. Fur collection increased, implying that hunting and trapping were having more success. Additional settlers, often family members of the original group, joined and few, if any, requests to leave were logged. The Eskimo loan fund was paid off in short order and although many funds collected before 1960 disappeared, satisfaction improved as the government stores were converted to co-ops. Official accounts paint a fairly cheery picture after the first few years.
And yet, the inability to leave the quote “experiment” has become a point of great animosity for survivors and descendants. How do we explain this discrepancy? First, the relocated Inuit felt a profound lack of agency. These were people who had been told that their society was sick, terribly sick, and relocation was the only way to save them. And how could they argue with this logic? The evidence was all around them: poverty, unemployment, alcoholism. As a result, these settlers report feeling unable to argue with authorities. There was a feeling that relocation was their only option. It’s likely that most complaints were stifled by a community afraid to look ungrateful to their saviors. It’s also likely that the effective administrators of the program, the mounted police, underreported their own difficulties. Second, a sense of indebtedness developed among the Inuk settlements to the royal Canadian mounted police. This has to do both with the fact that the police were going to great lengths, beyond their brief, to support the Inuk and the Inuk felt personally indebted to return the favor. Inuk culture hadn’t fully adopted the use of currency yet, they relied heavily on barter and the exchange of service. Thus we have reports of Inuit asking not to be paid for manual labor or for their handicrafts of quits and carvings. These were given as gifts or repayments. However, considering the circumstances, it’s hard to see the practice as remotely fair.
But why couldn’t Inuit return south when they wanted to? The answer, annoying, is cost. It was easy to transport them north because supply ships needed to bring supplies to outposts in the north. Once supplies were delivered, the ships would not make the same trip south through winding, ice-infested channels. Instead, they would loop around the islands and make the safer and clearer trip back through the Hudson Bay. The ship would not set out again until the next season, which meant a second transport would be needed for any Inuit who took this route south. This is one of those "banality of evil" things you see over and over again in history. Because of the route supply ships took, it was far less expensive to transport people north than south. The only timely way to go south was by a specially chartered plane or ship. This would sometimes happen, as in the case of extreme illness such as the tuberculosis wave and the measles wave that swept through the Inuk population. But outside of medical emergency, the northern administration was adamant that if any Inuit wanted to return home, the community should pay for it. Of course, due to mishandling of the Eskimo loan fund, there was no way for the communities to make enough money to charter a return for more than a few members. Even today it’s possible to get trapped in Resolute. Without outside help, it’s hard to make enough money to pay for passage out of the place.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this is that the greater Inuk community wanted to incorporate the settlements at Resolute and Grise Fiord into their communities but the scarcity of contact made it impossible. The tragedy is that the Inuk could have saved the project. The constable in charge of the Grise Fiord area suggested that, while it was difficult to live there for extended periods of time, it could be a very meaningful and restorative place for Inuit to spend a few years to get acquainted with traditional hunting and trapping methods, and the returning participants could help the greater community become more self-reliant—the stated purpose of the project. It seems possible that this whole catastrophe could have become a positive experience for the greater Inuk community. Unfortunately, the opinions of the Inuk and their mountie partners were largely ignored.
Up to this point, I have stuck mainly to information that was documented at the time. But the official record is composed entirely of official reports, written by people who, if they didn’t have a vested interest in keeping the program going, had an incentive to keep their bosses happy. They were also people who made very little attempt to understand Inuk culture, language or perspective. Virtually the only Inuk dissatisfaction we see reported directly comes from a few quote “problem personalities” who had the gall to ask for more support. But there are many acknowledged gaps in the record: documents that are referenced that have disappeared, that could well have cast more light on the Inuk experience. In the 80s and 90s, the Inuk half of the story started to come to light as the experiment drew more public attention and criticism. The recollections and passed-down stories are bleak. Extreme hunger led to ill health, with men dying before their time and women suffering miscarriage after miscarriage. Children grew up in a strange, dark, cold world of extreme privation. As time went on, they went to schools where they learned western disdain for their own culture. Eventually, restrictions around fraternization between Inuk and white police and military personnel were dropped, initially unofficially, mostly out of mercy. Inuit were allowed access to alcohol and as many people who experience cold, dark winters attest, alcohol became a constant companion. Un-looked-after children gathered together in whichever homes they could heat, sometimes fleeing neglect or abuse. Older children became surrogate parents for their community, bearing great responsibilities at a young age. They looked with disgust and pity on their parents who were afflicted with a deep despondency. The parents felt betrayed and abandoned by the authorities as the children felt betrayed and abandoned by their parents. As these children grew, they inherited their parents' anger and inherited a disgust for what they saw as the failings of their own culture. A distrust of quote “the old ways”.
The communities of Resolute and Grise Fiord still exist today with populations around 200 and 120 individuals, respectively. Life has become more stable with the influx of high arctic tourism but remains largely subsistence-based. They still rely on the same cooperatives to acquire supplies. Improvements in communication and technology have helped reconnect them to their fellow Inuit and a renewed interest has developed in traditional ways of living. Artists and poets have come from these communities and they have reclaimed their identity and shared their stories.
In 1990, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, a committee of the Canadian House of Commons tasked with researching and writing legislation relating to native Canadian affairs, called for a formal apology from the northern administration for the relocations and a recognition of the Inuk contribution of Canadian sovereignty in the north. The then minister, Tom Siddon, rejected this recommendation and commissioned a private consulting firm to give a second opinion. This commission found that because sovereignty was not the quote “primary motive” of the relocations, no apology or compensation was necessary. This caused a flurry of scholarship to which this podcast is entirely indebted. The issue did not go away. Three years later, public demand led to further hearings, and while the northern administration pointed to missing documents as unresolvable ambiguity, many valiant researchers found plentiful evidence that the motivations, policy decisions, and lack of budget led to grave, unnecessary hardship due to wrongheaded and culturally chauvinistic leadership. Even so, the federal government did not apologize but a fund was created in 1996 to improve the settlements and provide travel for those who wished to leave. 1996. Think about that. Many people of the older generation chose to return to the communities their parents had come from. Many of their children chose to stay and improve the settlements.
Finally, in 2010, John Duncan, the then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, gave a complete apology for the hardship and suffering of the relocation. He apologized for the lack of supply, the broken promise of return, the misinformation, and acknowledged the Inuk contribution to sovereignty. The following month after the apology, two statues were unveiled. Carved from wood by Looty Pijamini and Simeonie Amagoalik of Grise Fiord and Resolute, respectively, they memorialize the sacrifices of their communities. In Grise Fiord, a woman, young boy, and husky gaze out towards Resolute Bay. From Resolute, a lone man looks back. They stand in the frozen tundra, banked by snow, surrounded by barren rock, far from home, yearning to be reunited. I’ve heard it said that Americans will always do the right thing after they’ve tried every other alternative. It seems like our northern neighbors aren’t much different, at least in this respect. I’m Peter McGuire and this has been my unlikely explanation.