In the summer of 1950, Ahairmiut living at Ennadai Lake were relocated to Neultin Lake to the south and east of Ennadai Lake in the southern interior of the Kivalliq region. Silas Ilungijuk, one of the Elders working with us on the Nanisiniq project, was a young boy at the time. He experienced this move. It is a story that Peter Kulchyski and myself wrote about in our book Tammarniit (Mistakes) [UBC Press, 1994]. The story of the relocation to Nueltin Lake, and the return of the Ahairmiut to Ennadai Lake and the Kazan River area has also been told by Alan Marcus in his book Relocating Eden [University of New England Press, 1995].
When your are writing a book dealing with many different subjects - in the case of Tammarniit, many of the relocations that Inuit endured in the 1950s - there is only so much space that a writer can dedicate to any one of the many stories one wants to tell.
That is why a paper published by Frederik Laugrand, Jarich Oosten and David Serkoak is an important addition to the historical record of what happened. I invite you to read it at:
It contains much of what Ahairmiut, relocated first to Neultin Lake, followed by a harrowing walk back to Ennadai Lake, a further relocation to Henik Lake and finally to Eskimo Point (Arviat), have to say about their experience. It is a gut-wrenching account of what happened in the 1950s when people (traders and government officials) who thought they ’knew best’ (but who, unfortunately, understood little) moved Inuit from one location to another - and then another.
This is a tragic story. But most importantly, as far as I am concerned, it contains very important lessons for all of us.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Inuit all across the Arctic became increasingly dependent on the fur trade. In the Arctic, there is virtually only one kind of fur to be had - Arctic fox. As long as there was a market for Arctic fox, Inuit could make a bit of money (actually credits recorded on the books of the Hudson’s Bay Company or goods exchanged with other traders) that allowed them access to the kinds of food that Qablunaat ate - tea, flour, lard, baking powder, biscuits, jam, butter, oatmeal, etc. If you are spending a lot of time trapping, you have less time to go hunting for food. Trapping is a way of life that one gets used to because it makes available ’luxury’ items (things made by Qablunaat: knives, pots, rifles, etc.) that can’t be had any other way.
This is okay as long as the price of fox fur is high enough to make a living this way. What happens when the price collapses - when the economy you have come to depend on no longer supports you? This is exactly what happened after the Second World War. Arctic fox traded for about $25 a pelt in 1945. By 1949 the price had dropped to as low as $3.50. Across the Arctic, Inuit could no longer make a living in their traditional land-based hunting camps. This was one of the things that led to the move to settlements. Compulsory schooling for Inuit kids was another. As settlements grew and there were special occasions to celebrate - Christmas, Easter, etc. - movies to be seen, nursing stations and health care available, Inuit relocated to settlements developing across the Arctic.
What happened at Ennadai? How involved in trapping and trading fox pelts were the Ahairmiut before the events of 1950? We know there were independent traders operating in this area. The Hudson’s Bay Company operated a post at Padlei, within travelling distance. Did dependence on an economy organized a particular way have anything to do with the tragic events of the 1950s?
Did people suffer partiallly as a result of a trapping/trading relationship that had developed between themselves and Qablunaat - a relationship further complicted by the presence of Qablunaat at the Canadian Weather Signal Corps station that was built at Ennadai Lake in the late 1940s? The record suggest that once there were no longer any independent traders in the area, the Royal Canadian Air Force flew furs out of the area and flew in supplies for Ahairmiut. Little attention has been paid to how the collapse of an economy upon which Ahairmiut depended to some extent, affected their living conditions and what Qablunaat called a “dependency relationship” developing between Ahairmiut and Qablunaat at the weather station. This lack of appreciation of the economic circumstances of Inuit is remarkable.
I can’t help but think of how our economy - the way we have all become dependent on an economic system that is fragile and based on so many uncertainties - has let us down and created so much misery, not only for Inuit historically, but from time to time for all of us. Just ask someone in the United States who came to depend heavily on the so-called logic of the American housing market what happened when it fell apart. What will happen to a Nunavut economy and to many Nunavumiut that become dependent on mines, open for 10 or 15 years, and then closed when the ore runs out. In 1962 in Rankin Inlet, when the nickel mine was closed, it created a lot of hardship for many Inuit.
All of this may seem a long way from what happened at Ennadai Lake in 1950. It was a tragedy that may have been driven not only by economic circumstances (a failed fox fur trade and a couple of entrepreneurs who thought it would be a good idea to have Inuit making a living by fishing at Neultin Lake), but by a whole set of attitudes and values that accompanied this logic. For example, Frank Cunningham, one of the government officials mentioned in this story (he went on to become an assistant deputy minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources, the department responsible for Inuit), had a ‘world view’ that was incredibly conservative. He thought that people should ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and get on with making a living. His understanding of how capitalism works and the social costs of how we do things was pretty shallow. He was arrogant, racist and intolerant of ideas different from his own. When some people in goverment tried to start cooperatives with Inuit, he opposed the idea, calling it “communistic”. His overwhelming concern was making sure that Inuit did not become “dependent” on what he called “government handouts”. The idea that people needed and deserved to be consulted, assisted in ways that fit with their culture and way of doing things, and that traders and the desire to make a profit may have been responsible for many of the difficulties experienced by Inuit, were considerations he, and many others in the department responsible for Inuit at a time of incredible change, were not willing to consider. The results speak for themselves.
Have a look at this paper. Ahairmiut do speak for themselves. What they have to say ought to make all of us think a little more about what is going on around us in the year 2011. That is what history is for. It makes you think. We have much to learn from the wisdom and experience of these Elders.