By NICHOLAS CAMERUCCI, DAVID ERKLOO
Saturday, June 23, 2018
Nicholas Camerucci previously worked as a residential health-support worker with Tungasuvvingat Inuit, assisting individuals through the Truth and Reconciliation process.
Dave Erkloo was raised in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, and currently works as a cultural instructor at Nunavut Sivuniksavut in Ottawa. He is the grandson of Isaac Mala.
magine a family who tended I to their needs off the land. A family who lived in animalskin tents in the summer and igloos in the winter. The winters were harsh and sometimes a hunting yield left hungry mouths, but this family was able to get by year after year, regardless. They had no alarm clocks to wake them, no kitchen to cook in, no TV or internet to entertain, no roads to guide, no 9-to-5 jobs and no weekends. All there was were working hands, practical bone and stone tools, the keen eye of a masterful hunter and a qullik to warm up the cold nights.
Now, imagine the hunter of this family was very well known in the area. He was so well known that the RCMP and Hudson's Bay Co. sought his help to navigate and settle on Devon Island, a potential coastal trade access point in the Baffin region of the Canadian North. They requested that he and his family relocate to an outpost camp called Dundas Harbour, located 250 kilometres north of their home, on Devon.
In retrospect, it would be reasonable to deny the request. The hunter could explain how the move may disrupt hunting patterns; how, even only 250 km away, the climate is different and the ice flow reacts differently from region to region; how the game on Devon Island is more scarce than on the grand Baffin Island; how the summer months would be especially isolating, as the ice recedes and cuts off caribou migration to the mainland and how there is no access to resupply as there is in the more populated Pond Inlet. A reasonable RCMP officer might've responded in the affirmative and agreed to these difficulties. Maybe he would've even asked for suggestions on how to make the move more successful and how to plan with the Inuit, who have lived in the Arctic region for thousands of years, to ensure prosperity for the new camp.
However, this arrangement had nothing to do with reason. It had to do with the needs of some being prioritized over the needs of families and a culture who had tread on the unforgiving frozen lands of the North for generations. The RCMP and Hudson's Bay Co. misled 52 families across the Baffin region when they requested the guidance of local hunters in the early 1950s. The agreement - to relocate these families for two years to Devon Island to guide the RCMP and the HBC, and further ensure arctic sovereignty for the rest of Canada - was presented as a promising, short-term opportunity to work with the Canadian government.
The relocation failed. Many people starved, some were traumatized and some even died by suicide when two years on the island turned to several years, and several years turned to dozens of years. Today, Canadians are often horrified by instances of government mistreatment elsewhere in the world. Rightly so - but we must recognize our own history, too.
When the RCMP "requested" that a family relocate, it was not so much a request as it was an ultimatum. An Inuk did not deny the request of the Qallanaaq (white people) back then. An Inuk was requested or an Inuk was arrested. Maybe pride can accept imprisonment. Maybe a man could spit in the face of the Qallannaq RCMP officer and take internment and curse Canadian sovereignty. But who would care for friends, family and elders left behind? The RCMP could not, as the RCMP relied on Inuit hunters to survive in the arctic regions. A hunter's duty to care for his family was paramount, and so most families agreed to the terms. Besides, what was two years to an experienced hunter?
One such hunter was Isaac Mala. He accepted the request and uprooted his family: Kidlapik, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah and Simeonie. When he left, he left his father behind. When he returned a year later, he learned that his father had died of starvation with no notice from the RCMP. In those days, if a hunter helped the RCMP, they were to be regarded as a special constable, but Isaac Mala did not receive such an honour. Instead, he contracted tuberculosis. He was shipped to a TB camp in the south and later died of cancer.
Imagine how grateful those RCMP officers must have been when, faced with frozen winds or an unspeakable blizzard, they were under the wing of neither map nor compass, but the Arctic oral traditions passed down to individuals such as Isaac Mala. And yet, in exchange for his service and sacrifice, Isaac Mala's honour was to be buried in an unnamed grave in St. Albert, Alta., only to be found by his sister years later.
One may wonder how something such as this could have been allowed to happen within Canada's borders. It would be easy to point to a few bad seeds and blame only the RCMP officers who approached Isaac Mala and countless other skilled hunters and guides. The truth is, no select few can bear the responsibility of decades of mistreatment.
There are many stories such as this. Rather, there are too many stories such as this. They are stories that have been told, forgotten and told again. Each time, the telling becomes more diluted and the intense traumatic memories of loved ones fall down the generations as a dew drop falls from a pine needle. The drop hits several pines on the way down, but eventually raises questions as to whether it ever existed. The fear is that, each time these stories are questioned, they fall further into the realm of folklore, fiction and, soon, mere rumours of mistreatment.
Now, imagine a Canadian mother and boy today, sitting comfortably on the couch watching the news. As they view the atrocities of other countries, under the leadership of others, she reassures her child: "At least in Canada, we were good to our people. We never misled our people; we recognized the sacrifices our people made; we never used our people and we never let our people starve."
Apologies and compensation can offer peace to those who were wronged, but they do not wipe the slate clean. The slate holds scars that cannot be wiped.
Perhaps HBC should recognize their involvement in Isaac Mala's and others' stories. Perhaps the RCMP and the officers involved should write personal letters of appreciation to the hunters that lighted the path for them. Perhaps there is no comfort to provide. Or perhaps we, as fellow Canadians, should embrace and convey remembrance for our fallen brothers and sisters.