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A voice for the relocated

Martha Flaherty’s landing on the beach at Grise Fiord, Nunavut, in August 2017 couldn’t have been more different than her arrival 62 years earlier.

“It was a happy occasion. And it’s always nice to see the people I knew and the new children,” says Flaherty. “I used to be embarrassed to be from Grise Fiord because it used to be such a poor place: isolated. I was happy to leave Grise Fiord. I didn’t feel like I’m from there.”

Flaherty at Radstock Bay on Devon Island, Nunavut, September 2017
© Michelle Valberg

Flaherty has travelled far, physically and emotionally, since she first stepped onto the shores of southern Ellesmere Island in 1955. Her family was part of the federal government’s High Arctic relocation project. To uphold sovereignty in the High Arctic, it needed people to live there. In 1953 and 1955, a total of 87 people — mainly families — were picked up from Inukjuak, in western Nunavik, and from Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. They were taken North aboard the Eastern Arctic Patrol ship CD Howe, and dropped off at Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island and at Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island — 1,500 miles from home, friends and family.

They were told it would be a northern paradise with good hunting, and they could go home in two years. Flaherty was five when her family was deposited at a rocky spot at the base of immense cliffs at Lindstrom Peninsula, eight kilometres west of Grise Fiord. It was a “scary,” harsh environment, devoid of recognizable plant life and the plentiful game the government had promoted. The government reneged on its promise to return people home, and they were forced to stay and eke out an existence. They were given nothing — no housing, food, or skins to make clothing. They were expected to adapt.

“I have no memory from age five until about 11,” says Martha. “We arrived in Grise Fiord in August, and it was already beginning to be fall. There was nothing there.” As the oldest child, she was expected to go with her father, Josephie, and look after the dogs when he went out hunting. When her father had a nervous breakdown, the little girl was often the target of his outbursts.

“You don’t totally get over the traumatic stuff that happens to you when you’re young,” says Gordon Spence, Martha’s partner of 32 years. “I’m always amazed at how they were able to survive the whole relocation thing, living in 24-hour darkness for six months and minus 67-degree temperatures.”

Amazingly, they survived. In 1956, the RCMP moved its post to the present community of Grise Fiord. In 1959, the people purchased and built little houses with money earned from fox furs. When the elementary school opened in Grise Fiord in 1962, people moved their houses to the community on dogsleds.

“When school came, we all started to live together here in the community. That was when I got to know Martha,” says Larry Audlaluk, Josephie’s stepbrother, who was a toddler when his family was relocated to Grise Fiord in 1953. “Martha was always very shy and very quiet, and she was very pretty. She was picked on quite a bit because she was a cute little girl.”

The monument, carved by Looty Pijamini, in honour of the Inuit families relocated in 1953 and 1955. © Season Osborne

The RCMP officer in charge wanted her to get a southern education. At 15, Flaherty was sent to high school in Carcross, Yukon. She lived in a foster home where she was the only Inuk. She was teased constantly. She withdrew, stopped talking and became mute. After a year, they gave up on her, and she was sent back to Grise Fiord. Then she went to Churchill, Manitoba, to study home economics. Afterwards, Flaherty took nursing at a vocational school in Fort Smith, Filmmaker and art curator John Houston met Flaherty when she was translating in Ottawa in the early ’80s.

“She was part of the interpreter corps, one of the great simultaneous translators. I was around Ottawa and the stuff I was doing with the printmakers needed simultaneous translation, and so we met that way,” says Houston.

A few years later, Houston visited Grise Fiord and spent time with Josephie, the son of Robert Flaherty whose 1922 film Nanook of the North captured traditional Inuit life. It was then he realized what had happened in the 1950s, and “how people were torn from where they grew up and moved to the High Arctic.”

“Martha seems to be coming out more about that now,” says Houston. “I guess as we grow older, there is a bit of a sense of ‘if not now, then when?’”

Flaherty’s translation work became known in Ottawa and she was hired for the Nunavut Land Claims negotiations, translating all the materials and documents. In 1992, she joined Pauktuutit, the national Inuit women’s organization. She became a strong advocate for Inuit women’s rights. Within a year, she was elected president, and held that position until 1998.

Northwest Territories, then worked at the hospital in Iqaluit, Nunavut, for three months.

In 1973, Flaherty got a job in Yellowknife with Interpreter Corps, a new government organization providing simultaneous Inuktitut translation for members of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly.

“That’s when she really got her voice. That was her training period when she started to talk about her beliefs and she became quite vocal,” says Audlaluk.

Flaherty moved to Ottawa in the fall of 1979. She got a journalism degree, worked as a translator, then as special assistant to Peter Ittinuar, MP for Nunavut. She says she loved Ottawa. It was an escape; the first place where she was anonymous and not bullied.

“After going through Pauktuutit, I started learning about issues,” says Flaherty. “I became more aware of my own issues, and I said, ‘This is wrong. This is not normal.’ I started going to healing sessions, and it opened me up. Now, I can talk about it with no more tears.”

Flaherty’s opinion was valued. She was appointed to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and became a board member for the Healing Foundation that extended from the Royal Commission. She sat on the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women in the early 1990s, and travelled to communities across Canada. She was also secretary for Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, now Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization formed to protect and advance the interests of Canada’s Inuit.

During the Royal Commission hearings, film director Marquise Lepage saw Flaherty speaking in the media and contacted her to make a documentary about Flaherty’s personal experience of the High Arctic relocation.

Martha wasn’t ready to share her story then. “I was so full of frustration and trauma and didn’t know how to get out,” says Flaherty. But Lepage persisted, and Flaherty finally agreed. In 2009, the National Film Board’s Martha of the North was released.

Flaherty has raised her voice for women’s rights and violence against women as part of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and Indigenous Women of the Americas. She has spoken at conferences across Canada and internationally. Flaherty has met countless dignitaries and influential leaders, including Canadian Prime Ministers, several Governors General, Prince Charles, and Desmond Tutu.

“She is a remarkable person,” says Shontelle Prokipcak who is co-writing Martha’s biography. “She is remarkable because she lived through extreme poverty and culture shock. The relocation to Grise Fiord was traumatic, but she’s found her way in this world. She’s wizened to it in a good way, not bitter and negative.”

In Inukjuak in August 2010, the federal government made a formal apology for “the mistakes and broken promises of this dark chapter of our history.” A month later, two monuments were unveiled. One, on a gravel terrace above Grise Fiord’s town centre, depicts a woman and her child looking out towards Resolute Bay. In Resolute, a carved solitary man looks toward Grise Fiord. They symbolize the families separated by the 1950s relocations.

Martha returned to Grise Fiord in August 2017 as a culturalist aboard Adventure Canada’s cruise ship Ocean Endeavour. She met Audlaluk there, and the two visited the relocation monument to talk about its significance to the ship’s passengers.

Flaherty’s mission is to inform Canadians. The film Martha of the North is helping, but she wants the High Arctic relocation to be an exhibit in the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The museum focuses on human rights failures, such as the Holocaust, interred Japanese-Canadians, as well as First Nation’s residential schools. The story of Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay is not included yet. She says, “I’ll shut up when it’s finally in there.”

Season Osborne has a passion for Arctic history, and is the author of In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912. She lives and writes in Ottawa, Ontario.