Mary Voisey grew up in the community of Padlei, also known as Kingajualik by the Caribou Inuit of the area. Padlei, or Padley Post as the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) which established the post in 1926 knew it, is 166 kilometres northwest of present day Arviat, Nunavut. Seeing an economic opportunity in the Caribou Inuit, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post there in 1926. Today Padley Post is abandoned; a lonely outpost at the junction of the Maguse River and Kinga (Kingajualik) Lake surrounded by mile upon mile of tundra and boreal forest. Three buildings still exist although the ravages of time and the environment is gradually taking a toll.
Padlei is set in a landscape of rolling hills, rocky outcrops and muskeg where boreal forest and subarctic tundra meet, a land crisscrossed by rivers and streams leading to broad expanses of lakes. Visitors to the area see an apparently hostile environment. In his thesis, Caribou Inuit traders of the Kivalliq, Matthew D. Walls sites the work of J.L. Robinson who described Padley in 1968 in geological terms as a place where “the base geology consists of pre-Cambrian sandstone and granite. Other than bedrock outcrops, which often form ridges and plateaus, the only other topographical features are glacial deposits that were formed during the ice-age”. Mary recalls that like all areas in the Arctic, with the return of warm weather the tundra bursts with contrasting colours of yellow butter cups, white Arctic cotton, varying shades of pink fireweed, green lichen and moss, low scrub willows and Labrador tea. The seemingly impenetrable hummocks of moss and lichen which nourish the passing herds of Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) give way to low bush, dwarf willow, black spruce and tamarack and the promise of wood for heating and building sleds and homes. It was home to the Caribou Inuit, the Padleimiut, Padlirmiut, or Paallirmiut, who followed the cycles of the land.
Mary Voisey’s parents were members of prominent Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) families. Both the Voisey’s, Henry’s family, and the Fords were mixed Inuit and English families from Labrador who because of their ancestry and language competencies were ideal remote HBC employees. Voisey and Ford family members worked for the Company in communities all over the North. With both families working for (HBC) it was inevitable that Charlotte and Henry met. Theirs was, at times, a long-distance relationship; it was 11 years before Henry proposed to Charlotte. Henry insisted on doing the proper thing and asked Charlotte’s father (Sam Ford) for her hand in marriage even though it was possible only by mail, carried by the Hudson’s Bay Company boats from post to post. In due course word was received that the proposal was accepted, and Charlotte and Henry were wed on August 29, 1940, in Igluligaarjuk (Chesterfield Inlet), Nunavut.
From 1942 to 1960, when Padley Post closed, it was both the work environment and home of Henry Voisey and his family (Henry, wife Charlotte (née Ford), son George and daughter Mary). However, within a year son George contracted TB meningitis, during one of the TB outbreaks that swept through the North. Although George and his mother were flown out to Winnipeg, not an easy thing in the early 1940s, it was not soon enough. George died on March 20, 1944 at Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital.
As a child, Mary’s playmates were Ootook and Keelook, both orphaned Inuit children, who were related to Padley Post employees who cut wood, hauled water, scraped hides and performed any of the myriad other activities that made life of the HBC employees in the barrens possible. Ootook’s aunt and uncle were Eegie and Keegotiatok, while Keelook’s relatives were Keenuk and her husband Karlyuk.
Mary spent the first seven years of her life in Padley or Kingajualik, as the Inuit knew it, amongst the Kingkaualimiut or “people of the hills” as Mary prefers to refer to them. Mary mostly spoke Inuktitut and lived the life of an Inuit child. Looking back on those years, Mary says they were a happy time.
“My playmates and I wandered over the tundra without fear. There was nothing to fear. Summer was a time for exploring, fishing, swimming off the dock, and picnics.”
Of the snowy season Mary recollects not much actual snowfall but what there was Mary made the best use of. “We slid down the bank near the house bundled in furs. We slid down on cardboard or our furs. We didn’t feel the cold.”
Of course, with winter came the prime holiday of the year — Christmas. “We always had a Christmas tree, a letter was written to Santa at the North Pole, and a Christmas dinner of goose or a caribou roast. The Inuit came around Christmas to trade, have tea and a meal. Trading and eating done, everyone left for their camps not to be seen again until spring.”
Although the Voisey family had access to canned goods through the Hudson’s Bay Company, they also caught jack fish and the “biggest lake trout”. However, the main sustenance for the Voisey family, as it was for people who lived in the North, were the Barren-ground caribou. In August, the caribou migration came through in the thousands. “The caribou usually took a day to pass through,” Mary recalls. One could still hear the grunting as they crossed the Maguse River at night.”
One of the endless tasks was ensuring there was enough wood for all the stoves used around the Post. Although the building where fur was exchanged for merchandise was unheated, the others, including Mary’s home, depended on wood cut from the nearby wood lots. Cut year round, the trunks stripped of their limbs were stacked against trees that were left upright, so the cut wood wouldn’t get lost under the overburden of snow. Once there was ample snow cover, dog sled traffic became easy and the wood was brought to the Post on a qamutiq and stacked in large, upright piles, leaning one against the other. During the summer, wood could be carried to Padlei by boat. One of the Post labourers, a man Mary remembers well named Karlyuk, cut up the wood for the stoves as it was needed.
Although aircraft were in use, most people got from place to place by dog team in winter and by water in summer. Each spring the crude dock in the Maguse River, in front of the Post, had to be rebuilt as the previous year’s dock had been taken out by the spring ice breakup. Under the direction of Mary’s father, Henry, he and the Inuit men of the community stood in the freezing water of the river to lodge the posts on which the deck was mounted into the riverbed. Although a crude and slightly unstable structure, it facilitated loading goods and people into waiting boats, boats that carried people and trade goods from place to place or that made the harvesting of wood a little easier from the wood lots.
The Voisey family typically wore store bought European clothing. Mary readily admits that her mom didn’t have the skill to sew cloth into half decent ‘western dress,’ but was as adept as any Inuit women in processing a killed caribou. With a set of caribou skins, she could easily and relatively quickly turn out some of the best-looking traditional Inuit garments. A picture in her father’s slide collection illustrates Charlotte’s skills. Henry, Mary and Charlotte are each attired in traditional caribou hide garments, elaborately decorated with beaded panels. Mary remembers insisting on wearing her black rubber boots and her father’s bright yellow socks, which made her so happy.
The presence of the Trading Post meant that people often dropped by and not just local Inuit. Mary met prospectors who walked in off the land and university researchers who came to study the wildlife or the Arctic environment. Mary, still a child, came to know the noted writer and photographer Richard Harrington whose pictures told a story to the rest of Canada about the desperate condition of the Padleimiut Inuit following the failed caribou hunts of the 1950s. In contrast to the conditions of starvation that Richard’s photos captured, the Voisey family photo collection includes a photo of Richard Harrington sitting on the floor next to Mary Voisey and Ootook, blowing soap bubbles.
At age seven, Mary was sent to attend elementary school in Churchill, Manitoba. She later attended high school in Winnipeg. Depending on available transportation, Mary was able to fly home most of the time. After graduation from high school, Mary took training to become a nurse and after graduation her first job was at the nursing station at Arviat. Then she looked after people in many locations for the next 46 years. Mary retired to her family’s Lake Winnipeg beachside home, which is today still heavily influenced by the seasonal environment that characterized the world of her youth at Padley Post, Nunavut. In retrospect, Mary is glad to have experienced that way of life and fondly looks back upon it today.