I was speaking to a group of high school students recently about my family’s relocation to the High Arctic from Northern Quebec. The occasion was the closing event of the Truth and reconciliation Commission. Like former students of the residential school experience in Canada, High Arctic exiles are survivors. That is something that is always most evident to me in late summer.
Of course, it was autumn when my mother and her family, along with several Inuit families, landed on a sandy beach on Cornwallis Island, some 1,200 kilometres from Inukjuak, the only home they had ever known. In Inukjuak, they lived among tundra grasses, even trees. They had learned the patterns of roaming caribou.
Resolute, by contrast, was a desert, a desolate landscape that has been described as the harshest terrain ever inhabited by humans on a permanent basis. It was 20 degrees colder than Inukjuak, and it was dark. Months passed before they saw the sun again.
As the Hon. John Duncan, then minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, said in 2011 in his apology for the Inuit High Arctic relocation, “They were not provided with ade quate shelter and supplies. They were not properly informed of how far away and how different from Inukjuak their new homes would be.”
Over the past six years of truth telling and reconciliation, we have shared our stories of residential school and other atrocities. This is our history — and it is Canadian history. But what was done to us is only half the story. The other half is about how we endured.
My family and others relocated to resolute Bay and Grise Fiord did what Inuit have done for thousands of years. They adapted. The first years were a desperate time. But they learned the secrets of their surroundings and they forged a connection with the land.
They became familiar with the migratory patterns of beluga and narwhal. Each spring, tens of thousands of whales travel from their winter – ing grounds in Baffin Bay to Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait, right past the spot where my mom and her family landed in the fall of 1955.
Several months later, over a few days in late summer, the whales embark on an eastern migration heading back to Baffin Bay and Davis Strait for the winter. It has become a season of celebration in the High Arctic. At the first sight of the whales offshore, hunters spring into action, heading out in boats to corral a number of beluga in the bay. They take only what is needed.
The annual hunt reflects perfectly the symbiosis of nature, of living in harmony with the land. Out of nothing, we created a home, and we learned to sustain ourselves with what the land and sea offered us.
In his apology to the High Arctic exiles, then-minister Duncan also admitted that the government failed to act on its promise of a return voyage to Inukjuak within two years for any families that didn’t want to stay. What he didn’t mention is that in the late 1980s, when we were finally given the opportunity to return to Inukjuak, many families chose to remain in their new communities.
The scars of our forced relocation remain, and monuments in resolute Bay and Grise Fiord tell the story of our hardships. But when our story is told in classrooms throughout Canada, as I believe it should be, let it be a story of survival — and of the enduring strength of Inuit.