Canada’s ‘Human Flagpoles’ Bitter Over Arctic fate
By David Ljunggren
RESOLUTE BAY, Nunavut — Simeonie Amagoalik’s anger still burns more than 50 years after he and his family were taken from their homes and dumped on a frozen beach in the wastes of Canada’s High Arctic.
The federal government, which relocated dozens of aboriginal Inuit to a strange, barren and uninhabited land, agreed to a compensation package in 1995 and admitted the operation had been flawed. But Ottawa did not say sorry.
“I think they wanted to give us money to shut us up. I won’t forgive them until they apologize,” Amagoalik told Reuters in the isolated hamlet of Resolute Bay, some 555 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Although the tale of the relocations is marked by deep disagreements over what happened and why, some facts are beyond dispute.
In August 1953, federal officials took 34 Inuit from Port Harrison (now known as Inukjuak) in Hudson Bay and put them on a boat north. One month and 1,390 miles later, the group was split in two and deposited on two remote islands.
The Inuit found it hard to survive in an unfamiliar, freezing world with few of the foods they were used to and no schools, stores or churches. As years went by, the anguish caused by the relocation triggered major social problems.
“I was very angry. I was hurt inside. You can say like father, like son. Some of my kids were angry too. The hurt my parents suffered was passed on to me. I grew up being a very angry man, an alcoholic,” said Allie Salluviniq, who was a boy of 3 at the time of the move.
Beyond this point the tale becomes more blurred.
The Inuit say the government used them to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic at a time when Ottawa was worried about excessive U.S. influence in the region. One Inuit leader described the relocated people as “human flagpoles.”
The government says living and hunting conditions for the Inuit in Port Harrison were so poor that it wanted to give some people the chance to start a better life elsewhere.
For years the official line was that those who went north to Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord were volunteers who built a happy life. The Inuit insist they were pressured and tricked into going by figures of authority who lied to them.
The white men, they say, told them there was plentiful game in the High Arctic and promised them they could return if they did not like their new home. The reality was very different.
“We were dumped here. It was windy, cold, and the men were trying to pitch their tent. The women and children were behind a boulder to keep out of the wind,” Salluviniq told Reuters.
The 14 Inuit at Resolute Bay initially lived in shabby tents. Eventually they built shanty houses from wood discarded by the local air force base, whose occupants were told not to deal with the Inuit for fear of spoiling them.
Apart from the cold, the newcomers had to get used to a climate where the sun set for three months a year. In Inukjuak they had eaten seal, duck, other fowl, sea urchins, fish and berries, but in Resolute Bay the diet was more sparse.
“People weren’t used to just seals and polar bears, so a lot of Inuit became really skinny,” said Amagoalik, who arrived at the age of 20 with his wife and newborn son.
An Inuit family from Pond Inlet, like Resolute Bay much further north than Inukjuak, was moved in to help the newcomers hunt. Differences in culture and language prompted clashes.
“We’d fight. It wasn’t until later that we realized we weren’t angry at each other but were angry at the government,” said Allie’s wife, Susan Salluviniq, the mayor of Resolute Bay, whose parents came from Pond Inlet.
The alleged promise of an early return came to nothing.
“During the first year I recall my parents wanted to go back to Inukjuak. In the winter, some officials came to see them. They had a talk and my father came back and said, ‘It’s not possible’,” said Allie, rubbing his eyes.
The community gradually grew, but so did the pain of a people who felt they were living a lie. Hungry Inuit often sneaked onto the air base and stole food from the dump.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Allie said, “The whole town was drunk and my wife and I were at the top, drinking.”
As levels of education grew, the more curious Inuit started to examine their plight. They discovered government officials in the early 1950s had indeed been worried about sovereignty at a time when thousands of Americans were in the Arctic, either building installations or manning radar stations.
“The Canadian government is anxious to have Canadians occupying as much of the north as possible and it appeared that in many cases the Eskimo were the only people capable of doing this,” one official told a closed meeting in August 1953. The minutes of the meeting were discovered in government archives.
Such documents — including one that showed no one in Ottawa had had any idea whether there was in fact enough game in the High Arctic — helped persuade the government to hand over C$10 million ($8.8 million) in compensation in 1995 and acknowledge the operation had been botched.
This angered some of the officials who oversaw the relocation, who said it had been carried out for humanitarian reasons and that the Inuit had benefited.
“I don’t think for a minute that they suffered any real hardship. I am completely baffled by the compensation,” former senior bureaucrat Gordon Robertson told a newspaper in 1995.
The relocation was just one of several carried out in the 1950s by a government that never asked the Inuit for their views. At least one transfer ended with people starving to death.
Most of the C$10 million was put into a trust fund, with around C$2.5 million shared among people in Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord.
Allie and Susan Salluviniq say that while the money comes in handy, it was finding God that helped them come to terms with the pain of their past.
“The reason we were in the High Arctic is for the glory of the Lord. He has a big plan for us,” said Allie, who thinks things are better now in the community of 250 people.
“There is still anger. I know that, but it’s not the way it used to be. A lot of people still don’t understand why we’re up here, the reason for it,” he added.
Simeonie Amagoalik is less serene as he sits in his small wooden house, furiously twisting a piece of tissue paper in his hands. He still wants an apology from the government and says he is still angry.
“When you don’t forgive, that’s how it is. I still feel the same way because the federal government promised us things that never happened. We want them to apologize for their lies,’ he said. “Money will never give us happiness.”