Tuesday 30 November 2021

Human Flagpoles


by  Catherine M. Somerton

strong coffee


       Holly Aluquik-Jones* fought back tears as she stood before the monument. This was what she came to Grise Fiord or Inuktituk to see. She even took a few days off from her studies at Nunavut Arctic College to visit the remote northern hamlet.  Still, nothing could have prepared her for the flood of emotions that crashed over her like an icy wave. It was a stone carving of an Inuit woman, with a child and a husky at her side. The woman’s expression was one of sheer dismay.  She was gazing south east toward Resolute Bay, where no doubt some of her family was. They were political pawns, human flagpoles. The woman could have easily have been Holly’s grandmother and the child could have been Holly’s mother if they’d live in another part of the north.

            The year was 1953. Eighty-seven Inuits were transported in from their northern Quebec homes to Inuktituk and Resolute Bay. Did they go voluntarily? Holly used to think so, and as a small child, fantasized about being among them. She listened, spellbound to the stories of survival, human resourcefulness, and most of all, the grace of God.  What an honour it must have been, she thought, to help guard sovereignty of their great nation!

            The true story however, was completely different, as she now knew.  It was a story of deception, exploitation, and almost unimaginable suffering. The people didn’t go voluntarily. They were intimidated by the R.C.M.P and deceived with promises of a better life, abundant food, and the freedom to follow their traditional way of life. Even more insidiously, they were promised that they could return home in a year or two if they were unhappy.

            How did this happen? Prior to 1953, the Inuits targeted for relocation were living in Inukjuk, or Port Harrison as it was known at the time. Their children went to mainline schools and food was plentiful in the form of geese, ducks, shellfish and berries. They traded furs for credit in the local store. The community had a small church and a nursing station too.  While they received some government assistance, the Inuit were for the most part, self-sufficient and happy. Unknown to them, plans were being made in the capital city of Ottawa to transport seven families to the high arctic. Why was this? On paper, it was a humanitarian effort to reduce the Inuits’ dependence on the government, and allow them to follow their own traditions. In reality, it was a political scheme to use them as human flagpoles in the arctic archipelago. 

            With the Cold War raging, the Americans were getting too close for comfort, stringing their Distance Early Warning lines and stationing their military across the north. The Canadian government knew that establishing a civilian presence in the arctic archipelago would strengthen their assertion of sovereignty. Families wept as their friends and relatives were load on to the coastguard ship CD. Howe, that would transport them, but they were assured that they would return in two years if things didn’t work out. Unknown to them, many would never return. Another fact kept from them until they boarded, was that they were going to be split into two groups, going to two different settlements. The division of families was so devastating that even their sled dogs howled with despair.

            The people were left in what could only be described as a frozen desert. They were provided with nothing but Army surplus tents to live in. There were none of the caribou hides needed to make suitable clothing or adequate shelter.  The snow was too dusty to build igloos and it was dark 24 hours a day, not even a sliver of sunlight.  With almost no familiar game, the Inuit survived only by scavaging for food in the R.C.M.P dump, and everything they found was taken if they were caught. Not surprisingly, they soon lost their will to live. The R.C.M.P officers, who regularly visited the camps filed deceptively positive reports about the Inuits’ progress. Starving and fighting the bitter cold with life threatening illnesses and injuries, the Inuit begged to be returned home. The government, however, refused to honour its promise. After all, removing their human flagpoles from the high arctic would have defeated the purpose of the relocation.

            Holly shook her head, trying to understand such cruelty. No wonder the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit were so distrustful of the whites! A person of less faith might have despaired, but Holly was determined to make a difference. That was why she came to the north, and that was why she added her mother’s maiden name to her father’s. Holly’s Inuit background would help her to be accepted in the Native community. The nursing degree she would have in less than a year would entitle her to registration anywhere in Canada and a diploma she’d earned in pastoral counselling would complement her degree. She’d make a difference yet.


*Holly Aluquik-Jones, the story’s view point character, is fictional. The High Arctic Relocation and the suffering it caused the Inuit, unfortunately is not. As a writer, I hope this story has raised some awareness of this dark chapter in Canadian history, and perhaps inspired the readers do some research of their own.

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