Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The High Arctic Exiles OR The Time the Canadian Government Abandoned 92 Inuit in the High Arctic

It's 1950, and the Cold War is downright frigid. The Russians and the Americans are sniffing around Canada's arctic islands, and Canada needs to assert its sovereignty. So what do they do? They force around 92 people to leave their homes in more reasonable climes, and move them to the high arctic. Sound like a human rights abuse? That's because it is. Or if it isn't, it should be. However, because it happened to First Nation people, nobody cared. It wasn't until 2011 that Canadian government finally acknowledge the immorality of what they had done, and apologized for the suffering of the Arctic people.


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Resolute, 1953
The town of Inukjuak, located in northern Quebec, was the original home of many of these exiles. It was, and still is, home to a large Inuit population. In 1953 members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) swept through the community, looking for volunteers to go live in the towns of Resolute and Grise Fiord in what is today Nunavut. The stated reasoning behind this was that the Canadian government was worried that the area around Inukjuak was becoming over-hunted, and would no longer be able to support the local population. The RCMP promised plentiful hunting and a better life to people who made the move, as well as the opportunity to come back to Inukjuak after two years should those who relocated wish to return. Several families eagerly agreed, and they set off for their new homes in the C.D. Howe.

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From Inukjuak to Resolute and Grise Fiord
Or so the Canadian government claims. The Inuit who actually made the move tell a far different story. Instead of being asked politely to move the RCMP brutally harassed, and all but forced the families to make the move. The Inuit were told that upon arriving in Resolute and Grise Fiord there would be houses, clothes, and boats for hunting waiting for them. They were promised that their families wouldn't be split up. The RCMP spun a tale of a life with better hunting and good employment opportunities, with, of course, the offer that anyone who didn't like it up north could come back after two years. The RCMP lied.

Once they were on board this ship the people were told that they would be divided into two communities--one for Resolute and one for Grise Fiord. The Inuit were, to understate, not at all pleased with this, and they were less pleased when they landed and found out that there were no houses, no boats, and no animals to hunt. They had left a city with a school and medical facilities, they were taken to a frozen wasteland.

The Exiles lived in tents that first year. They survived mainly of of seal meat and scraps that they found in the RCMP garbage dump. Finding water was difficult, and catching anything was near impossible. Not only was it always dark, but there were just no animals around to hunt. And in the summer when the birds returned, and on the rare occasion they found a musk ox, the Inuit were unable to shoot them, because they were protected species. When the Inuit asked to go home they were told that it was impossible, and that they needed to stay where they were.

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Monument to the exiles in Grise Fiord.
Though the Canadian government claimed that this was for the good of the Inuit people, there are other theories which seem much more believable. As I mentioned above, the Cold War was positively glacial at the time, and both the US and Canada feared that Russia would attempt to establish a base in the Canadian High Arctic, so they would have a good vantage point to attack North America. To combat this, the US wanted to snatch up the Canadian High Arctic, and basically make it part of Alaska. Canada wasn't down for this.

The problem with the High Arctic was that it was largely uninhabited. Canada could say that it was theirs, but they weren't really doing anything with it, so what would it matter if the US or the USSR took it? The prevailing theory is that the Canadian government sent the Arctic Exiles to Resolute and Grise Fiord as 'human flagpoles' to establish their sovereignty.

The communities of Resolute and Grise Fiord are still running today. Both communities are very small, with less than 400 inhabitants between them. In 1996 the Canadian government offered the Exiles and their families a settlement of $10 million to make up for what they put them through. Much of this money has failed to appear.

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Sources
The High Arctic Relocation
Out in the Cold: The Legacy of Canada's Inuit Relocation Experiment in the High Arctic
Inuit Get Federal Apology for Forced Relocation
Inuit Were Moved 2,000km in Cold War Maneuvering
Exile (documentary)


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