Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic October 17, 2014 - 12:09 pm

Taissumani, Oct. 17

Mowat, Porsild, and “The Case of the Disappearing Eskimos”

Farley Mowat in an undated file photo, during a visit to Iqaluit early in the last decade. (FILE PHOTO)
Farley Mowat in an undated file photo, during a visit to Iqaluit early in the last decade. (FILE PHOTO)

In 1947, an aspiring young Canadian writer travelled into the Barren Lands of the Kivalliq Region. His name was Farley Mowat.

The book that resulted from this and a subsequent trip into the interior was published to great acclaim in 1952, under the title People of the Deer. The people he wrote about were the Ahiarmiut, who had experienced starvation and extreme hardship in their isolated corner of what is now Nunavut.

Mowat called these people the Ihalmiut. But the name is the same. It may not look it at first glance, but say it out loud — Ihalmiut, Ahiarmiut — and you will see that it is really the same word with a variant spelling. (Mowat was reportedly a poor speller in English, too.)

The book was extremely critical of the “triumvirate” that Mowat claimed controlled the North and its people: the church, the traders, and the government (usually represented by the police).

The triumvirate fought back, with charges that Mowat had spent only a total of 47 days among the Inuit during the two years that he claimed to be in the north. They debunked Mowat’s claim that the Ahiarmiut population had once numbered in the thousands and were critical of many of his other assertions.

But Mowat justified his approach. Even before its publication, he had told his editor, “The book must have a heart and, equally vital, a purpose. The fate of the Ihalmiut is at the heart of the story, and the purpose is to draw attention to their plight and to that of all the native peoples of the north.”

The editor of The Beaver, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s journal, found the book “irritating” and commissioned a review by Alf Erling Porsild, a government botanist born in Denmark, who had grown up in Greenland, and spoke the Inuit language.

Porsild had worked for some years in northern Canada. He documented Mowat’s errors and omissions in a scathing review, which read in part:

“People of the Deer is a book of pungent charges and accusations, not only against those Government officials in Ottawa who are charged with the welfare of Canadian Eskimos and Indians, but also against those who have assumed the responsibility for their spiritual care and, last but not least against the traders and trading companies whose exploitation, according to Mowat, most of all is responsible for the present plight of the Caribou Eskimo.”

Mowat responded to the charges of inaccuracies in his book by saying:

“My book was an attempt at a work of literary worth and to preserve its unity I transposed occasional events to suit the needs of good craftsmanship.”

This is reminiscent of a comment attributed to Mowat in later years, when confronted with similar suggestions of inaccuracy, that he would never let the truth get in the way of telling a good story.

A war of words between Porsild and Mowat ensued. The Beaver refused to print Mowat’s rebuttal to Porsild’s review, but the battle played itself out in the Montreal Star and Saturday Night magazine, and even reached the floor of the House of Commons.

It was, said Scott Young of the Canadian Authors Association, who wrote Saturday Night’s article on the controversy, Storm out of the Arctic, “a literary battle without modern parallel in Canada.”

Perhaps the most hilarious aspect of the controversy was Porsild’s claim that the Ihalmiut did not exist at all. He refers to them as “the ‘Ihalmiut’ tribe which Mowat has created solely as a vehicle for his attack on Government administration and on the ‘wicked’ traders. There never was such a tribe.”

Unfortunately Porsild, whom the government had portrayed as their expert in this matter, based this claim on the fact that Knud Rasmussen and his colleagues on the Fifth Thule Expedition made no mention of the Ahiarmiut (Ihalmiut.)

They did not, because they did not travel into the southwestern corner of what is now Nunavut, and apparently were not told by other Inuit whom they met farther north about the existence of the small group. Porsild extrapolates incorrectly from this oversight when he says:

“Mowat states specifically that ‘Rasmussen never met the Ihalmiut, and never even suspected their existence.’ Rasmussen for obvious reasons did not mention the ‘Ihalmiut’ because there never was such a tribe.”

Saturday Night published a letter which Porsild signed “A. E. Porsild, Arctic expert,” under the title Arctic Storm in Reverse, to which Mowat responded the following week with The Case of the Disappearing Eskimos.

In it he called Porsild’s earlier review “a deliberate attempt at character assassination,” and mocked the botanist by saying that he had been “haunted for some time by the Eskimos Who Never Were.” He wrote about the “great and continuing evil being perpetuated [perpetrated?] upon the native people of the north” and the “callous indifference and sublime stupidity of those men appointed as administrators over the Eskimos…”

That seems to have been the final volley in this amazing literary war. The government’s expert was wrong in disclaiming the existence of the Ahiarmiut (Ihalmiut) and Mowat was right on this point, though not on all points. The Ahiarmiut most definitely existed, though throughout this battle of words their numbers continued to decline.

No-one lives permanently in that corner of Nunavut today. The Ahiarmiut, who Mowat claimed were starving, were indeed starving. They were evacuated from their homeland and resettled on the Hudson Bay coast.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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