Belated apology, settlement on the way for relocated Ahiarmiut Inuit
“I am confident that the wrongs done to my people will finally be addressed by the federal government”
(Updated at 10:50 a.m.)
The descendants of the inland Ahiarmiut Inuit, whose original homeland now lies within Nunavut’s Kivalliq region, may soon receive compensation and an apology from Ottawa for the relocations they endured in the 1940s and 1950s.
Through its special claims process, the federal government has finally given a settlement mandate to a team from the Ahiarmiut Relocation Society, five years after its claim was filed.
The parties are now in a position to attempt to settle the long-outstanding claims, the group’s lawyer, Steve Cooper, announced Monday in a news release.
They’re hoping to settle the claim later this year, Cooper told Nunatsiaq News.
This will include an honourable settlement of the claims, involving compensation, commemoration and an apology that the group hopes will come from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself.
“There were many times when I thought of giving up, but the ancestors pushed me on,” said David Serkoak in the news release. In 1998, he created the Ennadai Lake Society—now the Ahiarmiut Relocation Society—to represent the interests and claims of the Ahiarmiut group.
“I know we have work to do, but I am confident that the wrongs done to my people will finally be addressed by the federal government. I only regret that so many of them will not be around to see the conclusion of this struggle.”
In 2007, the group retained Cooper—currently of Cooper Regel, a member of Masuch Law—to provide ongoing legal advice and start a claim against Ottawa.
The claim sought recognition of the harms caused by the multiple relocations, as well as compensation and an apology. The litigation was diverted to a special claims process established by the federal government to deal with historical wrongs involving Indigenous Canadians.
“I have watched and participated in many significant claims by Indigenous people against governments across Canada come and go. I share the Ahiarmiut’s frustration with the fact that their relatively modest and obvious claims were not being resolved,” Cooper said.
“I am happy that it’s finally the Ahiarmiut’s turn and we are hopeful for a timely and just resolution of this historic claim. It’s long overdue.”
Canadian government officials justified the Ahiarmiut’s relocations by saying they feared the Inuit were growing too dependent on the staff at the Ennadai Lake weather station. They also said they believed the new locations would offer better hunting opportunities. They were terribly mistaken about this, given the hardships and starvations that followed.
In 1958, Canada’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs touted the relocations in a news release titled, “Eskimos fly to new hunting grounds,” which compared the Ahiarmiut to other relocated Inuit, who would become known as the High Arctic exiles.
“This is not the first time that Eskimo hunters and their families have volunteered to leave their home because game was scarce,” the release stated. “For the same reason, Eskimos from the east coast of Hudson Bay were moved to Cornwallis and Ellesmere islands in 1953. If the success of these earlier settlers is any guide, the Ennadai Eskimos can hope to find relative prosperity in their new surroundings.”
Ahiarmiut have disputed that the relocations were voluntary, saying they had little choice in the matter.
The Ahiarmiut endured multiple relocations, from Ennadai Lake to Nueltin Lake, from Ennadai Lake to Henik Lake, and from Henik Lake to Arviat about 400 kilometres east of Ennadai Lake.
The relocations to Nueltin Lake and Henik Lake both proved complete failures, says a paper called “Relocating the Ahiarmiut from Ennadai Lake to Arviat (1950-1958),” by Frédéric Laugrand, Jarich Oosten and Serkoak, presented at the Inuit studies conference in 2006.
The Ahiarmiut maintained that Ennadai Lake was an excellent hunting area and failed to understand why they were relocated, the authors noted.
Elder Job Muqyunnik called the first relocation “the saddest time of my life.”
“It was around May in 1949. Qallunaat came to the weather station there at Ennadai Lake,” he said in 2005. “They had a large vehicle up there. This bulldozer came to our tent.
“The driver told us to leave our tent so we went out. He went back to his vehicle and drove over our tent, back and forth. He broke everything we had. He drove over them and destroyed everything. That was the hardest time of my life because we didn’t have anything to survive with anymore.”
These dreadful memories are also discussed in books, including Tammarniit (Mistakes): Inuit relocation in the Eastern Arctic 1939-63 by Frank Tester, as well as Farley Mowat’s fictionalized tales People of the Deer and the Desperate People, which drew widespread attention to the plight of the Ahiarmiut.
Their story also received sensationalized treatment in a 1956 Life magazine cover story, and has been documented in films.
Elisapee Karetak was the youngest of the Ahiarmiut who were relocated, and her story is one of the best-known. It’s told in a 2001 film by Ole Gjerstad, which you can watch online here.
Karetak was only an infant carried on the back of her mother, Kikkik, who during the winter of 1958 killed her husband’s murderer, and was then forced to abandon two of her children as she trekked across the Barrens to seek help at Padlei for her starving family.
The Ahiarmiut continued to be bumped around: from Arviat, then known as Eskimo Point, they were moved by ship first to Whale Cove and a few months later to Rankin Inlet, with many settling finally in Arviat.
“As child you’re either cold or hungry. As a parent you know you’re cold and hungry, but you also know that everyone is depending on you, and they felt entirely powerless,” Cooper told Nunatsiaq News in 2013.
Of the roughly 20 surviving members of the Ahiarmiut group, only one remaining elder in Arviat, Mary Anowtalik, can now remember being relocated.
In August 2013, she went back to visit the weather station with her son Paul E. Anowtalik. That’s where Ahiarmiut now hope to see a memorial eventually set up.