Taissumani, May 30

Farley Mowat and the North, an appreciation


Farley Mowat, who died on May 6 just five five days shy of his 93rd birthday, was a giant among Canadian writers. He wrote 45 books, and over 15 million copies were sold worldwide. Farley wrote in many genres — and in some cases he created those genres.

Let’s dispel the notion that Farley wrote history. He didn’t. He wrote narrative non-fiction, also called literary non-fiction or creative non-fiction. As Ken McGoogan pointed out in an appreciation of Farley’s work in the National Post on May 16, he was in fact “Canada’s first writer of creative non-fiction.”

His first books in this or any genre were about the north, and Farley knew he was breaking new ground. He called this type of writing “subjective non-fiction.”

Farley wrote first and often about the Arctic. His first book, published in 1952 when he was 31, was People of the Deer. In it he recounted his experiences among a group of isolated Inuit in the interior of the Kivalliq (then Keewatin) district, the Ihalmiut.

The caribou migration had failed and the Inuit were starving. Mowat brought this situation to the attention of an unsuspecting world. In doing so, he had dared to criticize the triumvirate that ruled the north – the government in the form of police, the traders represented generally by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the churches, both Anglican and Catholic.

Not surprisingly, they attacked the book fiercely. The book was fiction, they said, and Mowat was simply a liar.

Some government officials went so far as to suggest that the Ihalmiut did not even exist, that Mowat had made them up.
But they did exist. A more correct spelling of their tribal name is Ahiarmiut. The names look markedly different – but speak them aloud and it is quickly evident that they are the same.

The nickname “Hardly Know It” was bestowed by critics early on. When Mowat arrived in Baker Lake in 1958, the Northern Service Officer, Doug Wilkinson, greeted him with, “Would you be Hardly Knowit? …if you’ll pardon me using the tag some of the old Arctic hands have pinned on you.”

Despite the unpleasant moniker, Mowat turned that trip into part of his research for a follow-up book about the Ihalmiut and the even more deplorable conditions that they then faced. This was The Desperate People, published in 1959.

Did Farley commit errors in these two most-influential northern books? Of course he did. Don’t we all? In fact, he’s well known for a memorable quotation that he “never let the facts get in the way of the truth.”

In presenting those facts in his unique manner, he did the north and the Inuit an immense service by bringing to public knowledge – indeed to the attention of an incredulous worldwide audience – the horrendous conditions of an Inuit population living in unspeakable less-than-third-world conditions in a first-world country.

As he put it himself in the largely retrospective Walking on the Land, “…Pandora’s box of northern horrors had been opened and there was no closing it thereafter.” Government had to act, and eventually did, although often ineptly.

Why is this type of writing important? It is so because the governments of democracies need gadflies who rail against their actions, and, even when those actions are positive, urge them on to accomplish more. Farley hit the nail on the head when he wrote about government action following the public outcry caused by People of the Deer.

“In the years following publication,” he wrote, “changes in the treatment of northern aborigines were proposed.

Many of these were progressive. Some few were even implemented.” Farley realized early the dangers of enlightened policies that were announced, but never put into practice. This is a problem that has bedevilled the Canadian Arctic ever since Farley’s works forced the government to reluctantly turn its attention north.

Many Inuit know and appreciate the role that Farley played in the story of the Ahiarmiut. Elisapee Karetak was quoted in Nunatsiaq News on May 20 as saying that Farley played a vital role in publicizing her family’s story.

“Farley, as far as I am concerned, told the truth,” Karetak said. “It’s because of what he wrote that the federal government took action.”

When I served as a commissioner on the Nunavut Implementation Commission in the 1990s, I was present at a meeting in Arviat where the late Jose Kusugak spoke publicly about Farley and his importance to the Inuit.

Other northern books followed The Desperate People, but Farley did not confine his interests to the Arctic. He wrote about his personal experience of the horrors of war, travel, and the environment. Particularly influential was 1984’s Sea of Slaughter, an indictment of the centuries-old exploitation of marine resources on the Atlantic coast of Canada and the United States from Cape Cod to Labrador.

Attempting to enter the United States on a publicity trip for that book, a U.S. border guard denied him entry as an undesirable alien, presumably for his political beliefs. In typical Farley fashion, he turned that experience into another polemic, My Discovery of America. He never visited the United States again.

It is for his northern books that Farley is best known. They launched his career, and sustained it. They should be required reading in Nunavut schools. Long may we remember his outstanding contributions.

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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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