'People who you help, help in return.'

Simeonie Aqpik: A life lived with sled dogs


Kimmirut – Simeonie Aqpik, 76, grew up with sled dogs.

This was during the 1930s and ‘40s, when Aqpik was a boy, and his family lived in camps near Kimmirut, then called Lake Harbour.

It was Aqpik's job to chew on sealskin traces to keep them supple. He can't do this any more, he says with a laugh. His teeth have long since fallen out.

He also took care of puppies. He would tie them up to a small sled and get them to pull him. It was training for the dogs and for him. They learned together how to hunt seal pups on the ice.

The dogs grew, and so did he. He came to depend on them during caribou hunts. He still marvels at how the dogs could pull a qamotiq loaded with 10 caribou carcasses.

Without sled dogs, Aqpik is sure Inuit would have long ago perished.

Aqpik sees differences between dogs, then and now. A sled dog needs constant exercise, he says. Make it work all day and it will learn to love work. Then it never tires.

But today, there are a lot of dogs that stay tied up.

He sees differences with hunters, too. Today, if a hunter is a day or two late returning home, alarms are raised and a search operation begins.

Back then, Aqpik says, people rejoiced if a hunter was late. It meant the hunter had found more meat than expected. No one doubted he would return.

He chuckles at an even bigger reversal. Today, one is more likely to see qallunaat driving dogs in South Baffin. Inuit have largely abandoned dogs in favour of snowmobiles, technology brought in from the South.

"It seems we have switched over a little bit," he says, his Inuktitut interpreted by his daughter, Meeka.

He understands why this has happened. Taking care of dogs is hard work. After a long trip they need to be tended to and fed seal meat.

"When we go by snowmobile, we can get off and just go in the house," he says.

But not all has changed. He's glad to see Inuit still sharing meat during community feasts today. It's an extension of the old Inuit spirit of generosity.

If one camp ran out of seal oil or meat, he says, someone would always go to help, even if it meant travelling many miles.

If a hunter only caught one ptarmigan or arctic hare, it would still be shared with the entire camp.

Life wasn't easy. If nobody caught anything and the camp was out of supplies, that meant everyone went hungry. Some starved.

As a child, Aqpik was at ease around dogs. Qallunaat were another story.

His family visited Kimmirut once a year, when the supply ship Nascopie came to service the Hudson Bay post that had been established in 1911.

During that time, Aqpik hid inside a skin tent, and would only peek out through a small hole. He was afraid.

"I never thought I'd be able to hug qallunaat," he says. "But I do today."

Most cultural conflicts in the Arctic have been based on misunderstandings on both sides, he says.

He remembers wildlife officers telling Inuit not to hunt caribou at certain times of the year. Inuit fearfully complied, and at times went hungry.

He sees young people today who lack enthusiasm for life. It worries him.

Young people today sit in classrooms, rather than work with their hands, as he did. Many seem lost.

Few have sled dogs. He's not sure if Inuit can survive without them, even now.

Modern living introduced many conveniences and distractions. Snowmobiles replaced dogs. Inuit settled in communities. And it changed how people lived.

When Aqpik was little, people were preoccupied with survival. Today, he says people are preoccupied with having fun.

He's no prude. Ask him what he liked best about visiting Montreal for the first time, and he replies, with a laugh, "the women."

But, after 76 years, Aqpik says he now sees there are far more important things than the pursuit of thrills. He says it isn't the purpose of life.

It's to be kind and help others.

"People who you help," he says, "help in return."

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