Bill Kemp in 1961, after a canoe trip he made from from Lake Athabasca to the mouth of the Coppermine River. (Photo courtesy of Lorraine Brooke)

Bill Kemp, Inukpak: Sept. 23, 1936 – Jan. 5, 2020

Mapmaker played “vital and brilliant role” in the Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project

By Hugh Brody
Special to Nunatsiaq News

On Thursday, Jan. 2, Bill Kemp phoned me. I was in a car, parked at the edge of the North Sea, on the east coast of England. His voice spoke out through the car’s phone system. He was at home in Montreal, some thousands of miles away. It was his morning, my afternoon.

Yet his voice was loud and clear — a tribute to the technology, and to his determination and defiance: I knew he was dying, for all that he refused to accept any such possibility.

Hello, hello, Bill said. You there? Yes, I answered, and I can hear you just fine. It’s very strange, he said, this city has moved, everything has changed, Montreal has moved away, though Lorraine is here OK, and all the furniture has stayed in the same place; and we still have the same neighbours. It’s just everything else, all around, it’s all gone.

He repeated this, saying that some unfathomable movement of the city out there had taken place, the world around him inexplicably shifting, while he, at home, in his own personal space, was unaltered. A core of the familiar in a vortex of transformation.

Bill Kemp in August 2019. (Photo by Hugh Brody)

I was due to travel to Montreal a week later. I said I was looking forward to seeing him, that I hoped we would sit together and share stories. Yes, yes, he said, we would talk about the work, we needed to get it going. He had said this in several phone calls over the previous month.

We had for some time been developing the idea of an oral history and film about the amazing mapping of Inuit lands and life that Bill and I had both worked on in the 1970s. Bill, in all his confusion, despite some realization he must have had that his life was hanging by a thread, still believed in and hoped for that rediscovery of the mapping and the maps.

I sat looking out across the sand dunes to the sea beyond, hearing Bill’s voice, still strong and recognizable, as he talked what seemed a mix of disarray and affirmation of realities—his home, Lorraine, the mapping project. This was a voice that suggested not a shred of philosophical acceptance of the inevitable closeness of death.

As we came to the end of our conversation tears were running down my cheeks. I think Bill was crying too. I thought: whatever he said, he called to say goodbye. The next day he was in the hospital; two days later he died. Everything around him had indeed changed; though, in the minds of those who knew and loved him, the person who was as obstinate as he was wise, as sensitive as he was physically brave, and the person who always had great difficulty bringing a project to its conclusion, could never disappear.

Inukpaq: a very large person

I met and worked with Bill for the first time in 1973. I was a member of the Northern Science Research Group, a sort of academic arm of the old Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Bill and I joined forces to persuade the federal government to set up a program that would support outpost camps and professionalize hunting.

Bill’s job was to write an assessment of the nutritional value of life on the land. His report was due, overdue, promised, promised again, and just as we gave up all hope of receiving it, he brought it by hand to Ottawa. It was, of course, astonishing for its detail and clarity of thought.

Bill knew and loved the North for all his adult life. As a young canoe enthusiast living in the U.S. Midwest, he read about Samuel Hearne’s 1770-71 expedition, and decided that he, along with five fellow members of an American canoeing club, would travel Hearne’s route from Lake Athabasca to the mouth of the Coppermine River on the Arctic coast. As far as Bill knew, no one had made this trip since Hearne, and the only maps and notes he had to guide him were those Hearne made some 200 years ago.

None of the young canoers had been north before; Bill was the expedition leader and took responsibility for working out the route—which included many long and arduous portages, as well as finding ways across and out of mazes of lakes into the precise flow of river that would lead to the Coppermine. Bill’s memories were always modest as well as precise: they had managed without any great problems, had lived off fish, taken tricky decisions about directions, and arrived at the Arctic coast in very good health after three months of paddling.

This experience convinced Bill that he should make northern geography the core of an academic career, with postgraduate work in the Canadian eastern Arctic. Among his first assignments was a six-week contract to look for archeological sites on an island off the coast of south Baffin. He was duly dropped off with enough supplies to last him the six weeks, and left to get on with the survey on his own.

The next day a violent storm hit the island and Bill found himself crouched under the shelter of a ridge near the shore, waiting for better conditions. After being there for some time, he heard the sound of a small canoe engine: it was a group of Inuit coming to the island to take shelter.

Bill ran to the shore waving, and thus it was he met Killikti and some of his family. They were amazed to find Bill there, and insisted that he come with them when, as the storm abated, they left for home near Kimmirut (Lake Harbour) on the mainland. Thus Bill began the friendship and collaboration that would shape the rest of his life. Killikti gave Bill an Inuktitut name—Inukpaq, very large person, a giant.

An example of the mapping work that Bill Kemp did for the Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project based on Inuit knowledge. This one shows the seasonal movement and concentration of caribou on Baffin Island. (Courtesy of Hugh Brody)

Bill was physically big and very strong; he was a good swimmer and cyclist. But he was a gentle, thoughtful, spiritual sort of giant. He liked to listen, always took endless detailed notes of all he learned, and believed that the only appropriate way to work in the North, or anywhere else, was to sit out on the land or on the floor of an Inuit home and listen.

Best of all, he liked to set out a map and ask people to show you where they went, how they lived, the meaning of their lives—making their own circles and lines to show lands and travel with a pencil at least as much in their hands as in his own. Bill believed that this should take a great deal of time, to hear the stories and then to turn these into documents true to what was being told.

The mapping of Inuit Nunangat

So it was that Bill came to play a vital and brilliant role in the Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project. In 1972, when Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (then called Inuit Tapirisat of Canada) decided that the way forward for land claims was to map every aspect of Inuit life inside the old Northwest Territories, and to establish unquestionable Inuit entitlement to their lands, Bill was asked to take responsibility for the mapping of the communities of south Baffin, and then to prepare maps that showed the combined Inuit use, occupation and knowledge of the whole eastern Arctic.

This was the project that would help turn the Arctic into Inuit Nunangat and establish the extent and priority areas for Nunavut. Bill worked on this with great energy and brilliance, first in close partnership with the Inuit he knew and had lived with, and then setting up a team of assistants and technical support people in Montreal. The final documents included maps to show every aspect of hunting, trapping, fishing, and berry-picking, but also revealing Inuit analysis of caribou herd migrations, polar bear distribution and denning, and details of Inuit travel routes across the region.

Bill’s contribution to the Land Use and Occupancy Project lasted from 1972 to 1975; he then went on to lead similar mapping, as well as harvest studies, in Nunavik. This work on both the Nunavut and Nunavik maps never really came to an end; for the rest of his life Bill would be giving support to, if not taking the lead on, Inuit mapping projects. He also took what he had learned in the North to other parts of the world.

Bill was not a university type, and never felt at ease in academia. He was for nine years a professor in the McGill University geography department—his lectures there are remembered as inspirational, with Bill bringing his love for, and immersion in, Inuit Nunangat to the classroom with unique storytelling energy.

But he was glad to leave academic life and become a freelance, offering his skills and experience to people who badly needed them. This led to projects in Cambodia, researching aspects of the Mekong River, eastern Africa, where he worked on the Nile basin and, after 1998, to South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Meanwhile, he set up Strata 360, a small company that offered mapping services of all kinds.

The first land claims in Africa

I worked again with Bill in South Africa. This was among the first land claims to emerge in Africa, and was supported after 1996 by the Mandela government. Bill again took on the job of creating maps to show a people’s relationship to the places and resources they had long regarded as theirs, and again found himself listening to a hunter-gatherer society, this time the ‡Khomani San peoples of the southern Kalahari desert, as they took him to places where they had lived.

This resulted in Bill and his team at Strata 360 making a set of maps and posters that gave visual authority to the voices and experiences of the southern Kalahari San, which in turn led to the achievement, in 1999, of a land claim settlement. Bill then went on to play a vital part in the mapping of the lands and lives of the Hai//om San of the Etosha region of Namibia, and mapping and map-making capacity building for San in Botswana. These projects lasted until 2005, but Bill continued to work with the people of the southern Kalahari many years after the land claim.

Bill was indeed a giant, Inukpaq. He was a wonderful geographer, a brilliant maker of people’s maps; and he was these things because he cared for others, listened, and was unfailingly loyal to all who had looked to him for help. He was also a caring, supportive colleague and a loving friend. He had a way of being non-linear, seemingly in some kind of information overload, beset with confusions; and he had intense difficulty with deadlines.

Those who knew him best and loved him most would not deny that he could be resolute to the point of obstinacy. But we would agree that he needed these qualities to be who he was, to deliver his remarkable package of skills and achievements.

Lorraine Brooke was the love of Bill’s life. They met at McGill in 1974, and were married in 1985. For several decades, Lorraine was essential to Bill being able to roam and work at his pace. He already had three children he was deeply attached to, in whose lives Lorraine played a loving and crucial role, and then four grandchildren. Bill was an adventurer, often speaking of how much he needed to travel, to be out in some research zone far from anything familiar or domestic.

But he was very close to his family, and they to him; and, despite his deep commitment to low impact lightweight adventure, he was a fabulous and sophisticated cook—with a kitchen in Montréal designed to produce complex, gourmet cuisine for family and friends. All of us who knew and loved him will miss him terribly. We know that there will never be anyone like Bill in our lives.

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(24) Comments:

  1. Posted by kMisco on

    A nicely presented memoriam of a truly remarkable gentleman. No surprise, given his McGill Roots. I had the privilege to attend university years ago under another esteemed McGill geographer, Nic Timofeeff. Cheers. KM

  2. Posted by Peter VanderWoude on

    I had the privilege of working with Bill for a few years, and remaining friends after that. I’m not sure if you’ll read these comments, Hugh, but what a fine job you did of memorializing Bill Kemp. He really was one-of-a-kind.

  3. Posted by John Di Gironimo on

    Thanks Hugh for this touching tribute. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to be in his orbit both personally and professionally. A giant indeed.

  4. Posted by Eric Loring on

    Their are giants in everyone lives, someone that you just cant wait to be next to, that you miss, someone that helps lead your life and give it color, love and meaning. Bill and Lorraine was/are all that to me. I find myself trying not to think to much of my time in Montreal working for Bill, it was by far the very best part of my life, its just too damn hard to think of that right now. But I do find myself with maps with my 7 year old daughter sharing that love, interest and special visions with her. I hope Bill is close by helping me guide her vision into maps the way he was able to shape my vision and love.

  5. Posted by Jeff Higdon on

    I had the pleasure and fortune of working with Bill and Lorraine a few years ago. He was a giant, in many ways. Thank you Hugh Brody for this touching tribute.

  6. Posted by Maggie Peters on

    Thanks for the tribute. Although, I was very young when I met Bill and Lorraine when they worked with my father. I grew to love them both. Reading through this, memories were brought back to me of all the times I would see them come to our home. I was happy to get to see Bill’s kitchen and share a nice meal with them at their home in Montreal a couple years ago.

    Rest In Peace Bill xo

  7. Posted by David Gylywoychuk on

    I am so glad to have had the pleasure to meet and spend sometime with Bill. I am so happy to have read this memoir. Wow, what a life in which he touched so many across the world. Rest In Peace Bill.

  8. Posted by Erik Val on

    Forty five years ago Bill sent me north to map Inuit land use. He showed me how to observe, listen and engage in a way that has guided me in all that I’ve done since. Yes Hugh, you are so right: “….there will never be anyone like Bill in our lives.”

    • Posted by Gita Ljubicic on

      Thanks Erik for introducing me to Bill in recent years, it was an honour to meet him. The spirit and passion coming through Hugh’s touching tribute have Bill’s voice ringing in my ears. His life and work are an inspiration. Bill’s unwavering dedication to learning from Inuit, contributing to Inuit goals through land use mapping, and ensuring that research results and maps remain in Inuit hands, continued through his last years. I did not know him well, but his positive and energetic personality made it feel like you were old friends. His care in working with people, and his care in mapping and representation, meant that his work touched the lives of many. He will be greatly missed. All my best to Lorraine and family.

  9. Posted by Solange Loiselle on

    Sensitive memories for Bill, impressive achievement. Toutes mes condoléances à Lorraine et la famille.

  10. Posted by Karine and Nat Nuulimba on

    Thank you Hugh for that wonderful and apt tribute to Bill. My husband Nat and I had the privilege of working with Bill over the course of several years when we were based in northern Botswana, and Bill would spend sometimes months at a time giving of his time and experience to motivate, guide and inspire a team of young development practitioners and mappers in the small dusty village of Shakawe, in the ‘pandhandle’ of the Okavango Delta. Nat and his San colleague, Thlokomelang, were also warmly hosted by Bill and Lorraine in Montreal, and were able to visit some places where Bill had worked. We will never forget his big warm smile and the calmness with which he handled all situations (everything, he assured us, had a way of working itself out). He had time for us, and shared his amazing meals cooked on the fire or on a small gas cooker. We are so grateful for Bill’s generosity towards us – for the way he kept returning to Botswana, and for the way he believed in our abilities, and encouraged us. Bill stands out as a great mentor and friend, and we will always be thankful to God for the opportunity to have known him.

  11. Posted by T.G.C. on

    quotations in memoriam to an adventurous spirit:

    The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. – Pierre de Courbertin

    There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. – Albert Einstein

  12. Posted by George W. Wenzel on

    Bill was a wonderful friend, charasmatic teacher and true student of all things Inuit. Hugh, your tribute captures Bill in everyway.

  13. Posted by Milton Freeman on

    Thank you Hugh for your fulsome tribute to Bill, truly a giant of a man — someone you could count on and trust. We well and fondly remember his and Lorraine’s kindnesses for past assistance over the years.

    Milton and Mini Freeman

  14. Posted by Jobie Weetaluktuk on

    Time was actually an afterthought to what Bill was doing. Conversation mattered so much more to him and he was a great cook.
    He loved stories and I love this one. He was travelling with Killiti (Qillirti) family, when Killiti found his stash of tin bacon, he claimed “imiatuqarpaa” and chopped it open with an axe. Gone then were Bill cooking plans. I know raw cold bacon and it is not the joy the that crispy friend bacon is.

  15. Posted by Hugh Brody on

    Dear All

    It is wonderful to read others’ tributes to Bill. Reading this has prompted me to remember an episode that I had not included, and which adds another dimension to his astonishing, inspiring life.

    In 1993, to everyone’s surprise, Bill announced that he was moving to Zagreb, capital of Croatia. For some time he had been making journeys across Europe, and was deeply fascinated by twentieth century European history – especially all aspects of the Holocaust. He had been telling me about the importance to him of this travel, but I was astonished when he told me that he had indeed left his life in Canada and set up a new one deep in the old Yugoslavia – and while its violent break-up was still under way. Bill was leaving Canada to embark on life in a war zone. I telephoned Lorraine to express concern, and to get some insight from her into Bill’s decisions. She was wonderfully philosophical. I remember her response to my anxious questions: “I don’t know what Bill is doing; but I do know that this is the first time he has been really happy in a long while.” No greater tribute could be paid to Lorraine’s deeply supportive and caring relationship to Bill; but I still was in the dark.

    So when he urged me to come and visit him in Zagreb, I seized the chance and took a series of trains that ended up with Bill leading me through that beautiful but worn, slightly battered European capital. The war had abated but occasional shells still fell at the city outskirts, and we passed groups of young Croatian soldiers, rifles and ammunition belts around their shoulders. So why had Bill come here? He didn’t really know, but felt it was just the right and most interesting thing for him to do. Getting to the heart of things. Moreover – and he spoke about this at some length – he had removed himself at last from any work or even any thoughts about the Canadian north. He had been exhausted, burned out, determined he would just stop working on anything to do with the maps, lands, harvests, or anything else of that kind.

    He dug deep into the people and places of Croatia and Bosnia, and when he and Lorraine were the only two tourists in Dubrovnik when it was besieged and shelled by the Serbian army. But Bill could not escape or somehow side-step is destiny. He found himself involved in a cultural mapping project in the Croatian islands; and after two years. in 1995, he decided that he was ready to return to Montreal. It was at this point that he set up Strata 360.

    • Posted by Miriam McDonald on

      Thank you for sharing this particular time and memory in Bill’s life. It helps me put decisions I made during those years into context and perspective. My condolences to Lorraine and all who knew, cared for and appreciated Bill, RIP.

    • Posted by Rosemary Ommer on

      Thank you, Hugh, for these memories of Bill. I have been thinking about him, and about you, since I first read this. All of us who were graduate students in Geography at McGill in the 1970s loved him and learned from him, and I am sure we will all miss him now. Bill was a very special presence and spirit in the Department and in and beyond the academy. His life will be treasured by many people.

  16. Posted by Sheila McDonnell on

    Bill’s introductory Arctic Geography course at McGill changed the map of my life. I remember him acting out ice floe seal hunting , first as the hunter waiting with harpoon at a breathing hole or approaching behind a screen on sled, then the seal, basking on the ice – a disheveled prof, rolling enthusiastically on his desk. We had never seen anyone like this in front of a class. He inspired me, helping on mapping related to land claims during the James Bay project, to be a lifelong community, environment and indigenous rights activist.

  17. Posted by Marc Hammond on

    This inevitability so deeply saddens me.

    The world–indeed, my world– was a better place for having Bill in it. Beyond this immediate thought, it’s going to take me a while to collect all my others.

    Thanks, Hugh. for a remembrance filled with much that is familiar to me. I smiled through my tears.

  18. Posted by John Di Gironimo on

    Thanks Hugh for this touching tribute. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to be in his orbit both as a friend and a colleague. A giant indeed.

  19. Posted by Jim Vandenbark on

    Younger brother Tom & I spent childhood through college summers at Camp Kooching , I’Falls, Minnesota on Rainy Lake. Like Bill Kemp, Tim Heinle, Pat Brown, Dave Grout, & other Kooch campers, we Also paddled & portgaged the NWT. In ‘65 & ‘66 we did Coppermine, Hood, and lined up rivers & ice flows, north out of Yellowknife.
    The picture of Kemp in felt hat was typical attire before Indiana Jones popularized exploration adventures. The NWT was truly the last frontier. Our group followed personalities like Kemp, emulated him, followed him into another glorious day in the bush with a sleeping bag.
    The deep essence of Kemp’s soul was revealed in Cincinnati at a fund raiser & memorial for his mentor, John Landis Holden. We were dressed refined, dinner was served, goblets and laughter stab upward, toasting : Kemp rose. Shabby dressed, scruffy, he waited to command attention. He preceded to tell all how “he believed”. The rest of us participated, played, but went forth in search of riches and privledge lives. He on other hand, “believed”, gave it all up, lived megarly, dedicated his existence to others: betterment of a culture; the Eskimo and their simple lives. In words of author, Robert Service, “ the northern lights have seen strange sights, but strangest it ever did see was … Bill Kemp. A spirit of the north voyager

  20. Posted by Susan Woodley on

    This is a wonderful tribute and a pleasure to read, despite the sad occasion. I was fortunate to meet the force that is Bill Kemp on the advice of my McGill PhD supervisor, George Wenzel. Bill’s words of wisdom and experience helped shape my doctoral research on the evolution of social science research in the Arctic. But as a geographer, I was equally curious and impressed with the work Strata360 was doing and wished that GIS had been more advanced than it was when I went through grad school – or maybe that I had delved more into it! I have since gotten to work with Lorraine over the past decade and grew to admire their lives and how they lived them. All my best to Lorraine and their family during this time. No doubt that Bill’s life’s work will always be remembered and valued.

  21. Posted by Rejean Dumas on

    February 23rd. I just found out that Bill passed away in January. I’m chocked. I don’t know if there are still people connected to this forum but I need healing and writing will help.

    The dial in my head is being instantly set back some 40 years. I was attending Bill’s Inuit culture class at Burnside Hall. Little did I know that this would determine what was going to become my life. A few seconds or minutes past the hour, Bill would usually walk into the class (us students eagerly waiting, knowing the next hour would be the highlight of the day). Most often, he would walk in with his coffee cup. But not always. He would then ask who could spare him a quarter for that needed cup from the coffee machine.

    Thinking back, what better way to ignite every one’s interest and make sure we were all awake and grounded. We were hooked from the start. He would often begin with a story and then go on about how it demonstrated such and such aspect of Inuit culture. The story first and then the theory. Way to go! He would be drawing boxes, circles and arrows on the chalk board to support his explanations. And then, he would hop on the long table fronting the auditorium, “zigzaging” his way up, from table to table. First thing we knew, he was standing at the back the room, his head resting on his arms, his hands holding the ceiling. Yes, a giant man was teaching us, animated by a giant mind and giant communication skills. Slowly, he would walk his way down, still explaining and, back to the chalk board, he would point to a specific box, part of what had become a comprehensive “fresque “. He truly had the ability to make understandable and fascinating the complexity of the Inuit culture and how their perfectly adapted skills allowed them to survive through the millenia.
    If more citizens and politicians had taken his classes, we probably would not be in today’s gap of misunderstanding between the first nations and European settlers’ descendants.

    Summer 1980, I heard that Makivik was looking for people to work on eiders and belugas. I still had four courses to go to complete a B. Sc and taking a semester off to work for Makivik was possible only in my wildest dreams. I was working at McGill’s research station in Shefferville. I was trying to get hold of Bill, leaving him numerous messages. And then, just before leaving Shefferville for Montreal, the phone rang. It was Bill wondering if I could fly to Kuujjuaq …soon! A few days later, I was meeting Lorraine at the Makivik office. I still remember it like if it was yesterday. She knew perfectly how to make someone welcomed into the Makivik family. Kuujjuaq, Quartaq, Nuvuk, Kangiqsujuaq, Niarugnutik: the next four months were that dream come through. I went back to McGill for those four courses (one of which was taught by George Wenzel! Hi George, great memories!) and then back to live in Kuujjuaq. The following ten years were the best school, life could offer.

    Many more of us could express how Bill oriented our lifes. I wish that, somehow, he could read this.


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