Bill Kemp, Inukpak: Sept. 23, 1936 – Jan. 5, 2020
Mapmaker played “vital and brilliant role” in the Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project
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.
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.
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.