From the tundra to the battlefield
Adventurous life of Eddy Weetaltuk, the first Inuk soldier, preserved in memoirs
As a teen, Eddy Weetaltuk wanted desperately to leave his beloved home in the North.
He’d survived the 1930s, when his large Inuit family was struggling through a famine while living on islands in James Bay. Three of his sisters died of tuberculosis, and Weetaltuk grew up learning to hide his hunger in order to ease his parents’ worries.
Despite strong attachments to family, Weetaltuk decided he wanted a better life. So, at age 19, he changed his last name to disguise his Inuit origins and joined the army.
The decision later became the backbone of Weetaltuk’s still unpublished book. Weetaltuk, a respected elder and Korean War veteran, finished editing his diary entries with the help of a sociology professor, just before he died of a heart attack in Umiujaq in late February. He was 73.
According to a draft of his writings, Weetaltuk believed it was illegal for Inuit to join the armed forces because the government wanted them to stay in the North.
Although military historians claim no such policy exist, Weetaltuk’s career became an example for other Inuit, not to let anything get in the way of their dreams.
“He always said ‘Inuit belong in this world’,” his nephew Anthony Ittoshat recalled in a recent interview. “He said ‘we’re just as able as anyone else.'”
Weetaltuk’s book is tentatively called From the Tundra to the Battlefield: Memories of the First Known Canadian Inuit Soldier. The 200-page manuscript is under review by the McGill University Press, through the direction of his estate and his supporting author, Thibault Martin.
The final product is expected to paint an intimate picture of Weetaltuk’s upbringing in traditional camps around James Bay, and the military career that took him overseas.
Weetaltuk was the grandson of George Weetaltuk, one of Robert Flaherty’s guides for filming the famous documentary, Nanook of the North, along Hudson Bay. He spent time with his grandfather after the family moved by dog team from his birthplace, Strutton Island, to Cape Hope Island.
The family of 13 subsisted on hunting and trading silver fox furs for credit to buy supplies at the Hudson Bay store in the Cree village of East Main. While fishing at the nearby village of Old Factory, they agreed with a missionary to send Weetaltuk and a brother to residential school at Fort George.
Weetaltuk’s friends said he later recalled the Oblates with affection. He said he freely converted to Catholicism, although most Inuit were Anglican. And, in about 10 years, Weetaltuk mastered English, French and Latin, which he added to his other two languages, Cree and Inuktitut.
Most of all, Weetaltuk credits one of his mentors, Brother D’Amour, for inspiring him to go south in search of work.
With a fake social insurance card in hand, Weetaltuk went to Ottawa and joined the first battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. For the next 17 years, he went by the assumed name of Eddy Vital.
Weetaltuk quickly impressed his superiors in training and on the battlefield, and became known for his sharp eyesight in rough conditions.
In his book, Weetaltuk casts both a critical and flattering light on his years in the army. He witnessed gruesome bloodshed on the frontlines in Korea, including war crimes. Weetaltuk recalls a soldier on his side shooting a North Korean medic while he was picking up his dead and injured comrades.
His book also takes aim at soldiers’ off-duty behaviour. A deeply religious man in later years, Weetaltuk spent his youth with the other soldiers in the brothels of Canada, Japan, and even Korean villages near the front line. At one hut, Weektaltuk was offered an eight-year-old girl, called a “favourite” of the American soldiers.
But Weetaltuk praised the army for treating him as an equal.
“He saw Canadian mainstream society had little respect for indigenous people,” said Martin, who helped with the memoirs.
“In the army, he had the feeling that he was judged by what he did and not what he looked like.”
After the war was over, Weetaltuk trained as a parachutist in Manitoba and did tours of duty at a military base in Germany. While in Europe, Weetaltuk fell in love with a German factory worker.
Weetaltuk wrote that the relationship failed because he was scared to tell the woman about his origins as an Inuk from a poor family in Canada.
After being decommissioned, Weetaltuk moved to Kuujjuarapik and briefly married a schoolteacher. He later moved to Umiujaq after his house burned down, destroying his army medals and uniform.
Weetaltuk was considered Canada’s first Inuk soldier. Military records show that Inuit from Labrador fought with the Canadian Armed Forces in the Second World War, but that was before the territory joined confederation in 1949.