How Alfred Tremblay tamed Igloolik
In 1912, Capt. Joseph Bernier left the service of the Canadian government, purchased the Minnie Maud, a small two-masted mackerel schooner, and became a private fur trader in the High Arctic.
That July, he left Quebec City outfitted for two years of trading and gold exploration in the Arctic. A month later, the vessel anchored in Albert Harbour, a few kilometres west of present-day Pond Inlet.
An Inuit village of 19 sealskin tents, with about 50 inhabitants, was just a short distance away at the base of the mountain the Inuit called Igarjuaq.
The expedition took over the six-room former whaling building Bernier had purchased from its Scottish owners and used it as trading headquarters. Some members left the ship and lived there at Christmas and New Year’s and the following summer.
The biggest room, measuring 10 feet by 18 feet, served as kitchen, dining room, living room, trading store, visiting room for the Inuit and concert and dance hall. It was also a workshop where the Inuit could repair their broken sleds, harpoons and rifles.
Life was neither pleasant nor easy at Albert Harbour. From mid-September, the men saw little of the sun. It dipped lower each day and was soon hidden from view by the high hills surrounding the harbour.
On shore, the hills and enormous boulders made walking “a difficult and dangerous scramble.” The men had brought their own water supply in casks from Quebec, but that ran out in early October and from then until early June they relied on melted ice and snow.
Bathing was a luxury. Lice appeared on board the ship and most of the party suffered from it. The tents of the Inuit were also infested.
After freeze-up in early October, the Inuit came regularly from the village for free meals, tobacco and biscuits. Many of the ship’s men preferred to escape the ship’s confines and live ashore in wooden shacks or in snow houses with the Inuit.
Some of Bernier’s men prospected during the fall, but they quickly concluded there was no gold to be found in the area. The expedition became a simple trading venture.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of any member of the expedition was the epic journey of Alfred Tremblay.
A self-taught geologist who had accompanied Bernier on his previous Arctic expedition, Tremblay, 25, left Pond Inlet in late October with other members of the party and travelled via Navy Board Inlet and Admiralty Inlet to Strathcona Sound.
There he hired Piunngittuq as a guide and accompanied by the guide’s wife, Tuutalik, they travelled to Igloolik, which they reached on March 20.
Tremblay was only the second white man there since William Edward Parry in 1823.
Inuit in Igloolik have not forgotten Tremblay. Indeed, he would be hard to forget, because his behaviour on arrival was so bizarre.
Rosie Iqallijuq, an elder in the community, recalled in an interview for the Igloolik Oral History Project in 1991: “It is said that he had a pistol so with it he shot the island of Igloolik as he walked around the shoreline.
“After he had shot the island, he said that Igloolik was dead and that a ship will now be able to get to the island.”
Igloolik was notoriously difficult to reach by ship, and another elder, Noah Piugaattuk, explained Tremblay’s behaviour this way: “Igloolik is like a wild animal, very hard to catch.”
Walking around the island firing his gun into the ground was Tremblay’s way of taming it, to make it more easy to access.
These recollections call to mind events of nearly a century earlier. Inuit attributed the fact that ships never came to Igloolik to the actions of the explorer, Parry, in the 1820s.
He had punished a shaman for allegedly stealing a shovel from his ship, and the shaman in return “blew their ships away and told them never to return,” in the words of the late elder Hervé Paniaq.
A different reason, but with the same result, was given by Rosie Iqallijuq.
In her story, the shaman was jealous because his wife had “started to go around with some of the white people. When he [Parry] departed it is said that the shaman, aided by his helping spirit, blew the ships away so that no other ship can ever make it back to Iglulik.”
Tremblay explored the Igloolik area, then returned overland via Milne Inlet. He reached Bernier’s shack on the Salmon River on May 10. He had long since been given up for dead, and Bernier’s men thought they were seeing a ghost.
I visited Alfred Tremblay in a war veterans’ hospital at Courville, near Quebec City, two years before his death in 1975.
There was very little left of him at the time. Circulatory problems had cost him both his legs. He was deaf in one ear as a result of a rifle explosion, and his eyesight was failing.
I interviewed this fraction of a man about his experiences in the North. However, senility was rapidly claiming what remained of this Arctic man, described by one writer as “the greatest overland explorer in the Canadian Arctic in the early part of the twentieth century,” and his reminiscences veered in and out of lucidity.
I knew the Inuit remembered him as Taamali — the best they could do at pronouncing his surname — but he insisted they had called him Tuurngaq, and that it was because they regarded him as a devil.
Perhaps they did. For they still remember the day that the first white man on the island in almost half a century tamed Igloolik.
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].