Lost but not forgotten

Inuk woman in France connects with the family she never knew she had


MONTREAL — It’s been 70 years since Suzy Banquet saw Wakeham Bay, the place of her birth. And in those years, a lifetime has passed. But tears of joy have been flowing in Nunavik and France since Banquet connected with the family she never knew she had.

Banquet, 78, is the daughter of an Inuk woman and a French fur trader. At age eight, she left Nunavik for France with her father, and lost touch with her family and the Inuit community — until last week.

That’s when Timangiaq Okituk of Salluit — the daughter of Banquet’s living half-brother Johnny — called her long-lost aunt in France.

“I didn’t know I even had a family there,” Banquet says from her home in Belves, France. “It brings me real joy. It’s an unimaginable blessing. I cried for happiness. It seems I had to live a very long time first before learning about them.”

A new life

Banquet was born on March 3, 1924, in Wakeham Bay, the site of the today’s community of Kangiqsujuaq. Her mother was Sarah Koperkrok and her father was Joseph Grasset, who established trading posts for the French fur company, Révillon Frères, in Wakeham Bay and Payne Bay.

As a child, Banquet lived in Wakeham Bay with her mother and father. But in 1927, Grasset left for France and didn’t return the following summer as expected. Unbeknownst to Koperkrok, Révillon Frères had sent him to Payne Bay to open up a new trading post near the community now known as Kangirsuk.

“She thought he’d left for good,” Banquet says.

Mother and daughter lived with a hunter named Qamuraaluk for a while, but he was a violent man who beat Koperkrok regularly. Another man, Papigatuk, intervened and took Koperkrok away. She later became the wife of Papigatuk’s older brother, Okituk.

Meanwhile, Grasset asked every person who came to Payne Bay if they knew where his wife and daughter were living. When he finally found them, Sarah had already settled into her new life.

Banquet went to live with “mon papa.”

“He brought me to Payne Bay,” she says. “He told my mother, ‘You can come and see Suzy whenever you want.’ ”

In 1932, Banquet and her father left for France. Before they left, Koperkrok came to Payne Bay to say good-bye. That was the last time Banquet saw her mother.

She wrote her mother many letters from France. They were to be passed on to Koperkrok by an acquaintance of the family, but Banquet never received any reply.

“After my deception in not hearing back from her, well… When we’re young, we push it away and go on with our lives,” Banquet says.

But in Nunavik, Banquet was never forgotten. Though Koperkrok didn’t receive the letters, she always spoke well of her far-away daughter and Grasset, whom she called Ittualuk or “big man.”

Koperkrok and Okituk had four children. The eldest, Putulik, died many years ago. The second child was Susie, named after Koperkrok’s first daughter Suzy. She was handicapped and had no children. Another child, Paulussie, drowned in 1971. Paulussie had 10 children, many of whom still live in Salluit.

Their youngest son, Johnny Okituk — Timangiaq’s father — is 65 years old and lives in Salluit.

When Timangiaq spoke to Banquet on the phone, Johnny was full of questions — and Banquet was equally curious. Most of all, she wanted to know the fate of her mother.

Life had taken Banquet far from Nunavik. She had returned to Canada only once, in 1949, to visit Montreal, where her father died and is buried. She lived in Tahiti for 20 years and had three children. She is now a grandmother, enjoying her retirement years in a stone house designed by her son, who is an architect.

Over the years, Banquet forgot all but a couple of Inuttitut expressions. But she always told her children about their Inuit ancestry and would show them photos of Wakeham Bay and Payne Bay.

“They are proud to be Inuit,” she says.

One photo depicts the memorable visit of an airplane to Wakeham Bay when Banquet was just three or four. “I have many memories up to the age of eight years,” she says.

Chance encounter

Banquet’s rediscovery of her relatives in Nunavik was due to a chance encounter, the goodwill of many Qallunaat and Inuit — and the ability of telecommunications to help people connect.

A few months ago, Anne-Marie Stanton, a former audiologist at Iqaluit’s Baffin Regional Hospital who now lives in France, happened to meet Banquet. Via e-mail, she related Banquet’s history and, finally, the name of her mother to Hannah Ayukawa, an audiologist who visits Nunavik’s Ungava Bay communities.

Ayukawa then asked her friend Jessica Arngak in Kangiqsujuaq if anyone in the region knew about Grasset, Koperkrok and their daughter Suzy — and they did. Elders Nalaak Napaaluk and Johnny Qissiiq remembered all of them. Arngak even found a photo of Koperkrok carrying a baby in her amautik — possibly Suzy.

As the story travelled, even more connections surfaced. It turned out Banquet had a number of relatives in Salluit, including her half-brother Johnny.

She has relatives in other communities, too. Grasset had two children in Payne Bay with a woman named Susie Partridge. Banquet’s half-siblings, Jacob Kudluk and Annie Nassak, are both still alive. A family story says Grasset had wanted to take Jacob to France with him in 1932, but Partridge hid the boy.

Paul Okituk, the son of Banquet’s half-brother Paulussie, was the first of Banquet’s Salluit relatives to learn she was alive. “I was astounded by this news,” he said.

Many Qallunaat traders simply left their half-Inuit children to fend for themselves, but little Suzy had simply vanished from their lives, leaving a hole that was never filled.

Paul sat down to write an emotional letter to Banquet. He tried to fill in the blanks, telling her that she had always been remembered and loved, despite the 70 years of silence.

“We did not know where to begin with our inquiries,” he wrote.

Paul is now eager for Banquet and her children to travel to Salluit for next summer’s Eastern Arctic music festival. Air Inuit has already promised a reduced air fare for Banquet, if she can come.

“I hope we all get to see her,” Paul said.

Banquet also wants to meet her many relatives in Nunavik.

“Tell all my family, please, I am very happy, joyous to have gotten in contact with them,” she said.

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