Nunavik remembers Martha Kauki and family

Local officials question southern handling of search



For three and a half hours this past Monday, the community of Kangirsuk remembered Martha Kauki, her husband Joanassie Epoo and two of their children, Victoria and Jacob – all four now presumed dead after the Canadian coast guard recovered Kauki’s body and the family’s overturned canoe Aug. 21.

Friends, family and acquaintances travelled from across Nunavik and southern Canada to attend the ceremony – so many people that local officials moved the service from Kangirsuk’s Anglican Church to the local school to accommodate them all.

“I can tell you not only the building but the atmosphere was full,” Johnny Adams, chairman of the Kativik Regional Government, said the day after the ceremony. “It was very, very sad but it was a kind of celebration of her life and contribution to Nunavik as well.”

Kauki, a revered interpreter and Makivik Corp. board member, her husband and their two teenage children were last seen near Aupaluk Aug. 15. They were on their way back to Kangirsuk after attending a wedding in Kuujjuaq.

When their canoe never arrived home, a week-long search and rescue for the family began, involving both local search and rescuers and the Halifax-based Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC).

But the operation ended last Thursday, shortly after an Air Inuit plane discovered the family’s overturned canoe and Kauki’s body about 10 miles off the northern tip of Labrador. The Canadian coast guard recovered Kauki’s body around 6:15 p.m. that evening.

Though searchers did not recover the other three bodies, Kangirsuk’s mayor and Kauki’s family decided to hold a memorial in honour of the whole family.

Adams said many people spoke at the funeral, each offering a personal glimpse of a woman so many admired.

“Everyone had a bit to say about her and how she affected their lives,” he said.

“The one thing you never heard from Martha was complaints or criticism. She was full of life, always joking around and laughing. That kind of personality has a lasting impact – it always lifted people,” he said.

Yet even as Nunavimmiut paid their respects to the family, local officials were questioning southern-based forces’ handling of the search.

Adams said Nunavimmiut searchers were frustrated for two reasons. First, as soon as Nunavik officials learned of the missing canoe on Aug. 15, they followed protocol and informed the Sûréte du Québec.

But by Aug. 17, southern SQ officials still wanted to wait before informing the RCC and Canadian Coast Guard of the situation, Adams said.

The delay was unacceptable, he said.

“We try and follow protocol but in this it just made things more difficult. When you’re in an office down South your response is different. We [up North] know a day could mean the difference between life or death,” Adams said.

In the end, Adams decided to contact the RCC himself rather than wait another day.

Adams said he was initially very pleased with the RCC’s response. On Aug. 18, the morning after Adams contacted the RCC, a coast guard vessel began searching in Ungava Bay. Another RCC-dispatched vessel, a Hercules aircraft and helicopters joined the search shortly after.

But conflict arose between the two groups a few days later, Adams said, when local searchers learned the RCC had failed to immediately inform them a canoe with a lit lantern had been spotted by the Hercules in the search area.

Nunavimmiut searchers are convinced this canoe was the family’s, Adams said, but because of the communication delay, local searchers were not immediately able to search the area by boat.

If RCC had promptly told local searchers about the canoe, things may have ended differently, Adams said.

Denise Laviolette, spokesperson for the RCC, confirmed the RCC team sighted a canoe and efforts were made to contact the boat’s occupants.

“They put down flares. They went to the location. They [the canoe] weren’t there anymore,” she said.

But though Laviolette said she understood the community may be blaming others in their grief, she said any suggestion that the RCC did not do everything it could to help local searchers and find the missing canoe is a slap in the face.

“We’re not in the business of preventing anything that can be done for finding people. We’re in the business of saving people. And any piece of information we receive is passed on to the rescue coordination centres, it’s passed on to the search master and it’s passed on to the people doing the SARs [search and rescues].”

And there was no way to know if the canoe spotted by rescuers was the one eventually found Aug. 21, she said.

“They don’t have pictures of the canoe they originally spotted. We think it’s a different canoe but we simply don’t know.”

Adams said he has sent an invitation to the RCC’s commander to visit Nunavik and talk over search and rescue procedures. In this way, he said, some positive changes may stem from the incident.

“We have to do something so there are more harmonious relationships between them and our region.”

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