Taissumani, Oct. 30

“Our picture was once on a banknote”—Inuit on the two-dollar bill

The former $2 bill that featured an image of Inuit hunters was based on a photograph taken by filmmaker Doug Wilkinson in 1951. Leah Idlout wrote the names of the six men in syllabics on this particular banknote. (Image courtesy of John MacDonald)

By Kenn Harper

The Bank of Canada Museum has recently published on its website an interesting article on the former $2 bill that featured an image of Inuit hunters. I was pleased to be able to contribute some information to their documentation.

In 2018, I wrote an article on the $2 bill. But I subsequently learned that there was much more information available on its history than I had previously realized.

In 1986, Nellie Erkloo from Pond Inlet was a journalist for Nunatsiaq News and wrote her own article on the bill, “Mint replaces Inuit $2 bill this month. Aulatseevingmiut recall the day of the picture.” That article is too old to be in the newspaper’s online archives. I found a copy while sorting through some old files. I called Nellie in Pond Inlet, where she is manager of community economic development for the Government of Nunavut. She was happy that her piece had been re-discovered and gave me permission to use the interviews she had done 34 years ago.

The Inuit in the engraving are, from left to right: Gideonie Qitsualik, Lazarus Paniloo (also known as Peter Paniloo), Solomon Kadluk (also known as Herodier Kalluk), Paul Idlout (identified by his Inuktitut name, Ullattitaq, as well as his English name and surname), Joseph Idlout and Elijah Erkloo.

Joseph Idlout passed away tragically in 1968, but Nellie interviewed the five others. Two of them are still living. Paul Idlout is retired from his position as bishop of the Arctic and lives today in Iqaluit. Elijah Erkloo, Nellie’s father, a longtime adult educator, politician and Inuktitut-language specialist, presently lives in a care home in Ottawa.

The picture on which the engraving was based is taken from a film, Land of the Long Day, by Doug Wilkinson at Joseph Idlout’s camp at Aulatsiivik (Aulatseevik), about 60 km west of Pond Inlet. The engraver took a few liberties with it to make it fit the size of the bill.

Peter Paniloo, Joseph Idlout’s son, recalled the day in May of 1951 when Wilkinson arrived at the camp. His sister, Rebecca, acted as interpreter. “My father (Joseph Idlout) was told first of all that they were going to do some filming during their stay and would be living with us that spring,” he remembered. “We were instructed to take absolutely no notice of the filming process when we acted out real-life scenes.”

“I really enjoyed the fact that we were being filmed. The weather was just perfect then. That film didn’t happen with just one shot. We had to do it over and over again—about 10 to 15 times.”

“I remember that we were told that the Inuit lifestyle would soon change and Inuit would forget about their culture and that through filming us, it would be a way of preserving the culture and lifestyles of the Inuit.… Now, even though we are old men, we still haven’t forgotten our old way of life.”

Herodier Kalluk is the man, third from the left, about to step into the kayak in the picture. “The previous day the ocean was really stormy and had scattered ice along the beach,” he remembered.

“The sea had settled and although there were actual narwhals further down, we simulated the narwhal hunt. Our grandfather (Abraham Akumalik) looked through his binoculars and spotted some narwhals. In that instant we quickly ran down to the kayak and prepared for the narwhal hunt.”

Kalluk thought that the image on the bill was an important milestone for Inuit. “It was our chance to show other Canadians something of our life here. I’m very happy they did it.”

“When I saw the $2 bill later on, I sort of jumped from shock. Holy smoke, I was on the picture. I had no idea and it never crossed my mind that a part of the film would be depicted on the $2 bill. When I saw it, I was just happy about it. The sudden realization and nostalgia—when I recognized the picture—of that day that we were filmed out near Aulatseevik, all came back to me.”

Gideonie Qitsualik, depicted crouched and working on a kayak, later became a well-known Anglican minister in Gjoa Haven. He recalled that he was in awe at the art of the filmmaker when he saw the finished film: “I remember the day when we simulated the whole narwhal hunt, when in fact there were no narwhals close by. After I saw the actual film, there were narwhal excerpts. I was really in awe and I wondered how they did that….

“When I saw the $2 bill, I never gave it much thought. I just laughed about it. Even though I had no money myself, here I was on the $2 bill—I just found it humorous. To me it wasn’t such a monumental thing.”

Paul Idlout, later to be bishop of the Arctic, is the young boy kneeling. “We eventually found out … that our picture was on the $2 bill,” he told Nellie. “How we got there we had no idea for the longest time.”

His reaction was positive: “We will be able to say—particularly to our next generation—our picture was once on a banknote.”

Elijah Erkloo is the young boy holding the kayak paddle, on the far right. At the time of Nellie’s article, he was the MLA for Amittuq (Foxe Basin). He told his daughter, “Joseph Idlout was my uncle on my father’s side. He was the leader at our camp.”

“The desire to hunt narwhales and nothing else, that was the only thing on our minds then, we never held in our minds that what we were doing would be depicted on the $2 bill.”

“When I first saw the $2 note, my only perspective was of it looking like any other regular picture and that was the reason it was placed. I wasn’t surprised at first, it was only later after people started to talk about it, especially the white people who thought it was great. It was then that it hit me and that I marvelled about it. Hey, I am on that picture too.

“For me, what was most on my mind then is that although our picture was on the $2 note, when one has no money or when one does not have a $2 bill, being depicted on a banknote had absolutely no use for us.”

The Inuit on the bill were often asked to sign them, for tourists and visitors. The Nunasi Corp. flew Peter Paniloo to an exhibition in southern Canada in 1986 as part of their sealskin leather promotion, to autograph copies of the bill. “I signed a lot of them, starting from 9 a.m. up till 3 p.m.,” he recalled. The bills were put into sealskin wallets that Nunasi was promoting at the N.W.T. Pavilion. To him, the picture was not a big deal: “We’ve never received any money because of it and to us it was of no use…. Most of the time we’re just asked for our signatures or are asked why we are on the $2 bill.” In fact, he expressed relief that the bill was being withdrawn: “I will like it a lot better now because I will not have to sign the bills anymore and not to be bothered so much.”

Kalluk was often asked to sign copies of the bill: “I was also asked to sign $2 bills this summer—36 bills—and I was given a whole carton of cigarettes. That is the only payment that I’ve received.”

About keeping some as souvenirs, Elijah Erkloo said, “I too am looking for crisp $2 bills because I would like to have them as souvenirs—for my grandchildren so that they will be able to see it.”

Paul Idlout commented, “At times it was tiring when people asked me to sign $2 bills for them.” But he intended to keep some as souvenirs: “I will always have in my possession the old version of the $2 bill. And before they go out of circulation—I will collect about 100 $2 bills and give them out to my friends after it has been replaced.”

The Bank of Canada Museum feature can be found here.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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(5) Comments:

  1. Posted by Jobie Weetaluktuk on

    Not a taitsumaniluk, but so refreshing.
    This one is even so relatable because it is not from long, long ago.

  2. Posted by George Wenzel on

    I had the good fortune to meet Kulluk in the mid-1970s. He was very happy that Inuit were depicted on the bank note. Kulluk explained the picture’s context, identified the hunters and Kindly signed the crumpled note that was in my pocket.

  3. Posted by Bert Rose on

    Between 2001 and 2013 I taught Financial Management courses for the GN across Nunavut.
    As a part of my teaching materials so hundreds of government staff got to see one was this special two dollar bill.
    I had to buy one from a coin store in Ottawa.
    It cost me $18.00 to buy $2.00 bill.

  4. Posted by Northern Guy on

    The “exhibition” Kenn is referring to was Expo 86 in Vancouver, and I remember visiting the NWT Pavillion and standing in line to get a bank note autographed by Peter. That sparked my love of the Arctic.

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