Taissumani, July 31

Bernier’s 1906 Expedition — Sovereignty 101 for Inuit



With Arctic sovereignty very much in the news, last week I began the story of Joseph-Elzear Bernier, who dreamed of being the first to reach the North Pole, but was instead sent on a government expedition to Hudson Bay. His story continues.

Back in southern Canada in the fall of 1905, Bernier immediately began talking up his North Pole hopes again. But Ottawa had different duties in mind for this energetic French-Canadian patriot.

In 1906, the Department of Marine and Fisheries gave him a new assignment, to organize a voyage to the Arctic Archipelago to formally annex all new lands at which he called, to leave proclamations in cairns at all points, and to collect customs dues from foreign whaling ships working Canadian waters.

Bernier, 54 years old at the time, acknowledged the end of his polar ambitions when he wrote, “I determined to devote my efforts… to what after all may be regarded as a more important object, that is to say to securing all the islands in the Arctic archipelago for Canada… I regarded this work of greater importance than any attempts to reach the pole so far as Canada was concerned.”

Once in the north, Bernier pushed his ship, the Arctic, into Lancaster Sound, then around Bylot Island’s northern coast, then south and east to the Scottish whaling station at Albert Harbour.

There he learned that no whalers had been seen yet that year. Retracing his route northward, Bernier forced his ship through Barrow Strait, formally taking possession for Canada of many islands in the Arctic Archipelago. He reached his most westerly point at Melville Island.

Bernier felt passionately that the people who lived on the land he claimed must be made to realize that their land had been alienated and that they were Canadian citizens.

He realized, too, that he would need their assistance in achieving his goals. For his journey west to Melville Island, he hired two Inuit men, one old and one young, to accompany him. They were Miqqusaaq and Qamaniq.

He described his purpose in taking them along: “I wanted them to tell their friends what they had seen to the west. If I had taken only a young man, his story would not have been accepted unreservedly by his tribesmen, but with corroboration by an older man his statements would be unquestioned… I also wanted them to get acquainted with government officials and to get used to the notion that they were now wards of the government, and must accordingly begin to adopt the ways of white men, especially in observing the laws of the country.”

The process of acculturation of the Inuit of the High Arctic had formally begun. Bernier’s official orders make no reference to the Inuit, only to land. The government had not yet realized that effective sovereignty over an isolated territory required something more than the erecting of cairns and the reading of proclamations.

More prescient than the bureaucrats in far-off Ottawa, Bernier himself had taken the initiative to explain the ways of his country to the Inuit. He would raise cairns and read proclamations at almost every landfall, as required, but he had also determined that only through informing the Inuit of what he was doing could he establish a meaningful sovereignty over this vast Arctic territory.

Bernier returned to Albert Harbour and began making plans to winter. On Christmas Day, Bernier hosted about 120 Inuit for Christmas dinner aboard ship, afterwards giving them a lecture on good citizenship.

On the King’s birthday, a royal salute was fired and Bernier took official possession of Baffin Island. He reported, “A speech was made to the men and the natives, by myself; calling [to] the attention of the natives that they had become Canadians, and that we expected them to live in peace and respect one another, and conform themselves to the laws of the Government of the Dominion of Canada.”

The Arctic broke free from her winter quarters and headed for open sea on July 27. Bernier collected whaling licence fees from Captain Cooney of the Scottish ship, Morning, and explored the entrance to Jones Sound, claiming more land for Canada, before returning to Quebec City in mid-October.

The Inuit of northern Baffin Island had had their first taste of white officialdom; under Bernier’s beneficent approach, it had not been unpleasant.

The Inuit were oblivious to the passions which drove a man like Bernier. But it was their land that he coveted on behalf of a largely disinterested nation. With no previous understanding of formalized government, in fact no background against which to consider Bernier’s words, it is doubtful whether the Inuit understood many of the concepts that Bernier was trying to convey to them.

But his first lessons in civics were as good as any that they were to hear for many more decades.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

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