“We had no mirror in our igloo”

Oblate missionary’s photos depict the rapid change in Inuit lifestyle in the 1950s



Bernard Fransen first came North in 1953 when the young Belgian priest arrived in Baker Lake at the age of 27, he knew only a few fellow missionaries. Though he didn’t speak Inuktitut, he was welcomed with open arms by the Inuit residents of each of the settlements he visited. And when he left the eastern Arctic 20 years later, he had made friendships that would last the rest of his life.

It is in recognition of those friendships that Fransen has put together a book of photos he collected during his travels. Self-published by Fransen just before Christmas, Memories from Nunavut is part photo album, part history book.

“The pictures contained in Memories from Nunavut record the historical change of the Inuit way of life at the time, like moving from an igloo to a high-rise, from dog teams to snowmobiles or from paddles and sails to outboard motors,” says Peter Irniq, commissioner of Nunavut, in his foreword to the book.

“Who would have thought that my friends like Jack Anawak would one day become a member of parliament, Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak a famous author or Jose Amaujaq Kusugak president of Inuit Tapiriisat Kanatami, or myself, commissioner of Nunavut.”

Fransen has known Irniq, Anawak and the Kusugak brothers since they were children, and has followed their careers. It was through the encouragement of Irniq and Anawak that Fransen decided to publish the book.

“They knew that I took quite a few photographs as a hobby,” Fransen says in an interview from his home in Penticton, British Columbia.

During a trip to Rankin Inlet in 2001, he realized that there was a real demand for his photographs. “I have been asked often by young Inuit what their parents and grandparents looked like and what they did. Sometimes even middle-aged people asked how they looked themselves as children, ‘because we had no mirror in our igloo,’” Fransen writes in his introduction.

The book chronicles Fransen’s trip from Baker Lake to Chesterfield Inlet, Cape Dorset, Repulse Bay, Igloolik and Rankin Inlet. It contains 210 photos, most of them black and white images taken in the 1950s, and a few colour images taken in the early 1960s.

Memories from Nunavut is Fransen’s second book. The first, called Face of my People, was published in 1970, before he left the Arctic. “That was more to depict or show the philosophy of the Eskimo, the way of thinking of the Eskimo,” he says. “Face of my people — that doesn’t mean the physical face but the psychological face. How I perceived them.”

The newest book is an extension of that theme, though in the years that have passed, some of the memories have begun to fade. Some photos contain detailed caption information, though many contain fragments of information, such as Chesterfield Inlet’s “Old Michael” and “Young Rosalie.”

However, most contain little information at all, such as a Baker Lake photo whose caption reads, “Who is this man from Back River?” and the text below a Cape Dorset photo that reads, “Who am I?”

Residents of those communities may be able to recognize their parents or grandparents in those pictures, but few have had the opportunity since the book is not yet available in Nunavut. Fransen is in the process of striking a deal with Arctic Co-ops Ltd. and the North West Company Inc. to carry the book in co-op and Northern stores throughout the territory, but so far the only store to sell the book is in Yellowknife.

Though he has shipped copies to friends in Iqaluit, he says the cost has been prohibitive.

“It’s very hard to get it to the Arctic,” he says. Because the book is self-published, he must make distribution arrangements himself. “But it’s not for people it in the south. It’s for people in the north — to make them remember their ancestors and their way of life, where they came from 50 years ago and how fast they developed and how few suicides there were at that time.”

The book shows the development of the Rankin Inlet nickel mine, a short-lived project that has nearly faded from memory. “I visited the mine several times,” he says. “What is remarkable is that the influences I tried to show in the book — like industrialization and mechanization — were brought to the North at once.”

The photos show a young Celestin Erkidjuk loading ore and operating the underground train. “I knew him in Repulse Bay in ‘54, ’55, living in an igloo in the snow and a tent in the summer. By ’60, ’61, he was 300 feet underground working in the mine,” Fransen says.

“If that’s not change and adaptation, then I don’t know what is.”

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