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Literary Canada: Colonial Injustice and the Return of Daylight

As part of her tour of the Arctic through its literature, Margaret Williams, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s U.S. Arctic program, makes a virtual visit to Canada and finds the cruel impacts of colonization, as well as comfort in the stars that signal the sun’s return.

Written by Margaret Williams Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Arctic fireweed buchan gulf nunavut canada
Arctic fireweed (Epilobium sp.) on the shoreline of Buchan Gulf, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada.Photo Courtesy Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada

Kiss of the Fur Queen

Champion Okimasis stands at the edge of frozen Nameegoos Lake, playing a rickety accordion. “Caribou, caribou, come to me,” his four-year-old voice squeaks into the winter air. After some time, a herd of caribou – the animal that provides his family with food and shelter – thunders onto the snow-covered lake. The boy’s father speeds after them in a sled drawn by eight huskies. Just as Abraham, the musher, has aligned his rifle and sled to shoot a caribou calf, he sees his intrepid daughter standing on the lake. Realizing something is amiss, Abraham veers toward the shore, commanding his dog team to brake. “Something’s wrong with mother,” the girl cries.

Abraham’s wife, Mariesis, is about to give birth. As he describes the arrival of Champion’s new baby brother, author Tomson Highway weaves legend, celestial phenomena and myth into the story.

“He had to squirm and wiggle and flail and punch his way through soil and rock and mineral… through permanently frozen clay, tangled roots of trees and dormant fireweed and shards of animal and human bone… The earth around him rumbled and gurgled as if it would split open… And the flash of light was the second-last thing he would remember about his first journey on Earth.”

Throughout “Kiss of the Fur Queen,” Highway consistently creates a sense of place for the reader. There is no question about where we are on the planet. “A spray of stars exploded across the universe, turned back, regrouped, and made a perfect dipper above the Okimasis tent. The mid-wife’s voice intoned: ‘Ooneemeetoo. Kiweethiwin. Ooneemeetoo.’ And so, the child was named: Dancer.”

Highway uses the boys’ childhood to explore the role of Western religion in Indigenous communities – in this case, the Catholic Church’s power and dominance. Abraham is a firm believer in the church and when the local priest, Father Bouchard, insists on christening the baby Gabriel, Abraham agrees.

By age seven, children are sent from their village to a Catholic boarding school. (“It’s the law,” Abraham tells his wife, who aches to keep her boys at home to follow the caribou and live on the land as a family.) Highway’s scenes are just detailed enough for the reader to understand viscerally the pain of the loss of home, identity and culture. We feel the shame, rather than faith, that the church imbues in the Okimasis boys.

At school, the priests and nuns give Champion a new name, Jeremiah. They shave his head and prohibit him from speaking Cree. He is taught about “good” and “evil” according to Fathers Bouchard and Lafleur. Two years later, his little brother is subjected to the same humiliation, and more. One night Champion sees a “a dark, hulking figure” leaning over Gabriel’s bed. “The bedspread was pulsating, rippling from the center. No, Jeremiah wailed, please. Not him again.”

Gabriel and Champion are unable to share with their parents the truth of the priests’ sexual abuse. (“The Catholic Church saved our people,” insists Abraham.) Feeling out of place in their village, as young adults they move to the city. Champion pursues music. Gabriel finds refuge in dance as well as gay bars, drugs and drinking. While seeking their own path, they see other young Cree men and women struggling to do the same, meeting violence along the way. On visits to their parents they see how the Western world has infiltrated their very roots. An airstrip now allows direct flights to their village. New homes of plywood and cheap material replace the sturdy log cabins. Alcohol becomes plentiful and omnipresent and domestic violence spikes.

“This is a depressing story,” I told my friend, as I put down the book, mid-page. “Then why are you reading it?” he asked. I continued reading because Highway’s images gripped me, and because he captures the stark contrast between beauty and wisdom in the Arctic with ugliness and violence. Long after I finished the book, I found my mind returning to Highway’s scenes and messages.

Bilingual stop sign in the Inuit community of Pangnirtung, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. (Photo Courtesy Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada)

Bilingual stop sign in the Inuit community of Pangnirtung, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. (Photo Courtesy Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada)

Sunrise Over Pangnirtung

In 1952, Otto and Didi Schaefer, German emigrants to Canada, made their way to the High Arctic, where Otto would begin nearly five decades of medical service to Inuit communities. Intrepid travelers (by Western standards), they soon learned of the hardy and resourceful approaches to living on the land and sea from the Inuit communities they would be serving. “Sunrise Over Pangnirtung” is an interesting and fun read, with great black and white photos, about life in Canadian Arctic villages in the last half of the 20th century.

Boys in the Inuit community of Qikiqtarjuaq, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. (Photo Courtesy Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada)

Boys in the Inuit community of Qikiqtarjuaq, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. (Photo Courtesy Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada)

Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, The New York Eskimo

As we “celebrate” the many achievements of bold Arctic explorers, rarely do we hear about the misguided and cruel policies of those who settled in the Arctic, often with little regard to the impact their studies or territorial explorations might have on the residents of the region.

Such was the case in the 19th century as the British, Americans and others sailed north to trace the contours and coast of the High Arctic. Explorers and scientists from around the world came to map the northern reaches of the globe, tap Arctic resources, learn about the region’s inhabitants and, in the case of Admiral Robert Peary, plant a flag on the North Pole. John Ross of the British Empire arrived in Greenland in the summer of 1818; American explorer Elisha Kent Kane came to Greenland in 1854; and Admiral Robert Peary first traveled to this ice-covered land in 1886.

Peary was much admired and lauded for his recognition of the ingenuity of Indigenous culture in the Arctic. In planning his attempt to reach the North Pole, he studied and adapted local techniques of hunting, building snow houses, clothing oneself and using sled dogs for transportation. (In contrast, British explorers shunned the use of dogs.) He valued the knowledge and wisdom that Inuit had accumulated for thousands of years of living in extreme conditions.

However, as Kenn Harper relays in “Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, The New York Eskimo,” in Peary’s competitive zeal to prove himself as an Arctic explorer he committed some grave injustices toward Inuit people. It may be inaccurate to implicate him alone in the story of Minik, a young boy who was taken to New York City, but Peary played a catalytic role in bringing Minik, another child and four adults from Greenland. According to Minik years later, Peary promised the Inuit taken to the United States “nice warm homes in the sunshine land, and guns and knives and needles and many other things.”

“Give Me My Father’s Body” is a distressing but important account of what happens to Minik, his father and their fellow countrymen while in the United States. The book is a unique and startling side of the story of Admiral Robert Peary and the Museum of Natural History, two drivers of scientific discovery in the 19th century.
Fresh-cut Arctic char in the Inuit community of Clyde River (also known as Kangiqtugaapik), Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. (Photo Courtesy Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada)

Fresh-cut Arctic char in the Inuit community of Clyde River (also known as Kangiqtugaapik), Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. (Photo Courtesy Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada)

The Arctic Sky: Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore, and Legend

Almost every year, as I stare up into the clear Alaska winter sky, I resolve to learn more about astronomy – or, at least, to learn some constellations. Back east on summer nights I could pick out Orion’s belt, Cygnus, the Big and Little Dipper, and the Summer Triangle of stars Deneb, Vega and Altair. But my repertoire pretty much stops there. John MacDonald’s fascinating book, “The Arctic Sky: Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore, and Legend,” inspired me to learn more.

The star Altair was part of one of the most important constellations for Inuit, called Aagjuuk, which MacDonald says, “doubtless owed its revered position in Inuit culture to its ancient role as an unfailing herald of daylight. Its welcomed appearance on the northeast horizon meant that the darkest days of winter were almost over, that the Sun was now again beginning her slow journey north.”

As sunlight returned to Alaska on chilly March days, I understood the sense of relief that Aagjuuk must have brought to Arctic residents. MacDonald’s well-presented research made me want to spend the rest of these March nights in my down parka and snow pants, flashlight and book in hand, staring back into that Alaska winter sky.

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