Thursday, November 19, 2009

Waiting for an apology in the Far North

Waiting for an apology in the Far North

Gary Mason

Ask Elizabeth Roberts what her life was like growing up in Resolute when she was a little girl named Elizabeth Allakariallak, and there is a long, suffering silence at the end of the phone.

“Elizabeth, are you there?” And then a soft, barely audible voice returns.

“This is hard,” she says. “I'm crying as I talk to you because I'm not the only one suffering.” More silence.

“The best way to describe it to you is it's like trying to survive quicksand,” she says. “You try to get beyond it, but you can't. You keep sinking in it, in the memories of that time.”

Ms. Roberts was a child of the relocation of Inuit families that occurred in the Canadian Arctic 56 years ago. The sorry episode in our nation's history has been mostly forgotten. But a trip by the Olympic torch through the Nunavut town of Resolute last week shed fresh light on what was a botched, even deplorable, decision by the government of Louis St. Laurent.

During the summer of 1953, 10 Inuit families were relocated to the High Arctic, seven from the northern Quebec community of Inukjuak – then called Port Harrison – and three others from Pond Inlet, farther north. Two years later, eight more families joined the original group. In all, 87 Inuit were moved.

Government officials involved in the relocation would later defend their actions by saying it was designed to save the lives of starving people – the Inuit of Inukjuak mostly. Others, however, would say it was a blatant attempt to assert sovereignty over disputed territorial claims to the Arctic archipelago. Most would agree it was terribly handled.

The Inuit were told that, if they didn't like their new life after two years, the government would return them to their old homes – a promise that was never kept. Those being relocated were also told there would be homes waiting for them when they arrived. There was nothing but growing darkness.

The new arrivals had to live in tents and build igloos. They were not familiar with the migration patterns of game they would need to kill to eat. Or sea animals. Until they learned, there was little to eat.

Ms. Roberts was born in Resolute four years after her parents arrived there. She says that when the family was moved from Inukjuak, two sisters believed to have tuberculosis at the time were put in a hospital in Churchill, Man., on the shores of Hudson Bay. When it was time for them to be released two years later, hospital staff weren't even sure where to send them.

One was shipped back to Inukjuak even though her family was now in Resolute.

“What I remember a lot about my early life in Resolute is all the fighting that took place,” says Ms. Roberts. “You had families from Inukjuak and others from Pond Inlet. You had two cultures clashing and people trying to establish territory in this new place and people fighting over everything.”

She remembers, too, the toll the desolate existence in Resolute would have not just on parents but on their children. Young men, in particular, turned to alcohol. Inevitably, they became violent against women, including, in many cases, their young wives.

“My sisters became punching bags,” Ms. Roberts says. “It was a horrible existence. One sister, Lizzie, only now has started talking about her life [in Resolute]. It was so hard on her, but it's good she can now talk about it.”

Families were destroyed through the relocation process, Ms. Roberts says. She now lives in Iqaluit, where she works as the executive assistant to the president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association. She has three adult children and four grandchildren. Her brothers and sisters who are alive are scattered throughout the Far North.

Ms. Roberts moved to Iqaluit with her mother, Minnie, eight years ago in search of a better life. Her mother died on March 19, 2003, one day before Elizabeth's birthday. Her father predeceased her. She wished both could have lived long enough to hear an apology from the federal government for a decision many decades ago that so negatively affected their lives.

An apology for which the Inuit are still waiting.

“It might seem like a small thing, but an apology would be a huge relief to those affected by the relocation,” says Ms. Roberts. “If someone hurt you really badly, and apologized, wouldn't that make you feel a little better? We need to hear it before we can move on.”


1 comment:

debra said...

The Harper Government apologized to the residential school survivors over a year ago...since then nothing...white peoples governments can rape and kill children and evacuate entire communities, then apologize for it and alls well???
You are better off with out the disingenuous words of apology which seem to have the effect of excusing barbaric behavior of todays government and governments past.That is at least how I see it.

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