Oct 15, 2005

Chapter 32

There are strange things done
in the Land of the Midnight Sun
by men who moil for power and gold…

By Bob Dawson

Between midnight and the cold hours of morning, on February 8, 1978, the Inuit village of Port Burwell ceased to exist, and great has been the sorrow of its people.

Unlike most disasters, the buildings remained and it was the people who were swept away. And unlike most disasters, it started abruptly with a telephone call.

It was after midnight in the little village on Killiniq Island in the Northwest Territories, just off the northern tip of Québec and Labrador. The cold, great blackness of the Arctic winter brought silence and solitude to the treeless wilderness, but on the horizon an unusual storm was taking shape.

The people were asleep. The telephone rang. It was an official of the Department of Indian Affairs in Frobisher Bay, acting, not in the name of God, but in the name of the Canadian Federal Government. His message was that they were all to get out of town. They would be evacuated by air-lift in the morning, he told them. There was no forewarning. No choice. No vote. No discussion. No clear explanation. Simply an order: your village will cease to exist in the morning.

One by one, the men, women and children were roused from their sleep. The elders could speak only Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, the language of "the people". Wake up and pack your belongings. Take what will fit in the airplane.

No one slept in the Inuit village of Port Burwell that night.

In the morning, huddled anxiously at the icefield that passed for a runway, surrounded by boxes of belongings tied with string, they waited and listened for the sound of the airplane, that would take them away from the island that had been their home, their food supply, and their way of life, thousands of years before the white man had arrived.

The airplane arrived just as the government had ordered, and the Inuit saw their village and their island for the last time. They climbed into the sky and there below, they caught the last glimpse of the houses, the co-op, the church, and the cliffs that drop down to the sea.

They turned to their elected leader, Norman Snowball, but he had no answer, no reassurance to give them. The Killiniq Council had not voted, they had not even been consulted or informed. They too, the democratically elected leaders of the Inuit community, had simply been herded like cattle onto the airplane to be shipped away at the white man's whimsy.

Where would this airplane carry these exiles? It headed south across the channel to Québec. Would they be moved as one community, with their council and their leader and their co-op, to settle together in a happy new village? No. The community would be split apart and divided among five other Inuit villages. Would they have new houses to replace the ones left behind? No. They would have no houses at all. Would they have any compensation for the loss of the entire village? No. Would they have a new school or new job opportunities or a place of their own to hunt and fish? No.

What, then, would they have? They would have boxes of belongings tied with string.

They were deposited on snow-covered gravel runways near Inuit villages in Ungava with their bundles of belongings. The children, normally so boisterous, now clinging to their mothers’ parkas; the men, these once proud providers for the people, now walking wearily with their heads bent down. The white man had demonstrated his power.

As said by an American Indian leader a century ago, “They made us many promises, but they only kept one: they promised to take our land, and they took it.”

The federal government's explanation of the forced evacuation is that the community was no longer viable, in terms of health, jobs, municipal services, schools and runway. It was just another outport being resettled to a better place.

If that is true, then why was it conducted like midnight raid on an enemy camp? The first action of the evacuation was when the RCMP confiscated all the Inuit hunting rifles. The last action, after all the people had been evacuated, was something that has never happened in Knowlton, Quebec, or Huntsville, Ontario. An employee of the tax-payers of Canada, paid by us to provide government services to the native people, broke into the Inuit Co-op store, the first Inuit-owned co-op to make a profit. There was stock on the shelves – food, ammunition, clothing… worth $117,000. Our representative took a can of kerosene off the shelf, poured it on the floor, and threw in a match.

How’s that for a statement about just who is in charge? How is that for a demonstration of power?

If they were being rescued from a bad situation, then why were they flown so deliberately from bad to worse? At least at Port Burwell they had houses. In Ungava, they were deposited in Inuit villages that were already more than full.

In these villages, there had been little new construction of houses or provision of services since the James Bay Agreement had extinguished in perpetuity all native land claims and aboriginal rights, not only for the James Bay Cree, but also for the Inuit 600 miles North of the Hydro project. After the signing of the Treaty, the federal government had pulled out and the Québec government had taken the land and forgotten the people.

In these villages, people were sleeping five and six to a room in the shacks that passed for houses. Abandoned tool sheds and warehouses were being used as classrooms for the children.

There was no running water, except in the houses of the white government administrators, and in the words of Zebedee Nungak, the Inuit translator, the people were "rotting in their own sewage". " There was little medical care and runways were often too primitive to permit emergency medical evacuations in bad weather. There were no jobs.

Into this Third World situation, the homeless exiles from Port Burwell were dumped. Because the Inuit are one people and have always shared everything (the only way to survive in such a climate), the Quebec Inuit took the Killiniq Inuit into their homes. They would sleep seven or eight to a room. Some took down walls and took out bathtubs to make more sleeping room on the floor. Epidemics swept through the villages and children died.

If the Killiniq Inuit were moved there for health reasons, it is sad to note that the child death rate among Québec Inuit is double the rate among Inuit in the Northwest Territories, and four times the rate of white Canadians.

If Port Burwell was evacuated because it was an unviable community, then every Inuit village in northern Québec should have been evacuated at the same time.

And yet the viability of Port Burwell had been amply demonstrated in recent times. In 1966, in her book "The New People”, Edith Iglauer described how she was given a tour of Port Burwell by an official of the Department of Indian Affairs, Donald Snowden, who proudly showed off the village as an example of Inuit success. "It's a fascinating place," Snowden said, "maybe because it's so remote and beautiful. They are living practically out in the Atlantic Ocean. Theirs was the second co-op in the Arctic, after George River, and the first retail store… We always knew that potentially Burwell was one of the richest areas in the north and could support a much larger population… It was the whole-hearted attitude of the people that made the difference. They told us they rather die than leave…"

In 1971, the Institute of Social and Economic Research of Memorial University published a report by David Riches on Port Burwell's situation: "On Killiniq Island, the 150 Inuit of Port Burwell (27 families) enjoy flourishing seal, cod and char fisheries, eiderdown collection and handicraft industries based on local products. The consumer and producer co-op around which the community focuses (and to which all 84 adults belong) paid off its loans long ago, and by 1970, was renowned for its financial success, almost unequalled among Arctic settlements."

""No able-bodied hunter in Port Burwell had received welfare before 1968."

Does this sound like a community with no hope of survival?

It is true the town was in trouble in 1978. The local economy had dropped, the population had declined, there had been alcohol and sickness. But the same could be said of Sudbury, Ontario. Port Burwell had known many ups and downs, from the prosperity of the 1890s when the whaling ships hired Inuit guides, to the misery of the 1940s when fur prices dropped and Inuit starved. But the people had endured, as Inuit had always endured, and from the 1960s onward Port Burwell had been strong and prosperous, a model community that government officials pointed to as an Inuit success story.

If there was anything that made Port Burwell uncomfortable to live in between the height of its glory in 1971 and its destruction in 1978, it was the lack of government services, such as medical care, that all Canadians normally receive. For reasons that have never been explained, Port Burwell and the Québec Inuit villages received government services that were greatly inferior to those in other Inuit villages in the Northwest Territories.

If the government suddenly discovered, after years of praising Port Burwell for its profitable industries and self-reliant people, that the lack of essential services in Port Burwell made it unliveable, it did not need to evacuate the town. It merely needed to provide the essential services, as it had promised to do it signed agreements. After so many years of sending anthropologists, social scientists, and development officers to research Port Burwell with magnifying glasses, why did the government suddenly discovered at midnight that the place was unliveable? After so many years of preaching democracy to the Inuit, this people who never in ten thousand years had lived undemocratically among themselves, why did the government now demonstrate the sheer powerlessness of the Killiniq Council, were not even consulted or informed that their village was going to be obliterated and the people dispersed?


Why were the homes taken from them, with no compensation and no new homes to live in? Why were the Québec Inuit not given assistance for taking them in?

Would this have been possible, or even thinkable, outside of the native ghettos? Imagine: tonight at midnight, an unelected government official telephones the mayor of Sherbrooke and orders him to evacuate the entire town by morning. The people will be airlifted to various towns in New Brunswick where they will have to beg for shelter. They will not be compensated and they will have no choice in the matter. The right to decide their destiny had been taken from their hands. Can you imagine?

In the words of Diamond Jenness, a foremost scholar of Inuit culture, "They have become pawns on the white man's chess-boards, and the white players are either not interested in their fate or unable to discover how to better it.”

And there was a game going on, but it was not chess. Call it a coincidence if you like, but at the moment when the federal government unilaterally decided to transfer them out of federal territory and into Québec, the Port Burwell Inuit were in the midst of negotiations with the governments of Canada and Québec.

It is most unusual, during negotiations, for one party to obliterate the village of the other party. But it leaves a lasting impression as to which is the stronger party.

On the very day that Port Burwell was evacuated, there was to have been a meeting in the village about the claims against the government.

For amateurs of political coincidence, here is the chronology of events:

On November 11, 1975, the Québec government, with Ottawa’s approval, signed an agreement, which became law, containing the following clause:

"All native claims, rights, titles and interests, whatever they may be, in and to the territory, of all Indians and Inuit, wherever they may be, and all the native claims, rights, titles and interests, whatever they may be, in Canada, of all the Inuit of Port Burwell, Northwest Territories, are hereby extinguished…"

This was the "Canada Clause" of Quebec’s James Bay Agreement for the Hydro project.
The Inuit of Québec had accepted, under great pressure, to surrender in perpetuity all land claims and native rights Québec, in return for future considerations promised to them by the government. But the James Bay Treaty also extinguished the rights of the Port Burwell Inuit in the Northwest Territories outside of Québec, as well as the traditional hunting and fishing rights of the Inuit of the Belcher Islands and Labrador.

The nationwide Indian and Inuit organizations vowed to fight. They would not accept a precedent for losing their land, and rights to natural resources, such as the billions of dollars of oil and gas and minerals in Inuit territory.

They vowed to fight the Canada Clause of this provincial law extinguishing native rights of certain groups within the federal territory outside of that province. The words "wherever they may be… whatever they may be… in Canada… are hereby extinguished…" caused great apprehension among native groups in Canada. If they let this go through, the legal precedent would be used against them when the time came to settle their own land claims.

The Canada Clause affecting Port Burwell, the Belcher Islands and Labrador, was so transparently unfair that native leaders suddenly could rally public opinion and hoped for a symbolic victory that would echo across the nation and put them in a stronger position to negotiate a land claims settlement.

Norman Snowball, the elected leader of the Port Burwell Inuit, flew to Ottawa and delivered a clear and forceful message. He told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indian Affairs: "We had no idea of the political boundaries in what was Northwest Territories and what was Québec. It has only been since very recent times that we have been aware that these boundaries exist… The surrendering of Port Burwell's rights in all of Canada is completely unacceptable without proper compensation and there has been no compensation."

The Labrador Inuit told Ottawa: "our rights are being unilaterally abrogated without compensation… We do not understand how you place the aboriginal inhabitants in the overall fabric of Canada, we do not understand what is politically acceptable from a government, we do not understand how you can conscientiously condone this sort of political immorality…"

February 8, 1978 Charlie Watt, then president of all Québec Inuit, was on his way to Port Burwell for a meeting with Norman Snowball and the Killiniq Council about their land claims, about the "Canada Clause" and what the next step should be.

Here's how Charlie Watt described his surprise:

"This happened during the negotiations we were having with the government of Canada and the Government of Québec… That was a day when I was flying into Port Burwell to talk about the land claims to the people of Port Burwell. Because of the bad weather unfortunately I could not make it to Port Burwell so I landed at a community called George River, which is approximately 175 miles from Port Burwell. So I landed in George River, and then I see this airplane landing from the Northwest Territories. Who came out of that airplane? The President of the Community Council of Port Burwell along with his family, and I went up to him and asked, "What is happening?" And he said, "we have been moved out, completely, with no clear explanation." And that is how it happened."

There would be no land claim in the Northwest Territories for the Killiniq Inuit because now they were residents of northern Québec, where all native claims had been extinguished by law in 1975. There would be no rallying of native people around Port Burwell. There would be no organization of opposition to government plans at Port Burwell.

Because between midnight and the cold hours of morning on February 8, 1978, the village of Port Burwell ceased to exist.

Morning of Feb. 8. Aircraft land on the sea ice.
The evacuation is underway.

Killiniq Island, Northwest Territories

Originally published in 1980 in English, French and Inuktitut by Bob Dawson.
The silence that followed was deafening.
We campaigned on it, right through a federal election, but no political party dares to take on the "First Nations Problem". The federal government finally threw a few million dollars at the Killiniq Inuit as a "humanitarian gesture", but the government vigorously denied that anything unusual had happened on Killiniq Island. Inuit agreed: it was not unusual. As Norman Snowball said, "They treated my people like dogs."

Off Topic? Depends what you think the topic is about.

Thank you to the Metis for knowing all sides.
Such as Darcey Jerrom and Ardeth Lloyd, below.
If you get lost in Canada's endless wilderness, these are the people you want to meet.

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