Shelagh Rogers on the Torngats: One year later


In the summer of 2011, CBC host Shelagh Rogers and five well-known Canadian writers went to Torngat Mountain National Park in remote northern Labrador. The authors were Alissa York, Noah Richler, Rabindranath Maharaj, Joseph Boyden and Sarah Leavitt, and their task was to soak up the spirit of the North and channel their surroundings into a piece of writing.

The entire journey was captured on film for the documentary Northwords, airing on the documentary channel on October 25. Until then, CBC Books will be exploring their experience in more detail.

And don't miss The Next Chapter's award-winning Northwords episode!

We asked our intrepid Northwords host Shelagh Rogers to reflect on the trip to the Torngats after more than a year. Needless to say, the journey made quite an impact on her and the five authors. Here's what Shelagh had to say:

Shelagh Rogers

"My biggest takeaway from the experience was to understand that this was no wilderness. This is a sacred homeland for the Labrador Inuit and there are signs of their harmonious habitation that go back centuries. We would be walking out on the land and come across tent pegs and stone food caches. We were travelling in the company of Sophie Keelan, a Labrador Inuit elder. She told us ancient stories that have been passed down to her, stories that explain and interpret the land and the spirits of both land and water. And stories that do what stories do anywhere: make you laugh, make you cry, make you afraid, make you understand. The land felt alive with stories and spirits.

I am also left with feeling of sadness about what happened to the people of this land. This feeling crystallized for me when we visited the former Moravian settlement at the coastal community of Hebron. In the early 1800s, Moravian missionaries began building a church at Hebron. They sent numbered timbers over by ship and built a large wooden church. Their mission was to convert the Inuit to Christianity. A population sprang up around the church that at its high reached about 1,200. But there were epidemics of flu, smallpox and TB that halved that number. There used to be gardens full of rhubarb, according to Sophie Keelan who still loves rhubarb jam to this day, and root vegetables. There was a graveyard for both the Germans and the Inuit. (It is now densely overgrown. Sophie could not find the headstone for her sister while we were there.) There was a school, a store, a post office. There was a community. However, on Easter Sunday 1959, the Moravians announced their decision to abandon the settlement. Some families left soon after. In the fall, the Smallwood government "relocated" the remaining Inuit families to places where they didn't know the customs or dialects, or the routes the animals took and they were lost. In 2005, Premier Danny Williams apologized to the Labrador Inuit for their expulsion from Hebron and all its consequences. While we were there for the making of Northwords, the radio documentary and the film, Sophie Keelan read the Inuit acceptance of that apology. The last words are 'We forgive you.'

The generosity of the Labrador Inuit in that instance, and in many on our trip, continues to amaze me. They answered all our questions, they gave us their guidance and stewardship. They guarded us (polar bears patrol the area). They fed us — we went on a hunting expedition with several of our Inuit bear guards and the hunter John Merkuratsuk shot a caribou that fed the people (75 or so) at base camp for days. Northwords, the film, is dedicated to him. He died not long after our visit from a stomach ailment.

Clearly, I could go on about this week, but it's time to get back to reading other stories. I do want to acknowledge the leadership of Parks Canada and the Labrador Inuit Development Corporation, who in partnership manage Torngat Mountains National Park.They took a chance on this venture. Their support, expertise and devotion to this park is both inspiring and very moving. I am profoundly grateful."

Northwords will screen on the CBC documentary channel on October 25, and you can catch upcoming live screenings in Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton.

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