Over 50 years ago, tragedy struck this Nunavut community. Zacharias Kunuk's new film wants answers

When the people of Kivitoo returned to their community after being displaced by the RCMP, their homes and belongings had been burned and destroyed.

When the people of Kivitoo returned after being displaced by the RCMP, their community had been destroyed

Kivitoo: What They Thought Of Us. (imagineNATIVE)

Over the course of Toronto's imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival — taking place this weekend across the city's downtown — 156 Indigenous artists will have their stories told. These artists, from legendary two-spirit Métis filmmaker Marjorie Beaucage to Anishinaabe high school student and video game developer Rikki Ricollet, represent 109 different Indigenous nations in Canada.

Among them is celebrated Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. Kunuk's 2001 feature film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which won the Camera d'Or at Cannes Film Festival, was voted the best Canadian film of all time in 2015. But while Atanarjuat was a work of fiction, his new film is rooted in reality. Kivitoo: What They Thought Of Us, which premieres this weekend at imagineNATIVE, is a documentary that explores what happened to Inuit in the titular Nunavut community in 1963. Like Kunuk's other works, it is entirely in Inuktitut.

The community at Kivitoo, nestled on the eastern coast of Baffin Island, lost three hunters and leaders in one tragic event during a trading trip, as the ice beneath their temporary igluviak gave way while they were sleeping. Inuit at Kivitoo were alerted to the tragedy by American authorities, who were in the Arctic to establish the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line — the remnants of these stations still remain across Nunavut. Already in mourning, the community was further shocked to learn that their loved ones had already been buried.

Zacharias Kunuk. (imagineNATIVE)

Then, a plane arrived. A translator with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police informed the community that they were to leave Kivitoo immediately, but said that they would be returning shortly. Residents, confused and still reeling from their loss, stashed belongings in bags and were transported to the community of Qikiqtarjuaq roughly 40 miles away.

"I believed that we would return," says Martha Kopalie, a former resident of Kivitoo, in interview footage from 1999. Kopalie talks fondly of her family's plywood house, insulated with moss and heather they gathered from the land. She even remembers the floor plan. But when she and the others from Kivitoo returned to their homes, they found them burned and flattened. Their belongings were buried or destroyed. They never resettled in Kivitoo.

"They treated us like dogs," Kopalie says. "That is how I saw myself. Like dogs on a leash that could not move forward."

Kunuk heard the story of what happened years ago, but didn't have time to tell it properly. "Instead of hunting animals, I wanted to hunt on this story," he says. Kunuk, combining original footage from a trip to the area in 2016 with archival footage from a gathering at Kivitoo in 1999, tells this story through generations. By the time he arrived to Qikiqtarjuaq in 2016, most of the elders who lived at Kivitoo had died. Their relatives, who Kunuk meets, are still dealing with the trauma of what happened. One of them, Elijah Kopalie, tells Kunuk, "They're dying before they receive an apology."

They treated us like dogs. That is how I saw myself. Like dogs on a leash that could not move forward.- Martha Kopalie, a former resident of Kivitoo

Kunuk's camerawork is characteristically accomplished. The film opens with long landscape shots of the mountains and tundra around Kivitoo, tracked by an accordion-led Inuktitut song about the events of 1963. Kunuk, accustomed to the flat terrain of Igloolik, found it exciting and challenging to try to capture Baffin's mountainous east coast. The shots will suggest different things to different viewers: a beautiful, complex, giving land, or one that's harsh, uncompromising and frightening — or somewhere between these extremes.

In fact, it is both. And this dynamic, symbiotic relationship with the land is central to Inuit life. Removing their connection to their land, as was done at Kivitoo, is a genocidal act. "In the late 1950s and '60s, we were all being moved," says Kunuk, who was sent to Igloolik to attend school and learn English, where he was assigned an identification number. At one point in the film, Elijah points out where, as a child, he painted his own number on a metal crate. "Everywhere all across the Arctic that was happening. People were being gathered into these government communities."

Kivitoo: What They Thought Of Us. (imagineNATIVE)

Experiencing forced relocation and displacement is a common story for Inuit, many of whom are still dealing with intergenerational traumas from this colonization. The Canadian government manipulated Inuit into moving to extremes of the northern Arctic, where they had no knowledge of land and food systems. Even the move from Kivitoo to Qikiqtarjuaq disturbed the social and psychological makeup of the people. "The worst is that they have never apologized to us — not even once," says Elijah.

Inuit-led research has begun to shed light on the extent of this damage. The Qikiqtani Truth Commission, whose mandate is to investigate the effects of colonization and government violence on Inuit, poses in documents on community histories that, "For Inuit, the loss of home is more than the loss of a dwelling — it is a disruption of a critical relationship of people with the land and animals. It represents the loss of independence and replacement of a way of life." The Commission adds that residents of Qikiqtarjuak continue to experience feelings of displacement.

For Kunuk, sharing what happened at Kivitoo is deeply important. "The people want to tell the story," he says. "They're looking for help. When I came, I was just welcomed by the people." And he's quick to assert that it is the former residents of Kivitoo who truly deserve credit for the documentary. "All the elders in this [archival] footage all passed on now, but they're telling the story. I thought what happened to these people must be heard."

Kivitoo: What They Thought Of Us. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk. October 21, 11:30am. TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto.


Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto.