Rose Island: A final resting place in the hearts of Labrador's Inuit

Rose Island, near the Torngat Mountains in northern Labrador, remains an emotional destination for people visiting the site of a mass grave for 113 Inuit, writes John Gaudi.
Evie Mark, David Serkoak, and Akinisie Sivuarapik paid tribute to the remains of 113 Inuit reburied on Rose Island in the Torngat Moutains by throat singing and drum dancing. (John Gaudi/CBC)

A stone cairn holding the remains of more than a hundred Inuit individuals sits peacefully on Rose Island in the Torngat Mountains National Park, along the northern coast of Labrador.

This is their final resting place.

Akinisie Sivuarapik, a throat singer from Puvirnituq, Nunavik — the Inuit area of northern Quebec — says she doesn't feel alone in the Torngat Mountains landscape.

"You can feel the spirits from these mountains, and you can actually see faces on the mountains, like different facial expressions," she said. "So you feel the spirits here. You don't feel alone here."

This summer, Sivuarapik paid tribute to the mass burial site on Rose Island with Evie Mark, who lives in Montreal but is from Ivujivik on the Hudson Strait.

Like Sivuarapik, Mark felt emotional the first time she throat sang at the mass grave.

The spirits miss hearing throat singing and drum dancing, Mark said. That's why she and Sivuarapik dedicate songs to them.

"Today, I think that they celebrate when we come here. I don't see them sad or lonely," said Mark. "I think when we come here they get a chance to celebrate."

This mass burial site on Rose Island holds the remains of 113 Inuit individuals who were removed from Rose Island and nearby Upernavik Island between 1969 and 1971. Elders and summer students built the mass grave in 1995 so the remains could be returned home and reburied respectfully. (John Gaudi/CBC)

The story of what happened here goes back decades.

Parks Canada's Gary Baikie says the remains of 113 Inuit were removed from graves on Rose Island and nearby Upernavik Island between 1969 and 1971.

He says Dr. Jacob Edson Way removed and studied the bones for his doctoral thesis on paleontology.

They were stored at the University of Toronto, and later at Memorial University in St. John's.

I think when we come here they get a chance to celebrate.- Evie Mark

In 1995, a Labrador Inuit elders committee was set up to bring the remains back in a respectful way.

They were reburied on Rose Island, along with their worldly goods, such as pots and lamps.

"I'm very humbled to be able to tell the story of this place and tell the story of the people that were taken away from this area and brought back" said Baikie, who is the visitor experience manager for Torngat Mountains National Park.

"Now that they are home, they will be at rest here forever. They will not be disturbed again."

Archaeological sites on Rose Island span more than 5,000 years.

Baikie says it's the only island in the Arctic where so many people are buried.

There are just under 700 traditional Inuit graves on the island, and Baikie says it's not hard to see why Inuit laid their loved ones to rest here.
Parks Canada's Gary Baikie tells the story of how the remains of 113 Inuit were removed and subsequently returned to Rose Island. (Submitted by Pat Morrow)

He says the Torngat Mountains is a spiritual place for Inuit, not to mention the area was abundant with wildlife like whales, seals and walrus.

It's now been two decades since Memorial University and the provincial government sent the remains back to be reburied at Rose Island.

Nonetheless, it's still an emotional place.

"I even started crying while throat singing, " said Sivuarapik, who first visited the site last year. "You can feel the emotion here. It's very touching. It feels good to throat sing for them."

David Serkoak, who's originally from Arviat, Nunavut, and feels he's on his way to becoming an elder, paid his respects by drum dancing.

He says the graves should not have been disturbed in the first place.

"This mass grave here, it's always mixed emotions, not so much life before their death but after death and what happened to them," he said. "They shouldn't be in a mass grave. They should be in their original place."

Serkoak drum danced for his own mother on the day that she was buried.

He said that made him feel as good as if he had medicine.

Throat singers Akinisie Sivuarapik and Evie Mark dedicate songs at a mass grave on Rose Island. Mark said, "I think that they celebrate when we come here. I don't see them sad or lonely. I think when we come here they get to celebrate." (Submitted by Pat Morrow)

Meanwhile, Baikie says it's important to reflect on what's happened at Rose Island.

He also says thanks to the hard work of people like Serkoak, Mark and Sivuarapik, throat singing and drum dancing are still part of Inuit culture in Labrador.

"For me, I like to take at least 10 minutes and just absorb the whole presence and the whole feeling of this very powerful place."

About the Author

John Gaudi

CBC reporter

John Gaudi reports from Happy Valley-Goose Bay for CBC's Labrador Morning.