North·Canada 150

'We called it 'Prison Island': Inuk man remembers forced relocation to Grise Fiord

In the 1950s, 87 Inuit were persuaded by the Canadian government to leave their homes with promises of better hunting and the option to return home if they wanted. The promises were broken, and they were forced to stay in what is now Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord.

Larry Audlaluk was one of 87 Inuit taken from Inukjuak to Grise Fiord, Resolute Bay

A three-year-old Larry Audlaluk with his mother and father at their new home in what is now Grise Fiord, Nunavut. The forced relocation was very difficult for his family — his mother was constantly crying, he says, and his father died ten months after moving. (submitted by Larry Audlaluk)

This story is part of a series from CBC North looking at Canada 150 through the eyes of northern families.

Larry Audlaluk was two years old when he and his family were uprooted from their home in Inukjuak, Que., and dropped off 2,000 kilometres away, on Ellesmere Island.

They are High Arctic exiles; part of a group of 87 Inuit who, in 1953 and 1955, were persuaded by the Canadian government to leave their homes with promises of better hunting and the option to return to Inukjuak in two years.

But promises were broken, and Inuit were forced to stay and form the communities of Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay.

Grise Fiord became Canada's northernmost community when a small group of Inuit were relocated there from northern Quebec, and left to fend for themselves, in the 1950s. (CBC)

Audlaluk says the government's relocation plan was billed as an opportunity for Inuit of northern Quebec to live more traditional lives in the High Arctic.

Kyak family from Pond Inlet on board the C.D. HOWE at Grise Fiord. Families from Pond Inlet were part of the relocation to help the families from northern Quebec adjust to life in the High Arctic. (Health Canada/Library and Archives Canada)

But there were underlying motivations, such as stopping Greenlandic hunters who were poaching polar bears, and exerting Canadian sovereignty.

"It was the time of the Cold War, and Americans were getting a little bit too close," says Audlaluk. "They wanted a civilian component up here."

Feeling trapped

"My parents, I know, felt trapped for many years," recalls Audlaluk.

"We were actually on what we called 'Prison Island,'" a place where he says, "you were left to your resources, alone, and [no one] worried about you running away because you're so far away."

When Audlaluk and his family stepped off the C.D. Howe Arctic patrol vessel and onto Ellesmere Island, they found themselves struggling to survive in a completely new environment.

Inuit houses in Resolute Bay, as they existed in 1956. Inuit were relocated by the Canadian government to exert their sovereignty over the High Arctic. Many people, including Audlaluk, feel as if they weren't given the proper support: 'you can't eat full recognition.' (Gar Lunney/National Film Board of Canada)
"It was awful for them. They had to learn to get ready for the dark season and they had to learn to get ready for very short warm sunny days, with very few vegetation in the land," says Audlaluk.

Audlaluk's family couldn't find the food they were used to in northern Quebec: no cloudberries, no Canada geese and few Eider ducks.

"My family, the older generation, were used to having lots of different kinds of birds and then shore creatures like clams and oysters," says Audlaluk. "There were none here." 

Nor could the families find any Arctic char, until 1961.

"When my mother [saw] Arctic char for the first time in nine years since Inukjuak, she cried," recounts Audlaluk.

A second group of families from Pond Inlet were relocated to Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay to help them adjust to the new environment.

'It killed my father'

For Audlaluk, Grise Fiord is now home, the place where he raised six children, actively hunts, and has become known as a community leader. 

But the forced relocation has had a profound impact on his life. 

After landing in Grise Fiord, his father, once an outgoing man, became quiet and began having fainting spells.

"It killed my father," says Audlaluk. "He lasted ten months, and he was only 56 years old." 
Larry Audlaluk, age 7 or 8, at his new home on Lindstrom Peninsula on Ellesmere Island, where his family was dropped off in 1953. (Submitted by Larry Audlaluk)

Audlaluk recalls his mother crying and crying. "You know how that makes a little boy feel? You're vulnerable ... It shaped much of my attitude towards the government. I was very angry."

Audlaluk became a bitter alcoholic for over 20 years, he says.

And he wasn't the only one whose opinions on Arctic politics were shaped by the relocation. The "Father of Nunavut," John Amagoalik, is another High Arctic exile.

"The impact was probably so strong in people like John, it helped him form Nunavut," says Audlaluk.

"Because he learned the hard way, like I did, about the pain the bureaucracy will cause in your life.

"In the bureaucracy of government there is no human component. It's just machinery of the system."

'You can't eat full recognition'

In 2010, the Canadian government apologized for the forced relocation. But Audlaluk wants more for residents of Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay.

"You can't eat full recognition," he says. 
Larry Audlaluk was two years old when his family was relocated from Inukjuak, Que., to Ellesmere Island. He now advocates for better support for those who were relocated: 'I'm not going to shut up as long as I'm alive,' says Audlaluk. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay have some of the highest food prices in Nunavut. Audlaluk believes they deserve better support from the government.

"The issue of the high cost of living should not be an issue for us because when the government brought us up here, we were the safety net for them," says Audlaluk, referring to the sovereignty aspect of the relocation.

"I'm not going to shut up as long as I'm alive," Audlaluk says, "when it comes to the difficulties of living up here — what my parents remember, the 1953 relocation story."

Editor's note: This story was updated on July 18, 2017 to more accurately represent Audlaluk's current view of Grise Fiord. 


Jane Sponagle is reporting in Halifax for the summer of 2022. She is also the Current Affairs producer for CBC Yukon based in Whitehorse. Over the past 10 years, Jane has lived and reported in all three territories.