North·REVIEW

Investigation into sled dog slaughter also an amazing historical record

Sara Minogue reviews the reports of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, which investigated whether the RCMP deliberately killed sled dogs in the Eastern Arctic. She says they also provide a history of housing, policing, health care and relocations during that era.

Qikiqtani Truth Commission investigated whether RCMP deliberately killed sled dogs

The Qikiqtani Truth Commission looked into the widespread deaths of Inuit sled dogs during the settlement era. It ultimately found no evidence of a conspiracy to shoot dogs. Despite that, Sara Minogue writes that it's quite common to hear reference to the dog slaughter as an accepted fact of history. (Qikiqtani Truth Commission/Library and Archives Canada)

Sara Minogue runs the blog Northreads, which features reviews of books, new and old, that are about Canada's North, with a heavy emphasis on the Eastern Arctic and the N.W.T. CBC is reprinting several reviews with permission. 

Some of the best writing about the North is trapped in various reports and strategies and documents produced by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons.

The reports of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission stand out, even in this slush pile of purpose-driven prose.

For those who don't know, the idea that RCMP deliberately killed sled dogs in the Eastern Arctic in order to force Inuit to settle in communities began to gain traction in the Eastern Arctic in the late 1990s. It slowly wound its way to the House of Commons, where the Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (then chaired by Nunavut MP Nancy Karetak-Lindell) held two days of hearings in 2005.

The following month, the federal government ordered the RCMP to investigate. About a year later, the RCMP announced they found no evidence of any conspiracy to kill dogs.

An Inuit sled dog team in Clyde River, Nunavut, as seen in a 2010 National Film Board documentary Qimmit: A Clash of Two Truths. (National Film Board)

Rejecting this self-investigation, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (that's the Inuit group in the Baffin region that manages the Nunavut Land Claim, now known as the Nunavut Agreement) decided to launch its own investigation.

Between 2007 and 2010, the Qikiqtani Truth Commission visited every community in the Baffin region, gathering oral testimony to supplement its impressive archival research into the decades when Nunavut was first pinned down into the communities it largely consists of today.

In the fall of 2010, the commission revealed that it too found no evidence of a conspiracy to shoot dogs.

Reports detail massive changes

In the news media, the story seems to end there, but in spite of that finding, it's now quite common to hear reference to the dog slaughter as an accepted fact of history (it's the subject of a recent poem by this high schooler; casually stated as fact by two MLAs in the Nunavut legislature in 2017).

Why is that? Well, it's a good way to describe the era, because so many dogs did die, sometimes out of concern for public safety (ropes and chains to tie them up were in short supply); often because they were being replaced by snowmobiles, which were also coming to the communities at this time.

Dog epidemics, enhanced by growing mobility in the North, played a role too. (The "Killing of Qimmiit" section on this page gives a more detailed but still short summary of how this happened.)

Madeleine Redfern, now mayor of Iqaluit, was the executive director of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

But more importantly, this description of that time takes into account the lived experience of Inuit who went through this transition, and it challenges the longstanding assumption (in the mainly white literature of the time, even Hugh Brody!) that Inuit settlement was entirely voluntary, though admittedly somewhat coerced by the availability of schools, family allowances, housing, stores, and a list of caveats that goes on and on.

Many federal agencies and departments so fundamental to the settling of the Eastern Arctic have few records of that time.

And this new understanding is a result of the amazing amalgamation of oral and written history achieved by the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, led by executive director Madeleine Redfern (now Iqaluit's mayor).

In addition to its study of the dog slaughter, the commission produced several thematic reports that seek to document the massive changes at that time. There are nine in all, that tell the history of housing, policing, health care, relocations, even "The Official Mind of Canadian Colonialism."

Ruminative history

Several of these explore the concept of "ilira," or the combination of intimidation and fear that outside authority figures, such as police or missionaries, stirred in many Inuit. All include memories and anecdotes from people who were there. Some include quite striking summaries of relations between whites and Inuit at the time.

Here's how the report on policing sums things up after noting that early RCMP officers might range from those who showed great respect for Inuit as individuals to those who viewed them in broad, racist strokes.

"In between, each community found that the majority of RCMP served their northern tours of duty with little or no interest in Inuit culture beyond collecting anecdotal stories as reflections of themselves."

Ruminative history.

Inuit from the region's 13 communities told the Qikiqtani Truth Commission that the government did not fulfil promises of adequate food and shelter in permanent communities. (Qikiqtani Truth Commission/Library and Archives Canada)

The commission also produced histories for each community. These are fascinating.

Sanikiluaq, I did not know, once had its own herd of caribou. It was also subject to a late relocation, in 1970, when the South Camp was closed down almost overnight as the government decided to concentrate efforts on where the community is today.

"We left our houses with only our clothes that we were wearing, we left everything else behind … thinking that we were coming back," said Lottie Arragutainaq.

You can read all of it online ... and I highly recommend you do.

In Pangnirtung, you can read about the evacuations in the winter of 1961, when an epidemic wiped out sled dogs in Inuit camps throughout Cumberland Sound. About half the people were airlifted to Pangnirtung by RCMP plane, most returning to camps the following year, some with fresh dogs imported.

The Pangnirtung report also chronicles the arrival of snowmobiles: the first in 1962, 14 in 1964 and more each year after.

"As Pangnirtung grew, the RCMP constable on the spot became seriously alarmed about qimmiit [dogs] running at large, and he had about 250 destroyed in 1966, encouraged the Inuit to kill many of their own, and made plans for a further slaughter in 1967. His superiors in Ottawa felt he might be overreacting, but the report for 1967 showed more reductions, along with 60 snowmobiles, and 70 the following year."

This type of conflict — some wanting to import dogs to preserve a way of life; others wanting to forget them and move on into the future — is a recurrent theme of the era. The bigger theme, of course, is the "superiors in Ottawa" running the show.

Valuable work

The report on housing is equally fascinating, describing in detail the ambivalence on the part of Inuit and southern officials over who should get housing, what kind and why.

It goes a long way to explaining a) the incredible fact that so much housing was built, seemingly with little fanfare, in the 1960s, and b) that much of it was shoddy or inadequate, that Inuit were rarely consulted about any of this, and that the assignment of housing to families was (as it is today) far outside the control of the actual families moving in.

It's also amazing to read about Ottawa's dithering, after having built this housing, over how Inuit should pay for it, the early promise of $5 rent giving way, almost immediately, to various rent-to-own instalment plans nobody asked for. Up until at least 2013 (the year I left Iqaluit) this dirty move was still routinely brought up at public meetings.

One finding of the commission was that many federal agencies and departments so fundamental to the settling of the Eastern Arctic have few records of that time; certainly not enough to provide answers to people still asking themselves: hey, how'd this even happen?

And that makes the work of this commission — a rare example of an Indigenous-led reappraisal of the recent past — even more valuable.

You can read all of it online, and even watch video testimony (subtitled in English) of the people who testified, and I highly recommend you do.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Minogue worked as a reporter in Iqaluit from 2004 to 2013. She moved to Yellowknife in 2013 where she was a reporter and producer with CBC North until 2018. Find more northern book reviews on her blog, Northreads. Send thoughts or suggestions to saraminogue@gmail.com.

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