Culture shock: Mini Aodla Freeman recalls moving from James Bay to Ottawa in the 1950s

Mini Aodla Freeman's book, Life among the Qallunaat, offers a view of the south from an Inuit perspective.
In her memoir Life Among the Qallunaat, Mini Aodla Freeman, shares her extraordinary story of an Inuit woman moving between two worlds. (Niels Jenson)

When Mini Aodla Freeman was 18 years old she moved from James Bay in Canada's north, almost 800 kilometres south, to Ottawa.

The Inuit woman, who had never been to a big city, may as well have moved to another planet.

"I was really fascinated with the town," she said. "Fascinated with everything that I saw... street cars, mini car, tall buildings."

In our community, we just naturally lived in the community. Everything was off the ground, everything we ate was off the land, so everything I saw in the south was totally different and fascinating to me.- Mini Aodla Freeman

In 1956 Aodla Freeman made her first move away from her family and their home at Cape Pope, where her grandfather had settled the family in the 1800s, to work as a live-in babysitter in Moose Factory, Ontario.

That changed when the government came calling.

"An Indian agent stopped me walking on the street one day. He said to me, 'Hey, Mini you're wanted in Ottawa.'" laughed Aodla Freeman. "I thought he was teasing so I just ignored him totally. A year later he grabbed me again by the arm and he said, 'Mini, come to my office right now. I have some good news for you.'"

Mini Aodla Freeman at Old Factory. (supplied)
She had been recruited to work as a translator for what was then called the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources in Ottawa. By day, Aodla Freeman translated English into Inuktitut for Inuit travelling for medical reasons or vice versa for various government agents.

She spent her spare time exploring her new hometown. 

Aodla Freeman said she loved riding the street cars but because she didn't know how to request a stop, would often miss her street and therefore miss supper time. After a while she got the hang of it, though crossing the street was a little more challenging.

"I used to cross the street on red lights to make sure everybody saw me crossing. I didn't know red and green lights had a difference," she recalled.

Life among the Qallunaat was first published in 1978 and has been translated into French, German and Greenlandic. (supplied)
Despite the many differences, Aodla Freeman stayed in the city, eventually marrying a non-Inuit man. She wrote about her life in James Bay and her move to the big city in Life Among the Qallunaat, a memoir that had its own misadventure.

The book was first published in 1978 but she said it was suppressed by Indian and Northern Affairs when they hid 3,000 copies in their basement.

"I guess they thought I was talking about residential schools," she said.

Aodla Freeman said it remained hidden for three years before someone found the books and began distributing them in the north.

The book, while well-known back home, was unheard of in the south until it was rediscovered and published by the University of Manitoba Press. The First Voices, First Texts series publishes lost or under-appreciated texts by indigenous writers.

"I think people will enjoy it, especially people who have come from small communities and got into big cities and [see] how they reacted to their surroundings."