The People Used as Pawns in Canada’s Claim to the Arctic
In 1953, the Canadian government relocated Inuit families to Ellesmere Island—thousands of kilometers from home. It wasn’t the first or last time that Inuit were used to assert Arctic sovereignty.
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This story was originally published by Up Here and is reproduced here with permission.
It was August 1953, yet Larry Audlaluk and his family felt the sharp Arctic wind biting at their skin. A young Audlaluk stood with his parents and siblings at the bow of the Canadian Arctic patrol vessel, C. D. Howe, seeing nothing but cracking ice as the boat broke through it and an empty expanse of land ahead. The Inuit passengers were not prepared for Ellesmere Island, which already appeared far from the land of plenty the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had originally described to them.
Audlaluk’s was one of several Inuit families from Inukjuak, a village on Hudson Bay in northern Quebec (now Nunavik), the government had convinced to move to the high Arctic for what was supposed to be a period of two years. RCMP officers promised abundant game, which would allow the families to return to a traditional way of life. But the reality was starting to set in, especially after the families were separated into three settlements on the island—a fact that had been kept from them.
“It was a totally isolated location,” Audlaluk says, describing the barren landscape of the Lindstrom Peninsula, where his family landed. “There was no type or any kind of sign of other people living up here … And we only had our immediate equipment including our tents, sleeping bags, and only the little food we had with us. We didn’t know where to go for additional meals after what we had was gone. We didn’t even know where to go for water.”
It’s a scene Audlaluk details in his 2021 memoir, What I Remember, What I Know: The Life of a High Arctic Exile.
Audlaluk is now the longest-living resident of Grise Fiord—the northernmost Arctic community of around 130 people. He has raised six children in the community and created a life for himself and his family there. But that doesn’t mean the pain of his forced relocation has healed. The Audlaluks had to endure the extreme cold, and learn how to hunt and forage for food in a land where staples like cloudberries, Canada geese, and clams—which they were used to—were nonexistent. They also had to navigate 24-hour darkness for the first time.
The move was a complete shock for Audlaluk’s father. He died of a heart attack just 10 months after moving to the community at 56 years old.
“I remember watching my mother working herself to death … because she was in charge after my father died,” Audlaluk says, his voice quivering. “Why couldn’t [the RCMP] be honest with us?”
Official government reports said the families were relocated as part of a humanitarian project, as a way to help Inuit become self-reliant again, rather than “getting used to handouts,” as Audlaluk says. “The government felt we were becoming too civilized and no longer dependent on hunting to sustain ourselves.” But many, including Audlaluk, disagreed—that wasn’t the real reason Inuit families were sent north. It was done in the name of Canadian sovereignty. “We were human flagpoles,” as Audlaluk puts it.
When Britain handed Canada ownership of the Arctic in 1880, it was almost like passing off an unwanted toy. Britain wanted to keep the land out of the United States’ hands, but didn’t want it for itself. Canada was reluctant to take on the vast swath of territory—which included the Arctic Archipelago of more than 36,000 islands.
“The Arctic had very few economic resources the government wanted to develop,” says Adam LaJeunesse, a writer of several books on Arctic sovereignty. “The government was busy developing infrastructure in the south and the Arctic was distant, difficult to access, and inhospitable for large settlements.”
For the first few decades, Canada made attempts to maintain its sovereignty by periodically sponsoring voyages to the eastern Arctic. There was a short visit to plant a Royal Union flag (Canada’s flag at the time) on Kekerten Island, home to a whaling station, in 1897. And there was the scientific—and overt sovereignty exercise—to Cape Herschel, on Ellesmere Island, in 1904, which officially claimed the island for Canada when crews raised the flag there.
But Canada couldn’t even keep up these half-hearted endeavors. As explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson said in 1917, the meaning of sovereignty is more than just “colour[ing] the Arctic region on the map red.” In other words, Canada had to use it or lose it.
Canada was still a young country at the time and it had to prove its claim to the Arctic to the rest of the world.
In fact, it had been more than 300 years since Britain had made its claim to the Arctic. Martin Frobisher—a seafarer of dubious character—planted the flag on Baffin Island in the late 1570s, while seeking a northwest passage through the Arctic. For the next three centuries, explorers searched in vain for the fabled passage—ultimately a faster route to trade with the Far East. Ships were crushed and stranded in ice. Crews got lost, got scurvy, and died from starvation. Some resorted to cannibalism. The financial and human cost was high.
It wasn’t until 1906 that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen successfully navigated the Northwest Passage, with a crew of just six. At this time, many countries still thought the Canadian Arctic was a no man’s land, belonging to no nation.
One of Canada’s first tests to its Arctic sovereignty came in 1910, when the United States offered to fund an Arctic expedition by Canadian-born American Stefansson. Canadian politicians feared the powerful United States could undermine Canada’s title to the Arctic. The Canadian government knew it had to step in.
Then–prime minister Robert Borden told Stefansson his government would “assume entire responsibility for the expedition.” With that, Canada launched its largest and most expensive Arctic venture to date. Sailing from 1913 to 1918, the Canadian Arctic Expedition employed more than 100 crew members. Split into two groups (a northern and a southern party), it included Inuit from across the western Arctic, a zoologist, an anthropologist, hunters, guides, and seamstresses.
Led by Stefansson, the northern party traveled extensively in the northwestern region of the Arctic Archipelago, naming the Borden, Brock, Meighen, and Lougheed Islands. But that was only after its main ship, the Karluk, drifted off and got caught in the sea ice before it was eventually crushed. Eleven crewmen died, and the rest endured a bitter winter on Wrangel Island before they were rescued.
Meanwhile, the southern party, led by American-born Canadian Rudolph Martin Anderson, mapped the coast from the international boundary with Alaska to the Mackenzie River delta’s east and west channels. Supported by the Inuit in their crew, the party established headquarters at Bernard Harbour—100 kilometers north of present-day Kugluktuk, Nunavut—and continued exploring the Coronation Gulf area. In 1916, the party returned to Victoria, British Columbia, where it presented a significant amount of scientific research and material. However, due to the attention devoted to the First World War, the findings were mostly ignored.
All told, the trip cost nearly CAN $560,000, up from the original budget of $75,000. (That’s an equivalent jump from about $1.6-million to $12-million today.) Needless to say, these grand expeditions were seen as an expensive way for Canada to solidify its presence in the Arctic. By 1922, politicians figured they’d found a better way to make Canada’s claim, opening Arctic RCMP outposts that would become the first official “Canadian” presence in the Baffin region.
“If you’re looking at these traditional European definitions of sovereignty that people would have used at the time, then occupation is one of the rules,” says historian Jeff Noakes, of the Canadian War Museum. This definition, he explains, meant that for a nation to claim a piece of land, it must have residents living and working there.
Between 1922 and 1927, six RCMP outposts were set up across present-day Nunavut, from Pond Inlet to Dundas Harbour—on the southeastern coast of Devon Island. A dozen officers working from the outposts spent time conducting administrative duties for the government and assisting with medical treatment—pulling teeth, treating burns, and assisting with difficult pregnancies—when requested by local Inuit.
By 1936, some Inuit were hired as special constables, acting as guides to the RCMP officers, who were unfamiliar with the territory. Special constables translated and mediated between the two cultures. Ironically, many of the constables were Greenlandic Inughuit—the very people the RCMP had originally been trying to keep off Canadian territory, as the Inughuit had been crossing the ice to Ellesmere Island to hunt long before Canada was a country.
However, in the throes of the Great Depression, the Canadian government could no longer defend the funding of the remote posts. Instead, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) took over the Dundas Harbour detachment in 1934 and set up a trading post. But trading posts need people to trade with. This marks the first time the government relocated Inuit in the Arctic—in this instance, 52 Inuit from southern Baffin Island. When the HBC post closed just two years later, the government moved people once again to another HBC post in Arctic Bay. Some were taken back home, but others were relocated four times within a dozen years.
They were told the new locations were abundant with food and game—a fable the government would continue to tell to the next generation of Inuit. And that wouldn’t be the end. When mineral and oil deposits were discovered in the high Arctic during the 1960s, the federal government discussed more Inuit relocations, suggesting settlements near weather stations, built by the Americans in the late 1940s, as a way to maintain sovereignty and develop the Arctic’s resource extraction potential.
“Before us, there was only the RCMP presence, which is federal, then the weather stations, which is federal,” says Audlaluk. “But we were the civilian component—the regular Canadians. The government used our being here as a weapon against the critics who were conscious of what sovereignty means.” To no one’s surprise, each relocation project did more harm than good.
Europe had hardly rebuilt from the rubble of the Second World War when thousands of soldiers set off overseas to Korea. With the Korean War, the Suez Crisis in 1956, and the constant fear of Soviet threats, global tensions were high—even between Canada and the United States. Washington complained Canada was not doing enough in each confrontation, while Ottawa was frustrated with the United States’ lack of consultation over high-stakes decisions. It didn’t help Canada that the United States fronted much of the northern defense costs during the Cold War. The first was the Pinetree Line, a series of radar stations that ran roughly along the Canadian and US border. Canada paid for a third of the line and was partly responsible for operating it. Then came the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line), which stretched 5,800 kilometers from Alaska to Greenland. Again, the United States covered a great deal of the cost and that worried Canada.
“There was concern that significant US presence would leave the US with more effective control than what Canada had over the Arctic,” says Lajeunesse. To some, a takeover even seemed plausible. Many wondered why the United States was investing more in Canadian defense than Canada was. Criticism about how easily our country rolled over to the United States came to play and headlines questioned Canada’s leadership. Even former prime minister Lester B. Pearson expressed unease. In his memoir, he wrote that Canada’s autonomy was conditioned by the United States after the Second World War. It was “a hard fact which brought us anxiety as well as assurance.”
“Obviously, the Canadian government had an interest in avoiding stories they thought would be sensational,” says Noakes. “There was a concern with public perception as much as there was a concern with reality.”
So, in 1958, the federal government initiated the Mid-Canada Line—an entirely Canadian-owned and funded defense line. It ran roughly along the 55th parallel and acted as a backup for the Pinetree Line, to essentially confirm any potential attacks from the Soviet Union.
“One of the really useful things it does, as far as the Canadian government is concerned, is it lets Canada have a public and very visible, purely Canadian contribution to defense in the continental sense,” Noakes explains. “It’s something the Canadian military can point to and say, ‘Here’s part of what Canada is doing [for defense]. Yes, there are joint projects, but this is purely a Canadian part of defense and it’s developed in Canada.’”
During this time, Canada was spending more on its military budget than it had, or would, for decades. The Mid-Canada Line cost almost $225-million, but the federal government assured it would come with hundreds of jobs. Ultimately, the line didn’t hold. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite into space, the attack threat changed from long-range bombers to fast-moving missiles that could be fired from more than 5,000 kilometers away. The defense lines could no longer catch signs of attack quickly enough to be of use. By 1965, the Mid-Canada Line was shut down and abandoned. Today, nearly 60 years later, the cleanup is still in progress.
With all the infrastructure, RCMP detachments, and HBC posts added to the high Arctic, the people who were actually from the region were rarely consulted. Even when Inuit were invited to take part in conversations about the Arctic, their role was minimal. Inuit joined the Eskimo Affairs Committee in 1959, a body responsible for advising and offering recommendations to the federal government on Arctic affairs like wildlife protection and public policy issues. But most of the other committee members comprised RCMP, HBC, and local church officials. Inuit seldom noticed any changes, based on recommendations they made from their own lived experience. The RCMP and missionaries continued to provide services in the North throughout much of the 20th century.
Inuit were tired of continually being left out of the conversation, so in the late 1960s, they began lobbying for land claims, Inuit rights, and self-government. Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (now known as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, or ITK) formed in 1971 and included Inuit from 53 communities across Inuit Nunangat. Since its inception, ITK has worked to preserve Inuit language and culture, promote self-governance, and safeguard all basic human rights for Inuit.
In 1991, Inuit in Canada successfully negotiated the creation of their own territory, covering more than two million square kilometers of the land that Britain had transferred to Canada back in 1880.
Inuit settled on Nunavut as the name for the new territory. In Inuktut, it means “our land.”
It was 1982 when Audlaluk embraced his family and waved a tearful goodbye as they all boarded a ship back to Inukjuak, where they had come from so many years earlier. Audlaluk made the difficult decision to stay in Grise Fiord, where he had lived since the age of two. As much as it pained him, he says he didn’t want to force his children to readjust to an entirely new life, like his family had to.
The Grise Fiord resident vividly recalls his family’s experiences of settling in the high Arctic. He still sheds a tear when he remembers how hard his mother worked, the sadness of losing his father at such a young age, and the struggle of fighting with the government over their own lives. He retold his story in 1993 during the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, part of the work that led to Canada finally apologizing for the high Arctic relocations. To this day, Audlaluk is still in disbelief that the government would blatantly lie to them, all in the name of sovereignty.
“The fact that they never volunteered why we were really up here and that they were not honest with us is what really hurt the most.”
There is still a long way to go when it comes to reversing this damage. But Inuit and First Nations across the North are asserting their own sovereignty over their traditional lands. While the forced relocation has caused great pain, Audlaluk now considers himself and other locals as guardians of the Canadian high Arctic. He continues to fight for better living conditions in Grise Fiord and the Arctic. Through their actions, Arctic residents are turning the tables and reclaiming the landscape.
As Audlaluk says, “After all that has happened, we are still standing.”