For Larry Audlaluk, writing his book, “What I Remember, What I Know: The Life of a High Arctic Exile”, meant unravelling the mystery of his own life — and the history of Canada’s relationship with the Arctic.
In 1953, at just three years old, he and his family were forcibly relocated by the Canadian government, from their home in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec to the High Arctic. The scheme was billed as an opportunity for Inuit to carry on their traditions, but in reality, it was a Cold War attempt at sovereignty through human signposts. A civilian population in the High Arctic would neatly claim the territory for Canada against international incursions.
Technically, his family agreed to move 2,000 kilometres north to Ellesmere Island. But it wasn’t really a choice. Audlaluk quotes Simeonie Amagoalik, one of the other 87 Inuit who made the journey by ship between 1953 and 1955: “When the policeman arrived, he’s wearing a uniform, with a pistol strapped to his side; we felt intimidated, it was hard to ignore them.” They were promised they could return home — that never happened. They were told their other relatives had already agreed to go, and they’d be allowed to stay together. Instead, families were separated across different communities, to what are today Grise Fiord on Ellesmere and Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island.
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What followed was what Audlaluk describes as “prison island,” a harsh new environment with long, dark winters, extreme weather and none of the comforts of home — right down to the foods his family had always eaten. His father didn’t survive, dying at 56 just 10 months later, a different man from who he was before he boarded the C.D. Howe. “When my mother spoke about my father after arriving at Lindstrom Peninsula [on Ellesmere], she spoke of a man whose behaviour had changed. He became unusually quiet, as if he were deep in thought, almost deadly silent.”
Weaving together his own memories and interviews with family and friends, Audlaluk writes like a storyteller, as if he’s asked you to scooch closer to the qulliq, the oil lamp, while he tells you tales of his childhood. The book is also sprinkled with excerpts telling the “official” side of the story, the one his family was never told. (For instance, they were instructed to bring only the bare necessities, because everything else would be provided for them. Years later, Audlaluk would find that the Inuit dropped at the Lindstrom Peninsula were never intended to be supplied with anything.) The contrast between his personal narrative and the official account he uncovers can make for tough reading.
But the story is not without hope. Today, Audlaluk calls Grise Fiord home and is a proud Nunavummiuq. Throughout the hardships he describes, what comes across to the reader is the resiliency of his culture and his family: there are moments of light and joy. This book will be eye-opening for southern Canadians who are just now realizing the depth of the history they were never taught.
This story originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Broadview with the title “Polar exiles.”
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