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From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Northern Memories

A story of forced relocation

Elaine Coburn

What I Remember, What I Know: The Life of a High Arctic Exile

Larry Audlaluk

Inhabit Media

280 pages, softcover

When Arnakallak would describe the “horrendous” first two years he spent in the Far North, he’d use the word ­uakallaluraaluulauqtuq: “It was too much!” Decades ago, his family was one of several that Ottawa relocated from Pond Inlet, on Baffin Island, to the High Arctic. The unfamiliar conditions — the cold, the lack of shelter, the limited food sources, and the long, dark winters — took their toll. Another High Arctic exile, Anna, also recalled those early long winters and described how the unending night “soaked me to my innermost being in fear.” Yet another, a grandmother, would pack up her bags every morning and wonder if it was time to go home. She did not live very long, a neighbour recalled. She died asking the same question: “Are we leaving today?” Others watched helplessly as their newborns, siblings, parents, and grandparents succumbed to “extreme cold and lack of food.”

Such were the stories that Larry Audlaluk heard as a small child, when his own family was relocated, in 1953, from Nunavik, in northern Quebec, to Lindstrom Peninsula, on the southern coast of Ellesmere Island. In What I Remember, What I Know, the revered community leader avoids rhetorical ornament as he recounts them as part of a larger hist­ory of “too much”: too much trickery, cruelty, and ignorance among government officials, and too much suffering, illness, and death among Inuit families.

For generations, few Qallunaat were interested in the Far North, except for some explorers, adventurers, and agents of the Hudson’s Bay Company. But in the context of the Cold War, Ottawa had a new strategic interest in laying claim to the region. When families declined to relocate voluntarily, the RCMP resorted to lies, telling them that their neighbouring relatives had already agreed to leave. Seven families were coerced onto ships and then split into three encampments, 2,000 kilometres north of their homelands. Although they were repeatedly promised the right to return home, as Audlaluk writes, “many of us never came back.”

Even as he describes devastating hardships, Audlaluk is far from unrelentingly grim. He introduces readers to his parents, relatives, and various Qallunaat — some kind, some deceitful, some comic. Once his family was visited by Inughuit from Greenland, who astonished young Audlaluk with their distinctively short dogsled leashes, their similar yet unfamiliar language, and their clothing, which also impressed his mother: “She was amazed at how different the style of their kamiit were from ours, yet simple in design.”

A few years later, when he was eight and suffering from an eye injury that required medical attention, Audlaluk was taken on a long journey south, “to Qallunaat nunangat — the land of white people!” He was stunned by the airport waiting area (“It was so enormous, it seemed empty”), intrigued by a young man with “very light brown hair” (“He spoke convincingly like a real Inuk”), and puzzled by an apple in Quebec City (“an unfamiliar red fruit”). He was then transferred to a hospital in Ontario, where he discovered film: “I was amazed by Pinocchio, and I also loved Bambi. It had lots of open scenery, which reminded me of the open space back home. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was an interesting movie, but it had so much forest imagery that it made me feel closed in.”

Billeted with a family of strangers, Audlaluk saw his first lightning bolt and heard thunder, which terrified him. While waiting in Fort Churchill, Manitoba, for the boat that would take him back to Grise Fiord, he encountered a cat, one of those “delicate creatures that are indoor house pets. Someone put it outside just to see what its tracks on the snow would look like.”

Established in 1953, Grise Fiord, on the tip of Ellesmere Island, is the northernmost civilian community in Canada, and Audlaluk is its longest-living resident. He shares stories of life “back home,” such as the time he learned to drive a dogsled team and hunt seals. He also describes his years at a residential school in Fort Churchill, where student conduct was “modelled after a regimental, army-style system” and he was bullied by older kids. As a teenager, he danced to Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly and found young love while enjoying “Coca-Cola, ice cream, chocolate bars, popcorn, and comic books, among other things.”

Although Audlaluk delighted in discovering new people, places, and experiences, there was a cost to his travels. “It was the beginning of living in two worlds,” he writes of his return from school. “I did not know I was starting to lose my true Inuk identity. I was missing hunting skills, traditional medicine, philosophy.” It took him forty years to realize he was not alone:

I would finally start meeting other former residential school students who felt the same way: a sense of something missing in your very core as a human being. I used to wonder why I was always so restless, why I had trouble identifying who I really was versus my Elders, who did not question who they were.

Periods of alcoholism followed Audlaluk into adulthood, until he began petitioning the federal government to admit its wrongdoing in the forced move north. In 1993, he testified at the hearings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, “the very first time I had spoken openly about the relocation sober, without the assistance of substances like alcohol.” Shortly after that, he was baptized at St. Jude’s Anglican Cathedral, in Iqaluit. “That is the best way I can explain the start of my healing process.”

Amid some terrible histories, Audlaluk offers moments of unexpected tenderness and beauty. Consider something as simple as last names. Initially assigned numbers by government officials, the Inuit were one day invited to invent their own surnames. “Elijah E9‑912 decided to become Elijah Nutara,” he writes. “‘Nutara’ was his childhood lullaby name.” Audlaluk also reveals a fondness for trees. Once, while sailing into the St. Lawrence River, he stood on the ship’s deck with other passengers: “I had seen trees before, the first time I had gone south, and I realized I was happy to see them again.”

Despite the forced relocation and assimilation, spirits still roam the High Arctic, including the ghosts who take on human form and live as spectral neighbours. They are visible only when glanced out of the corner of an eye, Audlaluk explains, and they can be dangerous. But to someone who feels lonely in the North, these non-human spirits are also a comforting presence.

There is little consolation, much less resolution, for a tragedy manufactured out of Cold War greed, ignorance, and racism. There is plenty of profound irony, though. In 1987, after decades of struggles, the Canadian government agreed to help survivors go back to their original homelands. For Audlaluk and his family, this gesture was both long awaited and far too late. “I did not want to uproot my children like I was uprooted back in 1953,” he writes near the end of the book. “I decided not to take up the offer.”

Elaine Coburn is an associate professor of international studies at York University.