Consistent Institutional Racism in Nunavut: 1962 – 2014

The Qikiqtani Truth Commission’s final report, published in 2010, paints clear, stark and uncomfortable images of what life in Nunavut was like in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.


Uncomfortable because, as a conscious human being and a Canadian, I don’t want to believe the stories hundreds of Inuit who lived those years told the commission. Stories of forced relocation, forced quarantines thousands of kilomteres away from home, families left in the dark, families thrown geographically asunder—stories of pain and grief and regret, all archived and relived.


Uncomfortable because of the clear glimpses of stark racism that persist from those days.


In 1950 most Inuit in the Qikiqtani region (Baffin) lived in tightly-knit kinship groups, five to thirty people big, on ilagiit nunagivaktangit—seasonal land camps traditionally used for hunting, harvesting and gathering.


By 1975, almost all Inuit lived in permanent settlements, lured by promises of material security that failed to materialize, bullied by coercion and threatened with brute force.


Sled dogs on Frobisher Bay, with Iqaluit in the background, in January, 2015.  photo: Thomas Rohner
Sled dogs on Frobisher Bay, with Iqaluit in the background, in January, 2015.
photo: Thomas Rohner

The RCMP killed hundreds, if not thousands, of sled dogs—or qimmiit in Inuktitut—between 1950 and 1975. They did so under the authority of an insensitive, ineffective and unrealistic—yet official—ordinance. Many other dogs died from disease or starvation. But those killed by the RCMP became a flashpoint, the QTC report said, in the memory of many of those who testified. Many Inuit, especially men, lost not just their means of mobility to leave the settlements, but something of great cultural value and identity. Hunters and their dogs were legendary, the report said, forging intuitively profound, and profoundly practical, relationships.


The Canadian history I learned as a child and youth in suburban Toronto failed to mention anything about Inuit beyond igloos.


In the section titled, “Settlement Life and Substance Abuse”, the report’s commissioner, James Igloliorte, points out a number of common-sense observations about Inuit’s relationship with alcohol in those decades.


The social and cultural context of drinking was new to Inuit, Igloliorte writes. The family and social controls developed over centuries in the ilagiit nunagivaktangitv weakened, diffused in the settlement context. Feelings of boredom, dependency and displacement contributed to increasing incidents of excessive drinking. And, observing the military personnel who drank heavily in restricted military bars, Inuit saw that drinking was a legitimate defence for bad behaviour.


The sun sets over break-ice on Frobisher Bay, January 2015.  photo: Thomas Rohner
The sun sets over break-ice on Frobisher Bay, January 2015.
photo: Thomas Rohner

Officials often responded to Inuit’s substance abuse with self-righteous morality and outright racism, Igloliorte reports.


For example, in 1962 an official reported back to the federal government, opining: “the trouble is not with recognizing or even acknowledging drinking as a problem but rather with finding within themselves the power to control their drinking”.


I read: Caucasians, and others of superior breeding, can find this power to control their drinking within themselves, generally speaking. But these savages, and others of inferior breeding, cannot. They lack something fundamental that likely portends the demise of their ethnic group.  Social Darwinism and whatnot.


Surely, that sort of thinking, surprising as it might seem even for 1960s, is a thing of the past. Isn’t that what WWII was about?


Fast-forward to November, 2014. In the Qikiqtani community of Igloolik, an RCMP sergeant testifies at a coroner’s inquest I attend as a reporter. The inquest is held to determine the circumstances around the death of a young local Inuk man, who died, drunk, while in police custody, during the sergeant’s shift.


The sergeant appears stiff, uncomfortable throughout his testimony.


Presiding coroner Garth Eggenberger of the NWT prepares the community hall for the first day of the coroner's inquest held Nov. 24-29, 2014 in Igloolik.  photo: Thomas Rohner
Presiding coroner Garth Eggenberger of the NWT prepares the community hall for the first day of the coroner’s inquest held Nov. 24-29, 2014 in Igloolik.
photo: Thomas Rohner

The sergeant is asked to read from a transcript of a statement he made to external investigating officers. The quote he reads contains advice from his career officer and represents the extent of the Nunavut-specific training the sergeant received before leaving his white-collar office police job of 15 years for an adventurous stint in Canada’s great white north.


“Prior to departing, [career officer] Sgt. Ma advised me that residents, when intoxicated, become hot-headed and combative without provocation,” the sergeant reads.


I read: there’s something about this ethnic group that, compared to others, makes them unable to hold their liquor. Most of us can become a little hot headed when drunk, but you should see these guys.


“Is that statement racist?” a lawyer asks the sergeant.

“No, it goes to officer safety and remaining vigilant,” the sergeant replies.

“Well I’m a Nunavut resident, but Sgt. Ma wasn’t warning you about meeting me at the bar, right?” the tall, white lawyer asks.

“That’s a fair statement.”


I read: this is the harsh reality. Maybe you don’t want to hear it or see it, but as a policeman who risks his life daily on the job (at least when stepping out from behind my desk for the first time in 15 years), charged with protecting the public peace, I have no choice. My eyes are open to the uncomfortable truth.


But the truth is that institutional racism perpetrated by Qallunaat (southern) institutions against Inuit existed in 1962 much as it exists today: simply unapproachable and categorically denied.


Hope comes in the form of wisdom at odds with those institutions though.

Iqaluit cemetery, January 2015. photo: Thomas Rohner


At the coroner’s inquest, the family’s lawyer made a number of recommendations to the jury, on behalf of the family, that are distinctly un-Qallunaat:


  • Phase out general duty RCMP policing in remote Nunavut communities, bring in self-policing; and


  • Establish detox centres outside incarceration centres for those apprehended while intoxicated.

The value of these ideas may be debatable and not self-evident. But ideas outside regular Qallunaat thinking offers hope.

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