Tag Archives: inuit

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.

DSC_2415
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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From Iqaluit to Igloolik

I find myself in Igloolik this week, an Inuit community of almost 1,500 people which sits on its own small island about 800 km northwest of Iqaluit, just off the northeast corner of Melville Peninsula.

 

Arriving Sunday night around 4:30pm it was already pitch dark and about -30C with the wind: an instant reminder that I’m further north than Iqaluit. I’m above the Arctic Circle now, where, eventually, the sun will disappear for weeks each winter.  The average temperature in Igloolik this week is around -27C, before the wind chill. And there are only about 3 hours of sunlight, including twilight.

 

My official capacity here—covering a five-day coroner’s inquest into the death of a young, popular artist and circus performer while in police custody for Nunatsiaq News

A plane waits on the tarmac of Iqaluit's airport Nov. 22. After flying all the way to Igloolik, my plane turned around headed back for Iqaluit because groundstaff woudln't have been able to de-ice the plane for its next trip, the pilot said.
A plane waits on the tarmac of Iqaluit’s airport Nov. 22. After flying all the way to Igloolik, my plane turned around headed back for Iqaluit because groundstaff woudln’t have been able to de-ice the plane for its next trip, the pilot said.

—leaves me with aheavy feeling.

 

Solomon Uyarasuk was only 26 years old when he died in the local RCMP detachment’s cell in Sept. 2012, severely intoxicated and by suicide, according to sparse comments by an Ottawa police investigation conducted to examine the RCMP’s conduct. The report will be made public for the first time during the inquest, and so will all other testimony and evidence, such as the pathologist’s autopsy report, so far withheld from family, friends and the community at large.

 

I know I should feel lucky, privileged to be in this position, but there’s too much privilege—colonial, classist, call it whatever you want—wrapped up with the luck for it to sit well.

 

I feel motivated, humbled, slightly embarrassed by this opportunity.

 

There was a documentary made on the performer’s death, called SOL, which premiered at the imagiNATIVE film festival in Toronto recently, and, even more recently, won an important award at the international Montreal documentary festival.

 

One of the two directors of the film, who I will be collaborating with to produce short daily video segments on the inquest—to be used in an epilogue of the film—told me that one of the most tragic elements of this story is how the family and friends, predominantly Inuktitut speakers, have been communicated with by the RCMP and other state institutions. Or, more accurately, not communicated with.

Igloolik's old community hall, the site of the first day of the inquest into Solomon Uyarasuk's death while in the local RCMP detachment's holding cell in Sept. 2012.  photo: thomas rohner
Igloolik’s old community hall, the site of the first day of the inquest into Solomon Uyarasuk’s death while in the local RCMP detachment’s holding cell in Sept. 2012. photo: Thomas Rohner

 

And then here I come, a white man from the south–a Qallunaat, as the Inuit say—to report on how other Qallunaat and Qallunaat institutions failed the community on some of the most basic levels:  for starters, preserving the life of a young man while in police custody.

 

The community has unresolved grief, the documentary says, in part because the official cause of death has not been made public.

 

But when a citizen dies in police custody an inquest is automatically triggered, and then it is up to the jury at the inquest to categorize the death as a suicide, homicide, one by natural cause or an accident. This is the reason, the territory’s chief coroner told me, there has not been an official cause of death made public.

 

Presiding coroner Garth Eggenberger of the NWT prepares the community hall for the first day of inquest Nov. 24.  photo: Thomas Rohner
Presiding coroner Garth Eggenberger of the NWT prepares the community hall for the first day of inquest Nov. 24. photo: Thomas Rohner

Still, there are other questions that have fueled speculation, frustration and anger: what did Solomon Uyarasuk kill himself with, if he committed suicide? Some reports say he hung himself by his shoelace from a flap in the door a mere two feet off the ground. Isn’t it regular RCMP procedure to remove any items a detainee could use to hang themselves? Could a severely intoxicated man have the coordination required to hang himself from that height? How long did it take him and why didn’t an RCMP officer check on him before he was dead? Why did the two police officers  on duty leave town immediately, the next day? Why were his family asked for fresh clothes, but never given his old clothes? Why were his family and friends denied the right to see his body?

 

Suicide is a widespread problem in Nunavut—that’s no secret.

 

“We want to understand how he died,” Susan Avingaq, the documentary’s other director, and a local elder in Igloolik, said in the film.  “This tragedy is not just about Solomon. This is about everyone struggling with suicide.”

 

The documentary shows footage of Solomon, an agile, stringy, young man, eager to smile and laugh and express himself.

 

“Don’t forget how to play,” the first clip, some 20 minutes in, shows him saying, sitting in a sparse room on an old office chair. “Inuit on the ice play. Elders playing with the kids, or kids playing amongst themselves. That’s home—feels like home to me.”

 

The founder of the circus troupe—Artcirq, established to help combat youth suicide and depression, and which travels around the world now with its mesmerizing performances—said that his relationship with Solomon was a deep and moving but difficult one.

 

“He never wanted to be controlled,” Guillaume Saladin said in the documentary.

The new community hall with mural, expected to be opened soon.  photo: Thomas Rohner
The new community hall with mural, expected to be opened soon. photo: Thomas Rohner

 

“Everything about authority he had a hard time with.”

 

I can relate to that.

 

“I don’t know who I am,” Solomon said in the film. “Maybe I’m just another Inuk. If the people around me are happy, then I’m happy. If I’m with sad people, then I’m sad.”

 

Towards the end of the film, Solomon’s childhood friend plays a beautiful, sad song on the guitar, written by Solomon:

 

“Today is not fun. I am back to the darkness. I love you very much. Don’t forget that. The wind has been at my back. I follow my feet far. I follow the lonely darkness. It’s always welcoming.”

 

There’s a suicide helpline in Nunavut: 867-979-3333 or 1-800-265-3333

 

To learn more about Igloolik, you can read a community profile on the region’s Truth Commission, or this interesting community profile from the 2011 Census on StatsCan.

Iqaluit groceries, sculptures

 

Grocery Bill, North Mart

*salt and pepper shakers (mini): $6.99

*sugar, bulk (0.465kg): $2.28

*canola oil (475mL): $3.99

*coffee, ground (925g): $19.99

water enhancer, squirt (48mL): $4.35

*pasta, rotini, 1 bag (900g): $5.49

*sandwich bags, 100: $1.99

*soap, bars (2): $4.19

*toothpaste (100mL): $4.29

*crackers, 1 box (225g): $3.99

*candy, 1 box (450g): $6.19

milk (4L): $10.45

frozen veg, corn (750g): $4.79

frozen juice concentrate: $1.35 x 4

ground beef (0.5kg): $5.95

pork loin (0.42kg): $6.76

chicken breast, boneless/skinless (1.1kg/5 pieces): $32.03

bag charge: $0.72

subtotal: $136.83

gst: $1.15

total: $137.98

*= discount brands

 

Things I can’t afford until I get paid

laundry detergent, Tide 5L: $48.89

toilet paper, Charmin 12 rolls: $19.99

garbage bags, Glad 20 large: $14.39