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a nation's paper

The Globe once portrayed the region almost as a colonial playground, but now includes northern Indigenous voices

This is an excerpt from A Nation’s Paper: The Globe and Mail in the Life of Canada, a collection of history essays from Globe writers past and present, coming this fall from Signal/McClelland & Stewart.

In the opening lines of her 2022 feature “No place to grow old,” health reporter Kelly Grant invites readers into a living room in Nunavut. There are purple curtains, a flower-covered cross hanging over an easy chair and an elderly Inuit couple, Joe and Peepeelee Arlooktoo. The couple want to stay in their beloved hamlet of Kimmirut. But Joe’s advancing dementia and diabetes require constant professional care that’s unavailable in the territory.

The Arlooktoos faced the same excruciating decision confronting many Nunavut families: keep their ill elders at home with inadequate help, or ship them to the alien world of the south to live out their final years. The Arlooktoos chose to keep Joe in Kimmirut: “It’s important for the kids and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know that he is their grandpa,” Peepeelee tells her. “I want them to know where they come from.”

Grant wrote the piece as part of a year-long series on why Nunavut has some of the country’s worst health outcomes. She succeeds precisely where the paper has, historically, so often failed. Her work brims with northern voices. She eschews hoary Arctic clichés. She implores governments to do better for a population that remains woefully underserved.

It’s a sharp contrast from the early years of The Globe, when writers used terms like “savage” and “heathen” to describe the Dene, Inuit, Innu and Cree peoples of the North – if they bothered to mention them at all.

Northern Indigenous voices really didn’t factor into the paper’s coverage until the 1960s and 70s, when the excessive encroachment of oil and mining companies sparked an organized resistance. Prior to that, a casual Globe reader could be excused for viewing the North as a colonial playground for brave, white adventurers.

“I guess you have to remember the spirit of that particular time, but it still riles me reading those stories,” says Deborah Kigjugalik Webster, an anthropologist and curator of heritage collections for the government of Nunavut. “There will be an account of how great a northern patrol or expedition was, with no mention of the people – the northerners – who actually helped them get there.”

Peepeelee and Joe Arlooktoo from Kimmirut were two of the Inuit elders who The Globe's Kelly Grant met on a reporting project in Nunavut, which highlighted the hardships northerners face in finding health care and public services. Pat Kane/The Globe and Mail
Elders, guides, teachers and students gather for a meal at Amittuq Lake near Pangnirtung, where the youngsters are taking part in an annual spring camp to learn how to hunt prepare country food. Pat Kane/The Globe and Mail
At Attagoyuk School in Pangnirtung, children react to a screening of Slash/Back, an Inuit science-fiction film in which a shapeshifting alien comes to the community. Pat Kane/The Globe and Mail

Sir John Franklin was the first of these near-mythological characters to preoccupy The Globe’s coverage of the North. When his 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage failed to re-emerge, the paper lapsed into copy suitable for the National Enquirer. One story featured a clairvoyant in Calcutta who claimed to have seen Franklin during a hypnotic trance; another speculated that he’d sailed into Symmes Hole, a theoretical opening in the poles leading to the Earth’s interior.

The first sensible explanation of Franklin’s fate came in 1854, when Scottish surgeon and explorer John Rae met some Inuit families who spoke of ships crushed in the ice and a starving crew who resorted to cannibalism before perishing. The finding that these mariners of high station had descended into madness made Rae one of the most unpopular men in Victorian England; Charles Dickens mocked him and The Globe referred to him as a “charlatan.” The Inuit role would be relegated to the margins of the Franklin caper until 2014, when a Canadian team finally located his ships based largely on clues from Inuit oral histories.

Those early editions of The Globe were fixated on another northern prize, this one directly from the mind of the paper’s proprietor. George Brown had long pressed for an end to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading monopoly over Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory, which stretched to the Rocky Mountains in the West and the Arctic Ocean in the North. And he wasn’t afraid to use the paper as his political bullhorn. “The idea of confining Canada within her present bounds, in order that the Company may have its hunting grounds and trading posts unmolested, is too preposterous to be long persisted in,” noted one 1856 article.

Fourteen years later, Brown would get his wish. It was likely the first time The Globe’s influence had shaped the North, but certainly not the last.

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In Dawson City, 1958, old-timer Black Mike Wenage reads a Globe Christmas magazine from 1899, the era of the Klondike gold rush.Bruce West/The Globe and Mail

The transaction put Canada in control of a remote western region known as the Klondike. On Aug. 17, 1896, three people from Tagish First Nation – Keish (Skookum Jim Mason), Káa Goox (Dawson Charlie) and Shaaw Tlaa (Kate Carmack) – along with Carmack’s American husband, George – found gold there on Rabbit Creek.

The news took time to travel. The Globe caught gold fever a full year later: On a single day, July 28, 1897, the paper ran 10 articles on the Klondike, stoking interest in a gold rush that would eventually attract tens of thousands of prospectors. “The world has never produced its equal before,” stated one miner in an article titled “Letters from the Klondike.” Another said gold was so common in the region, “it seems almost as cheap as sawdust.”

The influx of wealth-seekers tested Canada’s commitment to the region. One August, 1897, story suggested American miners were conspiring to claim the region for the U.S. “Before I left there was a strong feeling that the Stars and Stripes should float over the Klondike gold fields,” said an American prospector. The Globe called on Canada to boost the government’s presence in the area. Ottawa obliged, flooding the area with North-West Mounted Police.

The northern incursion had dire effects: Epidemics of measles and tuberculosis ravaged Indigenous populations. Around this time, The Globe started to report on colonialism’s toll, but played up the growing role of alcohol in Inuit deaths.

“The liquor obtained by Esquimaux was the cause of many murders among them, not a season passing without two or three during their drunken bouts,” a 1903 dispatch stated in a disapproving tone. “The numbers of Esquimaux are decreasing very fast.” Only later does the story mention that measles, not booze, was killing off entire Inuit encampments.

This arrogant approach to northern welfare would continue for decades. At the dawn of the Depression, one front-page story predicted “ultimate extinction” for 6,000 Indigenous northerners due to “the spread of civilization.” It was a typical article of the age, blaming Indigenous peoples for dire circumstances created by settlers: “Measles, whooping cough, chickenpox, grippe and other ailments he gets from the white man himself, and yet he is most happy in his company.”

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Apitak, a 14-year-old Inuk, salutes at her Girl Guide enrolment ceremony at a tuberculosis hospital in Weston, Ont., in 1963. Under federal policy, many Inuit with any signs of TB were removed from their families, often for months or years. The Globe's story noted that the five girls joining the Guides and Brownies spoke little English, and the most fluent one had to direct the others where to stand for photographer Harry MacLorinan.Harry McLorinan/The Globe and Mail

MacLorinan and reporter Robert Turnbull had seen Inuit life firsthand in Iqaluit, then called Frobisher Bay, in 1957, when the future Nunavut capital became a refuelling stop on the first commercial transpolar flight from San Francisco to Paris. Harry MacLorinan/The Globe and Mail

Until the 1930s, the paper relied almost entirely upon wire services and southern-based reporters for Arctic coverage. In 1938, it sent columnist Norman Winston on a dream assignment: a two-month, 13,000-kilometre trip across northern Canada to file 60,000 words in the form of daily letters. It was, and possibly remains, the lengthiest and most ambitious Globe assignment in the North.

He spent most of his time in the company of white professionals and miners, offering a few brief descriptions of the Inuit. “They giggled and bobbed, standing around me in a circle and smoking cigarettes, while I asked them questions about the caribou migrations,” he wrote. “They gave me the information seriously and politely, but kept right on grinning as though the white race were the greatest joke on Earth – and undoubtedly we are.”

Along the shores of Great Bear Lake, Winston became enamoured with a silver, radium and uranium mine called Eldorado and the wealth that 100 miners seemed to be pulling from the ground. He saw Eldorado, and the Arctic riches it symbolized, as Canada’s path out of the Depression. “By opening a new frontier to city people it will help prevent, in Canada, the malignant growth of class hatred, the congestion of idle population, the tissue-destroying sickness of politics, from which the world is suffering today.”

The Eldorado mine shut down two years later. It would eventually play a world-changing role – just not the one Winston envisaged. The government surreptitiously re-opened the mine in 1943 to supply the Manhattan Project, America’s atomic bomb development program. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were built, in part, with Eldorado ore.

A moral reckoning would come much later. In 1998, Globe reporter Anne McIlroy travelled to the surrounding community and found a cancer cluster among Dene men who’d worked as ore carriers at the mine. Their town, Deline, had come to be known as “the village of widows.”

During and after the Second World War, the country rallied around calls from Winston and others to develop the North, to buttress the economy and to maintain Canadian sovereignty in the region. The completion of the Alaska Highway in 1942, which The Globe had long supported, along with construction of weather stations and Distant Early Warning radar outposts in the fifties, introduced the building blocks of Western society – telephone lines, pipelines, generators, pre-fab buildings. The government encouraged Indigenous groups to settle down in government-built houses, attend government-built residential schools and take government welfare. The societal costs of this cultural whiplash are still accruing.

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A 1963 map of the NORAD defence system includes the DEW radar stations in the Arctic, designed to watch for incoming Soviet aircraft.NORAD

In 1958, prime minister John Diefenbaker promised to institute his Globe-endorsed “Northern Vision,” which involved heavy investment in transportation and communication that would spark a new era of prosperity. By the 1960s, however, it was becoming clear that while postwar government spending had changed Indigenous life in the North, it had not necessarily improved it. Through the sixties and seventies, that tension erupted into the pages of The Globe as a new generation of Arctic leaders sought to restore self-determination to northern peoples.

Perhaps the most sensational example landed on the front page of Sept. 30, 1968, when an Inuvialuit university student, Mary Carpenter, accused Ottawa of turning northern peoples into “a servant class people, or slaves, take your choice.” Speaking to the Indian-Eskimo Association of Canada, she said a government oil development scheme, Panarctic Oils, had only served to exploit northern land while employing fewer than 10 Indigenous men.

“I don’t wish to alarm you,” she said in her speech, “but the facts are that the federal Government is doing exactly to my people, the Eskimos, what the whites have done to the Negroes of the United States.” She went on to accuse the news media of falling for Ottawa’s line that “the rape of the North is good for the Eskimo people.”

Hers was one of many rallying cries for northern self-determination that led to the formation of Indigenous-led advocacy groups, such as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Indian Brotherhood of Northwest Territories and the Council for Yukon Indians. In the 1970s, the groups fiercely opposed plans to build an oil and gas pipeline from the Arctic Ocean south to Alberta, forcing Ottawa to strike the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry under Justice Thomas Berger.

Berger would recommend putting people ahead of pipelines, calling for a 10-year moratorium on oil and gas development until northern land claims were settled. The Globe’s Martin O’Malley chronicled Berger’s efforts to include Indigenous groups in the proceedings and bring the inquiry to every community the development would affect. “The North is the battleground of just about every cause there is today: environment, development, pollution, nationalism, socialism, capitalism, energy,” he wrote.

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Thomas Berger, commissioner of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry, holds an outdoor hearing at the Slavey community in Nahanni Butte, NWT, in 1977. After the inquiry, media outlets including The Globe took northern demands for land rights and self-determination more seriously.The Canadian Press

An Inuk builds an igloo in Iqaluit on March 23, 1999, ahead of Nunavut’s official debut as a Canadian territory. On April 1, fireworks and other celebrations ushered in the new era of Inuit self-government. Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press; AFP/Getty Images

The inquiry would mark a turning point in the country’s perception of the North, and the paper’s coverage of the region. The usage of Inuit gradually overtook the word Eskimo. Datelines from northern communities increased sharply throughout the 1970s and 80s. Indigenous northerners slowly moved to the centre of a story long dominated by white southerners.

By the 1980s and 90s, land claims came to dominate The Globe’s northern coverage. Globe writers detailed backroom political manoeuvrings along with the hopes and fears of northerners. “Nunavut’s not going to change anything for the better: it’ll be the same old world with the same old problems, probably bigger problems,” one Inuk, Levi Palituq, told writer Scott Feschuk in 1994, a year after the settlement of the Nunavut Land Claims, which laid the groundwork for the creation of Nunavut in 1999.

At the same time, the land in question was changing. Environment reporter Martin Mittelstaedt wrote some of the first stories on polar bears starving because of melting ice conditions. Science writer Alanna Mitchell wrote an 8,000-word piece explaining the dire effects of climate change in the North. “The rivers began running and the lakes melting and all of a sudden, the ice fishing and the geese hunting was over,” Rosemarie Kuptana of Sachs Harbour, NWT, told Mitchell in 2000, when the usual month-long spring melt, a time of bountiful hunting and fishing, had taken place in just two days.

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Former prime minister Stephen Harper drives a dog sled at 2008's Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The big thaw was also drawing increasing international marine traffic to the Northwest Passage, reigniting questions around Canada’s hold on the region. “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic,” said then-prime minister Stephen Harper in 2007. “We either use it or lose it.” His definition of using the Arctic mainly involved the military: He wanted new icebreakers, 500 troops based in Iqaluit, a deep-water port on the northern tip of Baffin Island and frequent Far North military exercises.

A few years later, I was among a group of journalists and dignitaries flown in to observe one of these exercises at Canadian Forces Station Alert. During the trip, The Globe dutifully reported on Canada’s partnership with a Danish military dog-sled team, a record-breaking military dive and a successful test of cutting-edge thermal underwear. But nowhere in the paper’s coverage – my coverage – was there mention of the people who inhabited the territory. It was an unfortunate lapse into The Globe of old. Here, in 2010, we were repeating the same sin of omission.

On the return flight, I sat next to future governor-general Mary Simon, then the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. She doubted the prime minister’s promises and bristled at his “use it or lose it” philosophy that seemed to overlook a few millennia of Inuit use and occupation.

Her skepticism was well-founded. In a 2014 story, Globe reporter Steven Chase found that Harper’s vision was a calculated policy decision, designed more to get southern votes than improve northern lives. At the proposed deep-water port, Chase found just a fuel depot and a rusty, sinking dock.

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Mary Simon is Canada's first Inuk governor-general.Blair Gable/AFP via Getty Images

Simon and other northerners have long asked reporters to start writing stories about northern people, rather than prop up popular southern myths, especially those spouted by high-ranking politicians. We haven’t always honoured the request but, after 180 years, The Globe’s recent coverage is placing greater emphasis on northern voices describing northern life.

No longer is the North a setting for Victorian adventure talks, its people relegated to cameo appearances. The Globe has no dedicated northern correspondent. It can’t supply continuous coverage of local issues. But it can, as Grant demonstrated, invite readers inside northern living rooms to hash out big northern issues. Her work marks a high point in the history of The Globe’s northern coverage.

Patrick White is a reporter at The Globe and Mail, writing mainly on reconciliation and justice issues.

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