Confronting race, shame and reconciliation at sea in the Far North
On a Canada 150 expedition tasked with celebrating 'the people and places of Canada's three coasts,' Ian Brown finds himself in the midst of a diverse group forced to confront questions of race and reconciliation both past and present. Over the course of eight days sailing along the coast of Baffin Island, tensions build and break as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike face some of their country's uncomfortable truths
The Polar Prince's generators hummed incessantly in the background like a Gregorian chant. Sometimes they harmonized with the ship's revving engines, as when the inch-and-a-half thick steel plate of the light icebreaker's hull mounted a six-foot shelf of ice to break it and move forward, or stop and back up and mount it again for a second try. You could peer over the bow and watch the bright white ice 20 feet below slowly crack and then flood with blue water as the ship's bubblers breathed the floes out of its way. It was faintly unsettling, like watching the floor of the known world fall away.
The Polar Prince was threading the northeast coast of Baffin Island on its way from Toronto, last June, to Victoria at the end of this month, via the storied Northwest Passage – the so-called C3 (coast to coast to coast) expedition, a Canada 150 project largely paid for by a $6.8-million grant from the federal government. The Canadians invited on board – 400, divided over 15 legs of the 150-day voyage – were tasked with experiencing the way their country was handling youth engagement, the environment, diversity and reconciliation.
Reconciliation, as many Canadians now know thanks to the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is the process of reviving trust between Canada and its Indigenous people after more than a century of cultural genocide – after separating 150,000 Indigenous children from their families to be reprogrammed in Christian residential schools, in some cases as recently as the 1990s. The official purpose of the C3 expedition was to "celebrate the people and places of Canada's three coasts." But from the start it was clear scores were going to be settled.
There was, for instance, the incident of the hockey sticks in Clyde River, a hamlet the ship visited on Leg 8, the eight-day stretch from Qikiqtarjuaq to Pond Inlet. The local radio station sent word the ship was in town, and within half an hour, locals had packed Clyde River's community-hall gymnasium. Scott McDougall, one of the expedition's leaders, congratulated the town on winning a recent Supreme Court decision that banned local underwater seismic testing for oil and gas. Heather Moyse, the PEI-born two-time Olympic gold medalist (bobsled), Leg 8's biggest celebrity, let everyone touch her medals, and said "I have been very, very lucky to represent Canada – and that means representing you – in two Olympic Games … I just want you to know you can come from a very small place and do very big things."
Then the ship's organizers handed out a gross of ball-hockey sticks, whereupon the most ferociously competitive game of shinny I ever saw broke out in the gym. The closest comparison is the Battle of Agincourt.
The hockey sticks were meant as a gift from Canada, from the South, a gesture of reconciliation. One recreation director in town was worried about the mischief they might cause – mischief being the main misdemeanour in Clyde River – but the kids seemed to want them.
But that night, back on the ship, factions started to form. Madeleine Thien, a Giller Prize-winning novelist who lives in Montreal, found the ceremony to be evidence of continuing cultural authoritarianism. Ewan Affleck, the chief medical information officer of the Northwest Territories, compared the gesture to "the Victorians travelling to Africa to visit the pygmies." Several people found Heather Moyse's statement that she represented Canada to be evidence of white privilege, which led Ms. Moyse to say she was being accused of racism. "Can't we just celebrate the hockey sticks?" she asked. Tolu Ilelaboye, a Winnipeg community-development officer of Yoruba heritage, replied, "Yeah, but what's the intention? Like the colonialists giving them blankets, which gave them smallpox?"
By the next afternoon on the ship, Heather Moyse had reportedly been in tears; several other Southerners had taken an unofficial vow of listening silence.
This is the challenge of reconciliation – to make the white, non-Indigenous citizens of Canada face the fact of their country's past and its continuing racism. Reconciliation works in theory, but how does it work in practice? How do you make the perpetrators of the cultural genocide, and their descendants, empathize with the victims? How do you do that without making those descendants resent being blamed for a crime they feel they did not personally commit? Or does that even matter? Can reconciliation address other breeds of racism while it rights the injustices suffered by the Inuit? (And does the fact that this story, like so many others, was written by an older, white, privileged male skew the narrative or make it suspect?) How do you convince someone they have wronged you, and then ask them to make room for you, without making them want to walk away, because you still need them?
Those are only a handful of the questions 30 people on an icebreaker in the Arctic were forced to confront for eight days in August. In a small way, it was a historic Northern voyage – not to claim new lands, but to see if a new way of talking was possible in a world where so many of us ascribe histories and motives and character to others based on what they look like and where they are from.
Baffin Island's eastern coast was first mapped in 1616 by William Baffin and Robert Bylot, back when the self-serving Doctrine of Discovery let explorers claim what they found. But the Canadian government didn't get around to sending Joseph-Elzéar Bernier to the Eastern Arctic to establish police outposts and collect whaling licence fees as "proof" of Canada's Northern sovereignty until the early 1900s. By 1932, there were still only 16 permanent Northern settlements.
Today, slightly more than 100,000 people (more than half of them Indigenous) hold down the northern fort across a third of Canada's land mass. The need to protect Canada's shaky sovereignty convinced the Canadian government to transplant entire communities to remote outposts such as Grise Fiord in 1953 (its Inuit name is Aujuittuq, which means "place that never thaws"), where they no longer knew how to live off the land. When Jeannie Toomasie, one of four Inuit guests on Leg 8, arrived in her new community, "RCMPs" (as Jeannie calls them) shot their sled dogs to deter them from heading back. The Toomasies lived in a tent well into winter, famished, before their new wooden home was ready.
At the outset of Leg 8, to welcome everyone to Nunavut, Jeannie lit a ceremonial qulliq, one of the oil lamps the Inuit have used to warm their homes for thousands of years. She was trying to ignite Arctic cottongrass with a butane barbecue wand. Still, Jeannie said, poking at the fledgling flame of the ancient lamp, "I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be here if my ancestors hadn't used one of these."
When the Polar Prince could make it through the ice, we went ashore. Excursions were the antidote to the tension on board. A polar-bear patrol, three people with 12-gauge shotguns, went first. From the ship, the land looked grey and brown and rocky; it grew more colourful and complex – more green and orange and peaty and wet and plant-laden – the closer you got.
Early explorers often seem to have exaggerated what they saw in the Arctic. Then you get up there and understand. The evening summer sun – it is still in the sky more than 20 hours a day, even by mid-August – turns the ferric cliffs to molten ore. Barry Lopez, the author of Arctic Dreams, went north and started bowing to horned larks and caribou. Everything seems like a miracle.
One morning, Aluki Kotierk, another Inuit guest on the ship, delivered what she referred to as "a bit of a rant." Several passengers from the South – settlers, the Inuit call us – had openly admired the Inuit ability to survive the harsh Arctic. They meant it as a compliment.
But looking out toward the sea through a stone tunnel that 1,000 years ago was the entrance way to a Thule home, Ms. Kotierk said, "You go in a tent, and you open the tent in the morning, and" – she opened her arms to the view – "beautiful. How is that struggling to survive? That's already a judgment on Arctic people. Inuit had a good life. They had food and water. And even the intricate combs they made, from ivory – if you were struggling to survive, would you make such a beautiful thing?" But, she went on to add, "people need to have that narrative. Because it justifies the settlers' decision to come and 'save' us. It can't be that the colonizers arrived in a land that was thriving."
To feel the grace and freedom of the pre-European life of the Inuit is to recall one of mankind's most recurrent hopes: that, as Lopez describes it, "it is possible to live wisely on the land, and to live well." The Inuit figured out how to do that. The rest of Canada denied that life for more than a century, with crippling consequences. It's the life we, too, have forgotten as the world burns, floods and boils around us. If you can't feel devastated for the Inuit, feel devastated for the crippled planet. That grief is a form of reconciliation too.
As the (elected) president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the body that oversees compliance with the Nunavut Agreement, Ms. Kotierk is the official steward of Nunavut's land claims and traditional culture. Ninety per cent of Nunavut speaks Inuktitut, but 70 per cent of its teachers can converse only in English – her evidence that assimilation is still being practised. Inuit make up 85 per cent of the population and so are entitled by law to 85 per cent of Nunavut's jobs, but hold only half the territorial positions and a third of the federal ones. That, Ms. Kotierk believes, limits the autonomy and self-regard of her people.
"I want my children to come from a place they can be proud of, too," she told me one day after lunch. "I think reconciliation means different things to different people. Often, it means reconciling white people and Inuit. And yet we Inuit are expected to get over it. And we're expected to know what role we have in society, and we sometimes haven't learned that role. I always see violent outbursts in our communities as a symptom of that." She wants being Inuit to mean something more than suicides and social problems. "I am an Inuk, and I speak Spanish," she pointed out. "I am an Inuk and I like my muktuk [raw blubber] with wild nori and sushi rice. There are many ways for us to be modern."
I walked out onto the hind deck of the ship and found David Gray, the ship's historian/biologist, quietly crying. "I'm just watching the ice," he sniffed. He has travelled in the Arctic every year for 50 years.
"Do you feel guilty about the way Canada's treated the Inuit?" I asked.
"I don't feel guilty; I feel sad," he said. "A little embarrassed, kind of? I think for the High Arctic relocations … the people who organized that and did it, they had no idea what they were doing." They were bureaucrats enacting what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls "failed notions of assimilation." David Gray sniffed again. "They were not being malicious. But they were not being honest, either."
On our day in Clyde River, we started at the local wellness centre and played inugaq, a game in which you have to loop a bunch of seal flipper bones out of a sack and build a picture of a family – a house, a dog, a sled, a mother and a father and some kids. The prize for winning was a pack of supplies – toilet paper, a juice box, an apple, a bagel, a banana, some yogurt, some instant oatmeal. A lot of the hamlet was like that: practical, makeshift.
Eventually, a group from the Polar Prince wandered up to the hamlet office and started talking to the first person we saw – the town's director of finance, Johnathan Palluq. He had a chin braid in his beard and was about to run for election as an MLA in Nunavut. Like a lot of people we met, he had been sent to Toronto as a child to be treated for tuberculosis, and then directly to residential school in Moose Factory, Ont., more than 2,200 kilometres away. When he finally returned to his family three years later, Clyde River had none of the comforts he had grown used to in the South – no TV, no apples, no bananas –and he spoke English and Cree instead of Inuktitut, his mother tongue. "I was very British when I came back," he said with a laugh.
"Was that your decision?" I asked.
"Nothing was my decision," he replied.
He didn't say it angrily, just as a matter of fact.
After the hockey-stick fracas, political divisions on the ship sharpened. People stayed up late, arguing. One faction wanted the expedition's organizers to admit they were supporting the status quo and perpetuating the paternalistic attitudes of the North's colonizers. The other side felt that the charge of colonialism was unfair on such a short visit and that, as one member put it, "the best approach to these problems is non-ideological."
The tension came to a head in the Gord Downie-Chanie Wenjack Legacy Room, a stateroom reserved primarily for conversations about reconciliation.
There were 20 people crammed into the room between the ceremonial drum box, packets of sweetgrass, a pair of tea dolls and other objects of Indigenous life. Madeleine Thien was conducting a writing workshop.
Ms. Thien's voice was whisper-quiet, but she held the room rapt. She asked everyone to define a word – "possession" was one of them – and then write a story about that word.
It was when people went around the room to share that the mood doubled down. Will Amos, the MP (Liberal) for Pontiac, near Ottawa, was interested in the cost of the trip. Dr. Affleck wanted to express his anger that politicians spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the North on showy hospitals that aren't needed instead of on, say, community diabetes clinics and midwives that are. He felt that, too, was a matter for reconciliation.
Then it was Ms. Kotierk's turn. "There have been moments," she said, "when I feel like I am a token here. And it's no different from when I went to high school in Ottawa." At the same time, she went on, "every time I wake up and get up, it's an act of resistance. Because I am the face of resisting colonialism." Then she said, "I think I would write about the exhaustion of having to prove that Inuit lives matter. The exhaustion of telling my children that a white person would not be surprised if they committed suicide. Meaning that they expect that of us."
By then, she was crying. Mr. Amos, the politician, later wondered if her tears were a rhetorical flourish, but they seemed heartfelt to me. "I just don't know why in this Legacy Room there is no box of Kleenex," Ms. Kotierk said, and people laughed. "Or why Gord Downie's name is bigger than Chanie Wenjack's," pointing to the plaque on the wall.
Robert Comeau, an Inuk in his 20s studying law in Iqaluit, one of the trip's "youth representatives," crawled over the packed-in people and sat on the floor next to Ms. Kotierk's chair and put his head in her lap. "There's only so much you can take us for granted," he murmured.
Heather Moyse, the bobsledder, got up and left the room.
Angel Chen, a young Vancouverite doing her MA in biology, started crying then: She felt pressured to blog by the organizers of the expedition when she preferred to listen. She was crying hard enough that she couldn't speak.
Suddenly, the door of the Legacy Room popped open and Sue Finlay, one of the expedition's organizers, a blond, friendly white women in her 40s, stepped into the room and said it was time to wrap the session up. She seemed nervous, as if she wanted to sweep the room's awkwardness away. Then she walked over to Ms. Chen and said "Angel, we talked about this."
"Jesus Christ!" someone said.
Ms. Thien intervened, and explained to Ms. Finlay that the group was in mid-catharsis. Ms. Finlay apologized and retreated. Some of the group later described her interruption as an act of authoritarian oppression. Others thought she was genuinely trying to help.
Elaine Chin, a young Asian woman who worked on the hospitality team, was the last person to speak. "A lot of time all I want to do is fit in," she said. She, too, was crying. Ms. Thien touched her arm. No one knew what else to do, except sit, and wait, and wait some more. It was awkward. Awkwardness, of course, is a stage of reconciliation.
Finally, Boris Worm, a biologist from Dalhousie University whose father had served in the German army during the Second World War, said, "Why don't we share just a couple of minutes of silence?" Silence, listening and ceremony are three forms of reconciliation recommended in the Truth and Reconciliation Report. Then one of the crew poked his head into the room and said "Lunch is ready. It's pizza."
And there matters stayed, at a stand-off. Heather Moyse stopped telling people she represented Canada, although she still got upset when someone implied she was racist because she was white – "I don't have a racist bone in my body," she said. The Inuit and people of colour on board held their own closed-door meeting in the Legacy Room. It was as complicated as high school, but with more serious stakes.
After dinner on the last night of the voyage, Ms. Ilelaboye – who wanted to come on the expedition "because I wanted the black community to be better connected to the Indigenous community in Winnipeg" – read the manifesto the Inuit and the people of colour had prepared in the private meeting, a list of instructions for white Canada.
It was a pretty interesting list. "It's really, really important that we embrace discomfort," Ms. Ilelaboye read. "It's not okay to walk away." It was important "to recognize that your experience is only your own … it's important to check in with the community to make sure that your goals and aspirations for a community actually are what those communities represent." She paused briefly. "Currently, in Canada, we have a single system, and that does not represent people of colour in this country." Then she urged everyone to "dispel the myths of this country," and tucked her list away. If I remember correctly, there was applause.
Here is one last thing to consider: Aluki Kotierk was afraid she had upset people by being too outspoken. Why? "I could tell people were uncomfortable and in pain," she said. "And I didn't know why people were uncomfortable, and it made me sad. So I questioned whether I should have said anything."
"It's hard dealing with the fragility of settlers, of white people, when they hear the truth of the country and the challenges people of colour face every day," said the young lawyer-in-training, Robert Comeau, who was sitting near Ms. Kotierk on the plane back to Iqaluit. "Once you're talking about white guilt and white privilege, people tend to walk out of the room."
Maybe this is a trick, at least for the non-Indigenous: You have to feel the pain of the victims, feel the collective shame of their oppression, without feeling personally guilty for the sins of the past. (The present is another matter.) "This isn't about you," Ms. Kotierk added. "It's about our people." White shame, guilt and resentment get in the way of paying attention. But without pangs of collective shame, there will be no shocked and awkward silence, and therefore no listening, no empathy, no recognition and no progress. "I think there's been enough discomfort that there's been some growth," Ms. Kotierk added, finally. "And that's all we can expect."
There are consequences to being heard. "Am I okay with what I said? Yes. Why feel bad? Because others' feelings were hurt. Am I responsible? No. People are responsible for their own feelings. So I'll keep talking." Then she sat back and looked out the window at the land below. Whatever you think of the odds of reconciliation, the Inuit are still around, after everything we did to them. So far, they are still waiting.