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Almost 50 years have passed, but Lucien Ukaliannuk clearly remembers the day the RCMP came for his family's sled dogs.

"We went to Iglulik in a boat and let our dogs off first," Mr. Ukaliannuk said through an interpreter. "They were roaming free. The next thing we knew, they were all shot. The police purposely went out to shoot dogs, everybody's dogs. The government and the police were the law. They could do whatever they wanted."

Long a topic of both academic debate and campfire discussion, a purported RCMP policy of slaughtering Inuit sled dogs has become a volatile social issue in the North.

Inuit leaders in Ottawa and across several far-flung communities have demanded independent inquiries into what they believe was a conscious police strategy of forcibly corralling Inuit into settlements by removing a vital ingredient of their nomadic life, their sled dogs.

They believe that bureaucrats wanted to see their children in centralized communities, where it would be easier to supervise their activities and deliver education and health-care services.

"Even several decades later, the killing of Inuit sled dogs has huge symbolic importance," said Jack Hicks, a social-research consultant who has lived in Nunavut for 25 years.

"It has come to represent the end of an entire way of life, an autonomous Inuit way of life. Without a chance for Inuit to feel that their side of the story is actually being listened to, that trauma will continue to boil away beneath the surface."

In March, the Nunavut Legislature passed a unanimous motion in favour of an inquiry. Recently, a parliamentary committee in Ottawa recommended a similar probe.

After initially playing down the allegations, the RCMP have mobilized a major effort to get to the bottom of them. But arriving at firm conclusions may be difficult. RCMP archives have yielded nothing to back up numerous eyewitness accounts by Inuit elders.

"In researching our archives, no information has been revealed to indicate there was any systematic culling of dogs," RCMP Sergeant Brigdet Leger confirmed.

However, she said, a substantial number of officers are still interviewing people who worked for the RCMP in any capacity in decades past. "We are still very much in the fact-finding stage," Sgt. Leger said. "We are taking this very seriously. Our goal is to get as much information as possible. If this occurred, then it occurred, and we will have to deal with that."

Hostility to the idea of the RCMP investigating its own past activities is widespread, leaving open the question of whether the conclusions of the force's inquiry will be accepted.

"We should all be rolling our eyes about the Liberal government's decision to not conduct a proper public investigation headed by a judge," Pita Aatami, president of Makivik Corp., wrote in a recent letter to Iqaluit's Nunatsiaq News.

"Any police force investigating itself cannot be regarded as doing a proper investigation, and it is sure that the Canadian population is in agreement with this."

Mr. Hicks said that, at first blush, it seems almost impossible to reconcile the sharply diverging accounts that have emerged. However, officials in Ottawa may genuinely have believed that what they were doing was in the best interests of the Inuit even though the Inuit suffered as a result.

According to some estimates, up to 20,000 dogs were killed in Northern Quebec and the area now called Nunavut.

A book about Inuit resettlement written several years ago by David Damas, a professor emeritus of anthropology at McMaster University, noted that an employee of the federal Department of Northern Affairs discovered massive dog deaths were occurring in 1962 because of hepatitis.

In Cumberland Sound alone, the federal employee found the dog population dropped to 273 from 800 or 900 in a short time. Desperate sealers had even begun walking to the floe edge.

Attempts were made to inoculate thousands of dogs, according to Prof. Damas's book, while other dogs were brought in from elsewhere in the North. Only a small number survived.

"I don't think there's any doubt that the actions described in the archives -- mass inoculations, and attempts to fly dogs in to try and rebuild teams decimated by hepatitis -- actually happened," Mr. Hicks said.

He said the real problem with the conflicting accounts may be due to the RCMP having done a bad job of explaining to the Inuit what they were doing to the dogs.

"And some rogue Mounties -- and there were rogue Mounties, prone to power trips -- may have killed dogs just to show that they could," Mr. Hicks added. "The result is a lot of pain, unresolved collective historical trauma, that urgently needs to find expression."

Whatever the case, Mr. Ukaliannuk said a great many Inuit have suppressed their anger for decades. "It is important that the anger comes out or our people will remain angry," he said. "Many more Inuit abuse alcohol and drugs now. A big part of that is because of how wronged we have been.

"Dogs were very important to our traditional culture and to our daily lives," he added. "They weren't pets; they were working animals. This is like opening a door to the past for us."