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arctic relocations

John Duncan, MP, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The sobbing didn't begin until they read the names of the dead.

For more than an hour, a group of Inuit residents sat quietly in a small gymnasium, listening to an apology that was more than five decades in the making.

John Duncan, the newly appointed Indian Affairs Minister, arrived here on the northeastern shore of Hudson Bay Wednesday to say the Canadian government was sorry for uprooting families from their traditional homes and shipping them to remote reaches of the Arctic during the 1950s.

"The government of Canada deeply regrets the mistakes and broken promises of this dark chapter of our history and apologizes for the High Arctic relocation having taken place," he told them.

For hundreds of years, Inuit have lived in and around the small community of Inukjuak - the sight of the famous 1922 documentary Nanook of the North.

It was from here that the RCMP persuaded Inuit families to board the C.D. Howe for a long journey to new lives in Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord.

Residents from these two northern communities were flown in for the event, and they sat in the two front rows. They politely applauded Mr. Duncan's apology, but then began to sob when Phoebe Atagootaaluk Aculiak, a direct descendant of a relocatee, stood up and recited the names of those who had died in the relocation.

The Inuit faced considerable hardships in the frigid environs of Grise Fiord, and Ottawa did not provide housing, leaving them to endure winters in Igloos and tents made of muskox hide.

Taken away from their traditional hunting grounds, which were stocked with bountiful caribou and other game, the Inuit struggled to find food. Many did not make it through the punishing winters.

"It was just the most desolate place on earth," recalls John Amagoalik, who was nearly six years old when he and his family were shipped to Resolute Bay in 1953. Although the government told the Inuit they could return home if they wanted, that promise was broken. "They were practically prisoners in their own community," Mr. Amagoalik said.

Mr. Amagoalik, who has been calling for an apology for decades, said it would have been better if Prime Minister Stephen Harper had delivered the apology directly to the Inuit in either of the two communities.

Nonetheless, he welcomed the apology. He said there is no need for further compensation: in 1996, Ottawa set up a special $10-million fund for the families of the relocated Inuit.

Inukjuak was a key point of contact with European fur traders. Many of the relocated Inuit and their families have returned here, sometimes at Ottawa's expense.

While the relocations are often described as an attempt by the government to assert Canada's sovereignty in the uninhabited Arctic islands, the official government line has insisted that the moves were undertaken with humane intentions.

Mr. Duncan said after the formal apology that Ottawa has "no way to determine" what the true reasons for the relocation were at the time. Still, he stressed in his comments that the Inuit communities play a key role in Canada's claims of sovereignty in the Far North.

Inuit leader Mary Simon agreed, but told Mr. Duncan that Canada needs to do more than military exercises in the Arctic to assert northern sovereignty.

"They shouldn't only worry about armies, they should also worry about communities," she said, listing the need for better education and health-care services.

Over the years, the federal government argued that the moves were done with the consent of the Inuit in an effort to improve their economic conditions.

The full impact of the policy did not truly come to light until hearings took place in the early 1990s as part of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

"All of the relocatees communicate a deep sense of hurt and loss as a result of the relocation," the commission's report stated.

The commission also found government documents from the 1930s that show concern about mineral claims in the High Arctic contributed to the relocation discussion.

"In addition to placing the Eskimos in new regions where game is more abundant and work more regular, there is the angle of occupation of the country," states a federal press release found by the commission. "To forestall any such future claims, the Dominion is occupying the Arctic island to within nearly 700 miles of the North Pole."

The royal commission ultimately recommended that Ottawa apologize and compensate Inuit affected by relocation.

Mr. Duncan said he plans to visit Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord in September, where he will unveil monuments in honour of the relocated Inuit.

Forced relocations in the North






Cape Dorset, Baffin Island

Dundas Harbour, Devon Island

29 people


Central Keewatin - Ennadai Lake, NU

Nueltin Lake, NU



Western Arctic region

Banks Island

15 families


Inukjuak (Port Harrison), Que.

King George Islands Sleeper Islands

Unknown, but 59 people were later moved to Henrik Lake, NU


Kuujjuaq (Fort Chimo), Que.

Churchill, Man.

Unknown, some families


Inukjuak (Port Harrison), Que.

Pond Inlet, Baffin Island

Grise Fiord, Ellesmere Island

Resolute Bay (Qausuittuq), Cornwallis Island

54 people in 10 families (32 to Grise Fiord, 22 to Resolute Bay)


Inukjuak (Port Harrison), Que.

Pond Inlet, Baffin Island

Grise Fiord, Ellesmere Island

Resolute Bay (Qausuittuq), Cornwallis Island

38 people (6 families)


Nutak, Nfld.

Nain, Nfld.

North West River, Nfld.

200 people (38 families)


Nueltin Lake, NU

Henrik Lake, NU

59 people (those moved in 1951-52 are moved again)


Hebron, Nfld.

Nain, Nfld

Makkovik, Nfld.

North West River, Nfld.

300 people (58 families)


Itivia, NU Whale Cove, NU

Whale Cove, NU

A few families