Inuit who were forcibly removed from their traditional lands in the 1950s and starved as a result have reached a compensation deal with the federal government.
“We forgive but we will not forget,” said David Serkoak of the Ahiarmiut Relocation Society, representing the descendants of dozens of relocated Inuit.
“The country needs to know about and learn from past mistakes.”
The Ahiarmiut filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2008 to seek redress for the relocation. The $5 million deal ratified Aug. 20 in Arviat, Nunavut, settles that lawsuit.
The action stemmed from a series of relocations that began in 1949 from Ennadai Lake in what is now the southwest corner of Nunavut.
That year, the Canadian army built a radio station at the lake. Administrators in the south feared local Inuit would become too dependent on southern supplies although they had hunted caribou there for generations, in good seasons and bad.
The next year, about 50 Inuit were moved to nearby Nueltin Lake, where a commercial fishery had been set up. The people were moved without their equipment or supplies.
Elder Job Muqyunnik later told an interviewer “Qallunaat (white people) came to the weather station there at Ennadai Lake.
“This bulldozer came to our tent. The driver told us to leave our tent so we went out. He went back to his vehicle and drove over our tent, back and forth. He broke everything we had.
“That was the hardest time of my life because we didn’t have anything to survive with anymore.”
The people eventually drifted back to the familiar environs of Ennadai, but not before several died of cold.
A second relocation came in 1957, to Henik Lake.
“Eskimo hunters and huskies left their ancient ways for a day to travel in the comfort of an aircraft to new hunting grounds,” a government press release boasted.
But again, elders recalled they were sent off without adequate supplies and equipment. Hunting was so poor elders say a rabbit would be shared between 10 children. Some of the people starved to death.
In 1958, people were again moved to Eskimo Point (now Arviat) along the coast of Hudson Bay.
Their plight came to the attention of southerners through the work of Canadian writer Farley Mowat in his book People of the Deer. It was also featured in a 1956 edition of Life magazine.
The woman on the cover of that issue is Mary Anowtalik, the last survivor who was an adult during the relocations, said Steven Cooper, a lawyer who represented the group in its lawsuit.
He said there are 20 others who were either children or youths at the time.
Cooper said he was glad to see the settlement after 10 years of working on it.
“This is about as much satisfaction as a lawyer can get from these types of historical claims,” he said. “The fact is that most of the people are deceased by the time they are settled.
“It’s really never enough. It really never is.”
“There is no money that could ever be sufficient compensation for the things that we suffered and lost as a result of government decisions of the past, nor the subsequent attempt to justify them. Nevertheless … I appreciate this government was finally willing to come to the table.”
Serkoak said the money will be distributed to survivors and descendants, as well as to fund commemoration and education projects.