What were the key findings of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission?

Our interviews and research have shown us that no single truth will explain the changes Qikiqtani Inuit experienced from 1950 to 1975: nor are there easily identified villains and victims. It is a history of displaced families, inadequate housing, coercive government relations, tuberculosis epidemics, residential schools and the killing of qimmit, or sled dogs. But it is also a history of increased opportunity, new social programs and mutual—if often misguided and inappropriate—efforts to reconcile two very different cultures: those of the North and the South, Inuit and Qallunaat.

The key findings of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission are summarized under the following subject headings:

  • The Framework of Change: Government and the Inuit
  • From Inuit Nunagivaktangit to Year-Round Settlements
  • Settlement Housing
  • Settlement Life and Substance Abuse
  • Schooling and its Effects on Inuit Culture
  • Hunting
  • The Killing of Qimmiit
  • QTC Analysis of the RCMP and Inuit Sled Dogs (2006) Report
  • Health Care and the Separation or Loss of Family Members
  • Development and Employment
  • Cross-cultural Communications

The Framework of Change: Government and the Inuit

  • The Canadian government was the primary agent of change in the Baffin region between 1950 and 1975.
  • Government policy was to make the North more like the South and Inuit more like southern Canadians.
  • The changes it imposed on Inuit to achieve this goal were rapid and dramatic.
  • This was not a gradual progression from a traditional to a modern way of life: it was a revolutionary transformation.
  • While most officials convinced themselves that they were acting in the best interests of Inuit, the reality is that they always acted in the best interests of themselves, their employer, and southern Canada.
  • They failed to consult Inuit when designing and implementing their plans: many Inuit never understood why these were imposed on them, and in such a short period of time.
  • Projects were also frequently mismanaged or underfunded.
  • Government agencies responsible for this abrupt transformation—primarily Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the RCMP—are still not fully aware of their own history in the Arctic or the effects of their decisions and actions.

From Inuit Nunagivaktangit to Year-Round Settlements

  • Before 1950, most Inuit families lived on the land in tightly knit kinship groups ranging from five to thirty people, where each person was valued for their contribution to the group’s well-being and success.
  • They moved between Inuit nunagivaktangit by dog team or boat, depending on the season, in pursuit of the wildlife that supplied most of their food, clothing and shelter.
  • This deep connection to the land sustained a rich culture and language.
  • After 1950, the Canadian government created 13 permanent settlements in the Baffin region, reflecting Ottawa’s plan to educate Inuit children, provide medical treatment, and distribute family allowances, welfare and old age pensions.
  • Some Inuit moved to these settlements voluntarily for employment, health care or low-rent housing.
  • Others moved to avoid separation from children attending school or to join family members who had already moved.
  • Still others moved because they felt coerced or forced to relocate by government authorities.
  • The decision to give up a traditional way of life was almost never an easy one, and once made, it proved to be irreversible.
  • Inuit made enormous personal and cultural sacrifices by moving into settlements.
  • Whether or not they moved voluntarily, many Inuit found that promises of a “better life” were not kept and felt their lives were made worse, not better, by the move.
  • Settlement life imposed a new form of poverty, and the lack of access to the land hindered their ability to obtain the country food that nourished their bodies and souls.
  • As a result, Inuit often despaired as they, their family members and neighbours struggled to adjust to circumstances beyond their control.

Settlement Housing

  • Even though housing was the largest government investment directed at Inuit from 1959 to 1975, the houses built were too few, too small, and totally unsuitable for Arctic conditions.
  • Throughout this period, government officials failed to clearly explain Qallunaat concepts of rental contracts and house ownership, which were foreign to Inuit.

Settlement Life and Substance Abuse

  • Settlement life made Inuit dependent on government, producing imbalanced power relations between the two.
  • All aspects of Inuit daily life and relationships changed in the settlements.
  • For example, some Elders felt useless, and many husbands and sons could not reconcile their new circumstances with their desire to provide for their families.
  • Traditional marriage practices and adoptions were challenged by officials.
  • Settlements seemed crowded because many neighbours were also strangers—a new situation for Inuit.
  • Those Inuit who lacked qimmiit or snowmobiles to access the land felt that life in the settlements was a form of imprisonment.
  • Settlement life also brought many Inuit into regular contact with alcohol for the first time, which, along with gambling and drugs, provided an unhealthy distraction.
  • Inuit lived in settlements without the social controls that existed in tightly knit Inuit nunagivaktangit and without knowledge of western cultural practices that distinguish between drinking for inebriation, drinking as part of the enjoyment of food, and drinking to alter social experience.
  • By the 1970s, many families were experiencing the devastating consequences of substance abuse, including alcoholism, addiction, physical and sexual abuse, the neglect of children, poverty and untimely death.
  • Despite easily controlled access points, insufficient efforts were made to control entry of alcohol or drugs.
  • Yet Inuit were given little support to deal with the negative effects of either.

Schooling and its Effects on Inuit Culture

  • In the 1950s, the Canadian government decided all Inuit children needed a formal education to join mainstream Canadian society and fill the new jobs of an expanding northern economy.
  • This decision and the methods used to enforce it had profound consequences for Inuit children, families, communities and culture.
  • Most Inuit were told that if they did not send their children to school, they would lose the family allowances now essential to their survival.
  • Many parents refused to leave their children in the care of others and came to the settlement with them, living in tents until housing was available.
  • Some Inuit children were sent to faraway residential schools or to live in southern cities, to the great despair of both parents and children.
  • Wherever they went to school, Inuit children were taught a curriculum with no relevance to life in the North, and many were forced to forget their Inuit roots.
  • Children were taught exclusively in English; the use of Inuktitut was often forbidden.
  • Children were subjected to corporal punishment, which was foreign and traumatic to Inuit.
  • Over time, the school system created a deep cultural and generational divide between children and parents that often proved hard to repair.
  • Children who lost the ability to speak Inuktitut could no longer communicate with parents and grandparents who knew little or no English.
  • Those raised in schools with southern values went home and viewed their parents’ traditional values and habits with disdain.
  • Ultimately, cultural teachings, beliefs, values and skills were compromised.
  • Many parents felt guilty that they had made the wrong decision by sending their children to school, since the education they received left them ill-prepared for life in either the modern wage economy or the traditional Inuit economy.

Hunting

  • Hunting has always been a defining element of Inuit culture.
  • Inuit apply a deep understanding of their environment to laws, customs and practices that ensure the wise use of the game resources.
  • In the 1950s, the government stepped up enforcement laws based on southern conservation priorities rather than northern realities.
  • The Canadian Wildlife Service developed laws that strictly defined the types, numbers and times of year that animals could be hunted without the benefit of Inuit knowledge or reliable information about Arctic game populations.
  • Under such prohibitions, Inuit often had to choose whether to starve or hunt illegally and hide their catches from authorities to avoid fines and incarceration.

The Killing of Qimmiit

  • The care and management of a sled dog team was an integral part of Inuit culture and hunting traditions.
  • Inuit have successfully managed qimmit for countless generations.
  • In Inuit nunagivaktangat, qimmiit were highly socialized with people and other qimmiit.
  • Settlement life disrupted Inuit culture and threatened the lives of qimmit.
  • Between 1957 and 1975, the number of qimmiit in the Qikiqtani region declined dramatically. They died from disease; shot by hunters moving into settlements who thought qimmiit were not allowed or no longer useful; abandoned by owners working in settlements who didn’t have time to hunt or care for their dogs; abandoned when Inuit were suddenly sent south for medical treatment; or were gradually replaced by snowmobiles.
  • Hundreds of qimmiit were shot by the RCMP and other authorities in settlements from the mid-1950s onwards because Qallunaat were afraid of loose dogs or feared they could spread disease.
  • At the same time, dogs belonging to the RCMP, Inuit special constables or Hudson Bay employees were often considered off limits and not shot.
  • This special exemption created animosity between Inuit whose dogs were shot and those whose dogs were always spared.
  • Both hunters and their families suffered terribly as a result of the loss of qimmiit.
  • There were not enough jobs in the settlements, and families became dependent on inadequate social assistance payments and expensive, nutritionally deficient store-bought food.
  • The killing of qimmiit has become a flash point in Inuit memories: of the changes imposed on their lives by outsiders; and of the challenges to their independence, self-reliance, and identity as hunters and providers. It contributed to the hardships and hunger they faced in the settlements.
  • The lingering pain of these memories testifies to the symbiotic relationship Inuit had with their qimmiit: many Inuit believe the government knew how the loss of qimmiit would impact Inuit culture, health and well-being, but did nothing.
  • They blame many of the killings on the ignorance of officials who did not know how to care for and handle qimmiit.
  • They also express frustration and remorse—frustration that they could not understand why so many qimmiit were shot when most did not pose a real threat; and remorse that they did not stop the killings.

QTC Analysis of the RCMP and Inuit Sled Dogs (2006) Report

  • Beginning in the late 1990s, a number of Inuit publicly accused the RCMP of killing sled dogs under government orders to limit Inuit mobility and any possibility of returning to a traditional way of life.
  • In 2005, the federal government rejected a parliamentary committee’s advice to call an independent inquiry into the dog killings, and instead asked the RCMP to investigate itself.
  • The Qikiqtani Inuit were very reluctant to participate in this investigation.
  • The resulting RCMP Sled Dogs Report confirmed that hundreds and perhaps thousands of dogs were killed by RCMP members and other authorities in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • All in all, the Commission’s detailed analysis of this report found that the RCMP took an overly legalistic approach to their investigation.
  • RCMP investigators only looked for evidence of a government conspiracy or unlawful RCMP behaviour relative to the killing of qimmiit.
  • They did not consider other issues such as the inappropriateness of the law under which qimmiit were killed, or the many ways in which the killings were related to the relocation of Inuit to permanent settlements.
  • Worse still, the authors dismissed Inuit memories of the killings as false or arising from faulty memories, and condemned Inuit leaders who brought the incidents to public notice as being motivated by a desire for monetary compensation.
  • QTC analysis of the RCMP report also notes that Inuit had no access to decision-makers.
  • Explanations about why dogs were to be tied up were often incomplete or badly translated.
  • As a result, many Inuit were not told why their dogs were shot.
  • It was therefore reasonable for Inuit to associate the killing of their sled dogs with the detrimental effects of centralization, namely the loss of their ability to move back to the land; increasing reliance on a cash economy; and the exclusive concentration of services in settlements.
  • QTC study shows that the killings went on far too long to be the result of a secret plan or conspiracy, and that the dog killings began—in the mid-1950s at Iqaluit—several years before the federal government adopted a formal centralizing policy.
  • Dog ordinance was completely consistent with standard government policy that Inuit must, at their own expense, accommodate newcomers’ needs and wants.
  • While the law was clear to those who enforced it, to hunters it was illogical, unnecessary and harmful, as well as inconsistently and unpredictably applied.
  • Government of Canada failed in its obligations to Inuit when it restricted their use of dogs without providing the means to make those restrictions less onerous or involving Inuit directly in finding solutions.
  • Health Care and the Separation or Loss of Family Members
  • Medical strategies intended to improve Inuit health by removing patients to southern hospitals succeeded in their primary goal but inflicted other lasting damage.
  • After 1950, medical personnel on the new medical patrol ship CGS C.D. Howe screened Inuit for tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, removing the sick and infected without notice for indefinite periods in southern hospitals.
  • The ship’s helicopter sometimes tracked down Inuit who refused tests.
  • Those sent south for treatment endured weeks on board the ship and months or years in treatment, far from their families.
  • They experienced a profound sense of culture shock and dislocation, both down south and upon their return.
  • Children were essentially orphaned at southern TB facilities and disciplined in ways they would never have experienced at home: spanked, hit, force-fed or tied down to their beds for hours on end.
  • Officials also lost or mixed up records, failing to return both children and adults to their own Inuit nunagivaktangat or districts.
  • Other children never returned, or returned years later upon discovering they had been kept by well-meaning staff.
  • Adults who returned from treatment were often unable to return to their former lives and ended up dependent on government relief.
  • Some relatives were never informed that a family member had died down south until long afterward—if at all.
  • Many Inuit with family members who died down south do not know where their relatives are buried, or have not had an opportunity to visit the graves.

Development and Employment

  • The Canadian government encouraged economic development—primarily in mining, oil and gas production—to bring southern standards of living to the Qikiqtani Inuit, but the pace of development was slow.
  • While some Inuit benefited from a wage economy, others were mistreated when working for development enterprises, or never paid for labour and services provided to government.
  • Several were sent south for training, but few could apply their skills to paid employment in their home communities.
  • There were too few opportunities to employ all Inuit who moved to the settlements: while some new jobs were created, most were in government services.
  • The region became a place of high unemployment, where formerly self-sufficient families had little choice beyond social assistance.
  • Cross-cultural Communications
  • Inuit and Qallunaat communication was hampered by the lack of a common language and profound cultural differences.
  • Most Qallunaat went to the Arctic on short-term contracts: very few stayed for more than two or three years.
  • The high turnover rate meant a continuous loss of corporate memory, including knowledge of which approaches were successful and which were not.
  • Many employees did not stay long enough to see the effects of their work.
  • Qallunaat had no need to learn Inuktitut and saw no benefit in doing so: English was the language of government, education and business.
  • Inuit, however, learned English by necessity: at school, work or southern hospitals.
  • Inuit believed that few Qallunaat cared enough to learn Inuktitut or understand Inuit culture.
  • Qallunaat demonstrated a sense of cultural superiority and a belief that their role was to lead Inuit into the modern world.
  • Even though the environment and culture were completely foreign to them, most Qallunaat thought they knew better than Inuit, who lacked the perceived benefits of a southern education.
  • Ultimately, patronizing attitudes and often hostile, indifferent or romanticized reactions to Inuit and their culture inhibited meaningful dialogue about the government policies affecting Inuit lives so negatively.
  • Inuit had little power to make Qallunaat listen.
  • Inuit were not inclined, due to cultural norms, to challenge Qallunaat assumptions and opinions.
  • Qallunaat also often took advantage of Inuit deference to authority.
  • Even when Inuit clearly disagreed or refused a request, Qallunaat would apply pressure tactics, such as warnings and threats, to obtain the desired results.
  • Given the lack of dialogue, many Inuit drew their own conclusions about government intentions, policies and actions, such as the widespread belief that the killings of qimmiit were part of a deliberate policy to force them to remain in the permanent settlements.
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