The day the dogs died

The symbiotic relationship between the Inuit and their sled dogs has always been the key to their traditional way of life.Photo: Ton Koene/GetStock.com
The symbiotic relationship between the Inuit and their sled dogs has always been the key to their traditional way of life.
Photo: Ton Koene/GetStock.com
By on May 1, 2011

Alleging that the large dog populations in Inuit villages posed both health and safety hazards, Canadian authorities ordered the RCMP to shoot as many as 20,000 sled dogs in Inuit communities during the 1950s and 60s. By that act, they wiped out one of the fundamental underpinnings of the traditional Inuit way of life and sparked a decline that continues today. For centuries, dogs were essential to the Inuit for hunting, companionship, transportation and interaction with other communities.

Speaking at the recent Vancouver conference “Sharing Truth,” lawyer Madeleine Redfern, mayor of Iqaluit, Nunavut, presented heart-wrenching highlights from the Qikiqtani (Baffin) Truth Commission (QTC) findings, published in its final report, Achieving Saimaqtigiiniq (“peace with past opponents”). Redfern was the exective director of the QTC until it finished its mandate in 2010.

According to Inuit testimony presented to the QTC, a family’s dog team was not only its principal means of livelihood but also an important symbol of pride. “If an Inuk man didn’t have a team of his own, it was interpreted that he was yet not quite a man,” said witness Pauloosie Veevee. “An Inuk was judged in accordance with the dogs’ performance, appearance, health and endurance. If the dogs looked well-fed and well-mannered, the owner was seen as a great hunter and admired by others. If an Inuk man’s dog team was notably happy and well-fed, they would be able to take him long distances [and were] aids to his independence and masculinity. That is how important dogs were to Inuit.”

Another witness testified that her husband mysteriously and profoundly changed the day his dogs were shot. He refused to tell his family what had happened to the team but became despondent and then abusive toward his family. Robbed of his livelihood, the man became morose and alcohol-dependent. “When he finally gave his testimony at the QTC, he broke down and revealed what had happened to the dogs. His wife finally understood what had happened all those years ago,” said Redfern.

The canine slaughter left deep wounds. In community after community, Inuit witnesses told the QTC-often through tears-“I remember the day my dogs were shot,” or “I remember when my father’s dogs were killed.” The pain still felt from these memories testifies to the symbiotic relationship between the Inuit and these animals, whose loss undermined their independence and identity as hunters.

According to the QTC’s report, some Inuit doubted that health and safety were the only impetus for the killings since culling problem dogs and widespread immunization and sterilization could have addressed these concerns. They believed that government felt it would be easier to get the Inuit to relocate once deprived of their livelihoods in their traditional homelands.

The public inquiry was launched in 2007 to create an accurate history of the events that affected Inuit living in the Baffin Region from 1950 to 1975, and to document their impact on Inuit life. The first of its kind, this Inuit-sponsored and Inuit-led initiative recorded first-person oral histories in 14 northern communities years and analyzed written historical records from this era of upheaval.

After World War Two, Canadian government policy unilaterally initiated profound social, economic and cultural changes in the North that still have a negative impact on the lives of Qikiqtani Inuit today. With a view to integrating Inuit into mainstream Canada, some were forcibly removed from their traditional lives on the land to permanent government settlements, where children could be schooled. Others went voluntarily with the promise of “real” housing and jobs. “Some were coerced by threats that their children would be taken away from them if they did not send them to school,” said Redfern. “There was pressure from the government for them to become more like southern Canadians, but government promises about housing and jobs unfortunately didn’t pan out.”

Witness after witness testified to the QTC that at the time of relocation, which started in the 1960s, Inuit were not told that that they were moving permanently and so left home without their belongings, thereby suffering even greater hardship in their new locations. Said one witness: “Three days after my uncle died of hypothermia by accident on the sea ice, a plane came in. They didn’t even warn us. They asked us to bring our cups and bedding. They did not even tell us to bring food because there would be enough to feed us. My in-law hid some tea and some food in the bedding. I was pregnant. They told us there would be plenty of food and a place to stay. Perhaps they should have given us some time to grieve and to accept the fact that we were moving. They should have told us in advance and let us prepare what to bring.”

Accustomed to a nutritious and non-obesogenic diet of fish, meat, berries and northern plants, they suffered ill effects from the impoverished tea, starch and alcohol fare available in the settlements. One witness said that to this day she cannot drink tea. “All we had was tea and some flour to make bannock,” she said.

“Poverty and loss of empowerment quickly led to problems such as alcohol, gambling and drugs,” said Redfern. Inuit who developed tuberculosis were transported south by ship for treatment. Witnesses recalled bitterly that some Inuit families were not even informed when a TB-stricken relative had died in a southern hospital.

Today, the Qikiqtani Inuit are letting go of bitterness and seeking saimaqtigiiniq (peace with past opponents). Ω

For the final report of the QTC, go to www.qtcommission.com.

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  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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