Saturday, February 23, 2008

The First Permanent Residents of Coppermine

For thousands of years before, and shortly after the “white-man” came to this land, the Inuit led a nomadic, hunter-
gatherer, stone-age
existence. They had no need of permanent settlements, and establishing fixed communities would have simply added to the hardships they already faced. Unless large areas were continually hunted, and unless a combination of luck and experience put them in the path of migrating animals, there was little chance of survival. It was the white-man, lacking the skills and knowledge to follow the Inuit around, who required the establishment of permanent outposts in an effort to initiate occasional interaction with the nomadic Inuit.

Although an American, Captain Joseph Bernard, in his small gasoline-powered schooner Teddy Bear was the first white-person to trade in the area from around 1910 to 1915, and a Dane named Charles Klengenberg set up a seasonal fishing hut at the mouth of the Coppermine River around 1916, the site of present-day Kugluktuk was not permanently inhabited until the Hudson’s Bay Company and Church of England arrived in 1928, followed by the Roman Catholic mission and the RCMP in 1929 and 1930 respectively. Around 1930, a rudimentary radio/weather station was set up, in 1932 the community’s first doctor arrived and in 1934 a Post Office was established. During the years of the Great Depression, the Government of Canada could not afford to add to this meager infrastructure, and the doctor was lost to government cut-backs, never to return. During and after the Second World War, investment by the government of Canada started anew, with the establishment of a Nursing Station in 1948 and a Federal Day-School in 1950. A new Nursing Station, improved government housing and a diesel power-plant were all established in 1967, and a proper air-strip was completed in 1969.

There were, of course, a few native people in the early years who acted as guides and interpreters for the RCMP, the missions and the Hudson’s Bay Company, fished for and tended the dogs and did other odd-jobs. Those people and their families, however, still did not live in the community year-round, preferring to spend much of their time hunting, fishing and trapping at traditional locations. It was not until the early 1950’s that people began to adapt to life in the permanent settlement of Coppermine, and that trend continued until the last outposts were gradually abandoned in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, despite government subsidies that attempted to maintain that traditional life-style.

It is important to note that the Hudson’s Bay Company actively discouraged Inuit people from moving into communities. The HBC was in the fur-trade business – they wanted people out on the land, engaged in trapping. When the government of Canada, through their agents (primarily the RCMP), started to provide welfare to those Inuit people who came to them in need, and when that policy became entrenched and morphed into what we now call social assistance, income-support, family allowance, child-tax credit, subsidized housing, etc., many people decided to give up their nomadic life in favour of a less precarious existence in the community, where schooling and medical care was available and where dependable wage-employment later became the norm.

So there was a time, from 1928 to about 1945, when the permanent residents of Coppermine (later Kugluktuk after 1996) consisted almost entirely of white people. Indeed, if white people and their institutions had never come to this land, there would be no community of Kugluktuk today, and the population of nomadic Inuit would have remained stable at a small fraction of the current numbers, which was about all that the land (and primitive hunting methods) could support. Whether contact has been a good thing or a bad thing is, nevertheless, certainly open to debate.

Somehow, there has developed an erroneous perception that Inuit people were forced off the land and into communities. There was never any such government policy or action. There was no advantage to white people in having Inuit confined to communities - quite the contrary. Inuit themselves saw the advantages, weighed the disadvantages, and (wisely, I think) chose to give up a lifestyle which, though fraught with immense hardship, could have otherwise continued to this day.

The history of practically every community in Nunavut follows a pattern similar to that of Kugluktuk. The heritage of white people in Nunavut is dominated by the creation of permanent communities. The heritage of Inuit people, for at least 4,940 of the last 5,000 years, has been a heritage dominated by seasonal movement from place to place.

In recent decades, many people have been led astray by the sanitized, politically-correct, revisionist version of Nunavut history that has been foisted on a younger generation by the schools and the media. The very significant contributions of bush-pilots, sea captains, traders, clergy, police, nurses, teachers and other non-Inuit has been pushed well into the background, where it does not deserve to be. We now are told that the Hudson’s Bay Company consisted of a bunch of mercenary carpet-baggers, when in fact both The Bay and the good, hard-working trapper prospered handsomely in the hey-day of the fur-trade and traders saved many people from starvation. Missionaries are sometimes seen as helping to destroy a culture, often by the same people who claim that their culture is now thriving - despite the continued presence of the churches. The fact is that the missionaries did far more good than harm. The police are accused of bringing north a “foreign” system of justice, when the undeniable fact is that the British common-law system, while flawed, is still the most enlightened form of justice that human kind has managed to come up with in the last 50,000 years. If there’s a better way, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Not surprisingly, historical revisionists tend to spare the present-day “southern” teachers, nurses, police, administrators, government employees and business people from their wrath. They will leave that reprehensible chore to the next generation of revisionists, and our children and grandchildren will probably fall for their lies, distortions, omissions and half-truths as the current generation has seemed willing to do.


Photo (courtesy Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre photo database). The official caption reads "The residents of the town posing for a final picture with Joe Osborne. Left to right: Paddy Jackson, Johnny Jackson, Marguerite Webster, Dorothy Jackson, unidentified, behind her is Johnny Jackson [?], Joe Osborne is looking to the right, Wop May is wearing a check shirt, to his left his son, behind him Darcy Muro of the R.C.M.P. To Darcy's left is an unidentified operator who was Osborne's replacement. Girl holding baby is Lena, R.C.M.P. officer at back is R. "Dick" Connick. Girl in front of him is radiosonde operator's wife. Kneeling in front is H.B.C. apprentice [Syd] and to his left is Ernie Boffa. Chap on extreme right is Wop May's son. July 11, 1948."

I should add that bush-pilots Boffa and May were not residents of Coppermine. Wop May had retired from flying by the time this picture was taken, while Ernie Boffa was a frequent visitor and continued to fly into the 1960's. Missing from the photo are Reverend Webster and his wife Edie, HBC manager Leo Manning, his wife Mary and daughters Maureen and Rosemary, Fathers Lapointe and Delalande, Walt Taylor of DOT and Jack Scarlett of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. 1948 was the year that the first nursing station was built, so the missionaries were still doing basic medical and dental work, mostly for Inuit people. The nurse, Anne Dufresne arrived a few months after this photo was taken.


Lucy said...

Excellent post, Larry! It bugs me too to hear the early non-inuit be so relentlessly demonized. They weren't perfect, but they did a lot of good things.

Although I'm not a religious person, I also hate how clergy of bygone days are all tarred with the same brush of being universally violent, hateful and often pedophiliac towards kids. The church instututed a lot of social programs all accross Canada long before Gov't got involved, and while I'm sure they harboured their (perhaps too large) share of deviant meanies, the good the churches did for the country in terms of early social programs is completely ignored.

I wonder if balance will ever be found on these issues. Right now the pendulum has swung in the direction of all problems being the fault of big mean selfish Kabloona who came north and wrecked the previously perfect existing society (and I'm not necessarily saying the average Inuk is saying that, it's down in the south that this viewpoint tightly adhered to, but unfortunately the Inuit are gradually being convinced of it). Big mean honky did a lot of good in the north too. It's really a shame how the early outsiders are being demonized for the good they did bring, and the good intentions they did have, despite making mistakes, just as all people with no experience in a completely new venture eventually do.

Steve Attack said...

A well known present day social commentator often made this statement regarding the controversial (but painfully true) stands he often took on sensitive issues: "there are some out there that claim I need balance. I don't need balance, I am balance". I believe the same can be applied here.

Anonymous said...


I'm Paul from Fairbanks, Alaska. I've been researching the life and legacy of the trader Joe Bernard for a few years. I noticed the Bernard reference in your blog and that you've lived in Kugluktuk for a number of years. I'm wondering if there is any oral history about Joe Bernard in the area particularly from the Inuit perspective. Perhaps there are people around who have stories that could shed more light on the trader. Also, just for accuracy's sake, Joe Bernard was never a whaler. The anthropologist Richard Condon made this erroneous claim in his book "The Northern Copper Inuit: A History." My email is Thanks very much for your time and for your interesting blog.

Larry said...

Thank you Paul. The post has been "tweaked" on your recommendation. Bernard is almost entirely unknown in this area, I think partly because he apparently did not leave a lasting legacy in terms of descendants - unlike Klengenberg!

Paul said...

Hello Larry: What a great story; it is very interesting to me. I came to Coppermine as a 7 year old in the summer of 1953. My father was a radio operator for the DOT and had volunteered to do a year in the arctic. I remember through my child's eyes that there were only about 25 white people and about 250 Inuit. My mother told me about the tragedy of the TB epidemic; of how many families had been devastated, and about people with TB being flown out to Edmonton. Some died there, and some returned cured, in some cases, many years later. I remember the federal day school; it was very small and had mixed grades up to grade 6. The atmosphere was very positive. Some of the Inuit students were quite bright and progressed phenomenally quickly. The teacher moved them along at their own rapid pace. The small size of the groups - too small to be "classes" allowed him to do so. More later.

Larry said...

It is interesting, Paul, that since the Inuit started moving into Kugluktuk en masse at about the time of your arrival, the percentage of white residents has remained quite constant at about ten percent.

I was a radio operator myself, working for DOT from 1970 to 1973. We single males were called "boys" back then; there were the "radio boys", the "weather boys" and the "Bay boys". Teachers were usually married so they were Men and Women!

Our population today is about five times what you remember, and almost three times what it was when I first arrived.


chantal5755 said...

Hi Larry, just doing a little research on my grandfather who, according to my Google search, was posted as an RCMP Officer in Coppermine in 1948, would you be able to verify or tell me where I could find more information about that? I would just like to know if you can assist me with it before I leave his name,
Thank you

Larry said...


You are in luck! This is one of the few communities that keeps a public record of all the RCMP members that have served here. It is in the form of a pair of plaques that hang on the wall of the RCMP's coffee room.

If you prefer, you can e-mail me directly larrywh AT netkaster DOT ca

Haven said...

excellent blog.Thanks .....

Anonymous said...

Hi Larry. I too worked for the DOT and spent a few years at Cambridge Bay (pre Dewline). I very much agree with your assessment of false history of the North. AT Cambridge and possibly at other posts the HBC did not heat the store. This was to discourage the Inuit from hanging around. As you say they and the RCMP wanted them away on the land working. One story in particular, started by a well known author, bothers me very much. That the RCMP wanted all the dog's shot so the Inuit could not travel away from the post. What a bunch of rot!

Allen Jackson said...

Just thought I should let you know Joe Osborne passed away 2 weeks ago last Friday. My father Johnny Jackson were work friends shown in the Black & White photo from the 40's.

Posted by Allen Jackson Dec 11 2012

Larry said...

My condolences,Allen.

As you know, Joe re-visited Kugluktuk (Coppermine then) some years ago and I had the great pleasure to meet him at that time.

Please pass along my regards to Joe's surviving family.