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.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Man ... it's cold out there!

If you are a resident of northern or western Canada you will be well-aware of the current deep-freeze we’re experiencing. Air temperatures have been close to the minus 40C mark, with wind-chill temperatures approaching minus 60C. The implications of this will be obvious to any Canadian; minor frost-bite walking into the wind on the way to work, heating fuel being converted to CO2 as fast as I can earn money to buy the stuff, weight gain and a general malaise as a result of being confined indoors in front of the TV, and other minor annoyances.

Fortunately, we live in a warm, well-built house. Should the boiler or electric power fail, we have a wood-stove as back-up, a gas-lamp and candles for light and a Coleman stove for cooking. However, the boiler keeps chugging away, carrying my wages up the chimney and, because each community in Nunavut has a small, simple and self-contained generating system without any long-distance power-lines or complicated grids, the electricity is more reliable here than in the south, despite the extreme environmental conditions.

Still, one does get a sense, amid the arctic deep-freeze, of our vulnerability to a major calamity. It’s probably something that few people give any thought to, but perhaps we should.

To put it simply, if the supply of fossil fuel were disrupted by a major war or a world-wide economic or environmental disaster, the Canadian arctic would be pushed back into the stone-age in but a few short months. Essentially, it would become un-inhabitable, even (perhaps especially) for the Inuit, who are now no better-equipped than the “Europeans” to survive being deprived of the basic elements of life. Like it or not, oil is the lynch-pin without which the whole house-of-cards comes crashing down around our ears in very short order. At the very least, ninety-nine percent of the people presently living here would have to abandon the arctic in favour of warmer climes, and the few survivalists left behind, if any, would be living a short life under the same severe conditions as their ancestors, without the required skills and moral fortitude.

Though I would be the first to applaud the advances that have been made in science and industry that have given us the easy, safe and long lives we currently enjoy, as I get older I’m becoming more and more of a skeptic.

Is global warming a reality? Only if you believe that scientists know what the future holds, and scientists are no better at predicting the future than any three-year old. Do we have enough oil? Who knows – oil is as much about politics as it is about money. Admitting to a shortage will panic the public, admitting to an over-abundance will drive the price down. Will there be another world-war, or another Great Depression? Will an asteroid hit the earth, wiping out the dinosaurs (us!)?

At any rate, it does no good to dwell on these issues, we must simply get on with our lives, seemingly unaware, while the future comes hurtling toward us. That’s life, I guess.

Still, one wonders if the real calamity on the road to man’s future might well be not the burning of fossil fuel but the running out thereof. There is nothing in the pipe to replace oil. Nuclear power is still non grata to a large segment of the public, large-scale hydo-power creates its own environmental devastation, wind is too unreliable and solar is too expensive. Airplanes and ships can’t run on anything but fossil fuel and therefore global commerce and travel would grind to a halt without oil.

We have both wind and solar power at our cabin, but you cannot create heat with such small-scale generation. We still need oil and propane to warm our bodies and cook our food.

Prior to the Second World War, the few white traders, trappers and Hudson's Bay people in the arctic heated their homes with coal. I imagine they would not have tolerated or survived living the stone-age existence of the Inuit. From that basic fossil fuel we have “progressed” to oil furnaces, diesel trucks to deliver our water, diesel generators to provide our power, jet fuel for our aircraft, gasoline for our snowmobiles, boats and ATV’s. We simply can’t live without the stuff! It is oil that forms the basis of many of the medicines we take. Without oil there is no plastic and without plastic almost all of our consumer goods disappear. Without oil there is no way to make the Doritos or the aluminum cans for our Coca-Cola – and no Coca-Cola either.

It is not in the nature of human beings to voluntarily go backward. We have never done that in the tens of thousands of years of our evolution. We will not easily give up what we have gained. All the global-warming rhetoric aside, we will continue to burn fossil fuel at a faster and faster rate, we will not give more than a passing thought to the environmental damage being caused as a result, and we will not conserve. Instead, we will charge ahead into the future without much thought to our own self-destructive tendencies, until a point is reached where we have no choice but to go backward.

It isn’t going to happen next Tuesday, but it will happen one day.

So … who’s gonna win the Super Bowl?