• Feature

How Art Brought About an Apology for High Arctic Relocations

Jun 18, 2020
by Amy Prouty

In the High Arctic, a large granite sculpture of a mother and child juts out from the rocky terrain of Grise Fiord. The embracing figures mournfully gaze towards the water where Inuit relocatees first stepped off the C.D. Howe supply ship in the 1950s. Hundreds of kilometres away in Resolute Bay, a relief carving of a man also looks out, in search of his missing family. Although they capture the isolation and pain of forced separation, these monuments also tell a story of perseverance.

In the early 1950s, nineteen families from Inukjuak left their community aboard the Eastern Arctic patrol ship C.D. Howe. Relocated by the Canadian government to the formerly unpopulated regions of Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay, thousands of kilometres away, they were assured better hunting and economic opportunities. This would be the first of many broken promises, from families being unexpectedly split-up between the two communities en route to not being equipped with proper tools or shelter. The sparse flora and fauna of the High Arctic was drastically different from the rich natural resources of Inukjuak, and the relocatees had to learn how to hunt and scavenge during the 24-hour darkness of polar night. The harsh conditions that the relocatees endured are reflected in the Inuktitut names they gave to their new homes: Grise Fiord was dubbed Ausuittuq (“the place that never thaws”), while Resolute Bay became Qausuittuq (“the place with no dawn”). Although they were informed by RCMP officers that they would be allowed to return home after two years if they were unhappy, their requests to do so were ignored. Over the passing decades, the relocatees relied on their traditional knowledge, learning to adapt and even thrive in their new homeland. Sixty years later, the monuments built in their memory do more than just honour this history, they also illustrate the way in which Inuit are increasingly using art to strengthen their culture and speak back to colonial narratives.


Inuit community at Resolute Bay as seen during Governor General Vincent Massey’s northern tour, March 1956
Photo Gar Lunney, National Film Board of Canada Courtesy Library and Archives Canada

The divergence between how the Canadian government and Inuit remember the relocations makes visible how memory is central to relations of power within a nation-state [1]. In 1978 when Inuit began fighting to have their narratives of the relocation officially recognized, there were immediate discrepancies between the Government’s account and the oral stories of the survivors. By 1990 the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs recommended that the Government recognize the role Inuit played in protecting Canadian sovereignty and offer an apology as well as compensation for the wrongdoing inflicted upon them. In what is commonly referred to as the Hickling Report, the Canadian government denied that the relocatees were promised return and argued the intention of the relocations was to provide increased economic opportunity. Meanwhile, the relocatees accused the Government of using them as “human flagpoles” to strengthen Canada’s claim on Arctic sovereignty during the Cold War era. Wanting some form of restitution for the aging relocatees before they passed on, Inuit agreed to a monetary settlement in 1996, although with a clause that doing so would legally absolve the Government from accusations of wrongdoing. While the settlement was a victory for the relocatees, the official narrative was in the hands of government stakeholders, and an apology seemed unlikely to occur.

Inspired by the official residential school apology in 2008, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) turned to art as a political strategy. They announced the creation of two monuments and outlined seven objectives for the project. Most of these objectives pertained to commemoration and public awareness, but the final objective in NTI’s press release explicitly stated that the purpose of the monuments was to “gain an apology from the Government of Canada.”


Simeonie Amagoalik
’s monument is lifted into place with the help of a forklift in Resolute Bay, 2010
Photo Johnny Issaluk Courtesy Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

Artists with personal connections to the communities were chosen to carry out the project. Simeonie Amagoalik, a relocatee himself, was commissioned to create the monument in Resolute Bay. He learned to carve at 14 years old while still living in Inukjuak. In addition to being an artist, Amagoalik was a community leader who mentored youth and was involved in the early negotiations for the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. His sculpture consists of a life-sized male figure, carved in relief from a large mound of granite. The parka-clad figure is rendered in an abstract, rounded form, not far from the spot where Amagoalik and his family first landed in the 1950s. Looking south towards the Arctic Ocean, the figure is surrounded by empty, rocky land and exudes a sense of isolation. Working with his grandson, Jeffrey Amagoalik, as an apprentice, in order to pass on his skills, Amagoalik’s monument was his largest sculpture and one of his last works. He passed away only a year after the monument was unveiled.

The companion piece in Grise Fiord was sculpted by Looty Pijamini. While not a part of the original relocations, Pijamini moved to the community with his father as a child in 1961. A prominent sculptor with works in the collections of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, among others, Pijamini began carving as a teenager and graduated from the jewellery and metalwork program at Nunavut Arctic College. The monument is carved from a large piece of granite, quarried from the surrounding land, and depicts a mother embracing a small child. Lying at the pair’s feet is a qimmiiq (an Inuit sled dog). Pijamini’s sculpture is more naturalistic than Amagoalik’s, and the figures reveal their apprehension as they gaze toward the water. Like Amagoalik, Pijamini took on an apprentice—his son Matt—to complete the work.

Simeonie and Paul Amagoalik c1958

and Paul Amagoalik outside summer tents in Resolute Bay, c. 1958
Courtesy Simeonie Amagoalik & iqqaumavara.com

While the geographic distance between the two monuments serves as a testament to the pain felt by families who were torn apart by the relocation, it would be a disservice to read them only as representative of victimization. What Amagoalik and Pijamini articulate through their monuments is Inuit perseverance and ingenuity. As Pauline Wakeham points out, the High Arctic relocation monuments carry layers of meaning and act as a visual power reversal [2]. By adapting the public monument, a primarily colonial mode of remembrance, in order to give themselves a voice, Inuit assert that the Arctic belongs to the land now known as Canada, not because of the Government, but because of Inuit who have always inhabited it.

Adaptability is a vital tenant of Inuit knowledge, and in the years since contact, Inuit have routinely taken objects and concepts introduced to them by Qallunaat (non-Inuit) and repurposed them to suit their own cultural needs. Art is one of the most powerful of these tools, and is employed not only to record Inuit values and traditions in a time of aggressive assimilation, but also as a form of cross-cultural communication [3]. As artworks travel south, they carry with them an awareness of Inuit culture and articulate a sovereign vision of identity to uninformed southern audiences.


Rynee Flaherty, right, the eldest survivor of the Grise Fiord Exiles, examines Pijamini’s monument to the High Arctic relocation after its unveiling on September 10th, 2010
Photo courtesy Gabriel Zaráte & Nunatsiaq News

In the case of the relocation monuments, this rightful autonomy is reinforced by the identical plaques affixed to each. The inscription is written by John Amagoalik—the politician and activist often called “Father of Nunavut,” who was a relocatee himself—and reads:

In memory of Inuit who landed here in 1953 and 1955, and those who came after. They came to these desolate shores to pursue the Government’s promise of a more prosperous life. They endured and overcame great hardship, and dedicated their lives to Canada’s sovereignty in these lands and waters.

The wording on the plaques explicitly ties Arctic sovereignty to the actions of Inuit and their sacrifices, taking control of a historical narrative that has long been denied them. This narrative was reinforced in the months leading up to the unveiling ceremonies, with NTI encouraging media outlets to cover the events in order to get the monuments’ message to a broader audience and force the Government to pay attention. The strategy proved to be incredibly effective. On August 18, 2010, John Duncan, the newly appointed Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, travelled to Inukjuak and delivered an official apology on behalf of the Canadian government. One month later, Duncan attended the monument unveiling ceremonies in both Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord and presented framed copies of the apology to each community.

Minister John Duncan, left, Pita Aatami, George Echalook, Simeonie Amagoalik, James Eetoolook, Elizabeth Roberts and Lizzie Amagoalik 2010

Minister John Duncan, left, Pita Aatami, George Echalook, Simeonie Amagoalik, James Eetoolook, Elizabeth Roberts and Lizzie Amagoalik pose for a photo at the unveiling of Amagoalik’s monument, 2010
Courtesy iqqaumavara.com

The apology offered a degree of closure to the few remaining relocatees and their descendants. In both Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay, the unveiling ceremonies were accompanied by a community feast and prayer circles. The monuments prompted conversation and gave Inuit a chance to share the personal and familial toll of the relocations. Those left behind in Inukjuak had also felt ripples of trauma, and in 2011 Inukjuak erected their own monument, bringing the story full circle. Created by Siasi Smiler, the mayor of Inukjuak, whose extended family were among those relocated, the bronze and granite sculpture is sited in the port where the relocatees departed. Standing atop a pile of stone, a hunter shields his eyes with his hand. The work has been interpreted as both a man onboard the C.D. Howe, looking back to his home community, and as the man left behind, watching as his family disappears from sight. For the sculpture’s unveiling, Inuit were flown in from Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay for a week of healing that included events such as excursions, prayer circles and feasts. For many, they were meeting long-lost relatives for the first time, and the activities offered a chance to rebuild kinship ties that had been severed by the relocations.

In contrast to the long history of Inuit art created for a global art market, the primary audience for these monuments is local. As such they are positioned to promote closure and healing for the communities in which they are sited. However, despite the fixity and remoteness of their physical location, the power carried through these monuments has been deployed through photography and other media to build an awareness of the survivors’ narratives that were intentionally obscured for so long. Larry Audlaluk, a relocatee to Grise Fiord at the age of three, points to this significance: “The governments, more than one, went to great lengths to discourage us to tell the story the way we wanted to….What happened to our story was [a] monumental saga in the Canadian history that should not be forgotten. Let’s do something about the history, and let it be known properly that our relocation story is very important. It has to be known,” [4].

1 Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

2 Pauline Wakeham, “At the Intersection of Apology and Sovereignty: The Arctic Exile Monument Project,” Cultural Critique 87 (2014): 84-143.

3 Heather Igloliorte, “Inuit Artistic Expression as Cultural Resilience,” Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey, eds. Gregory Younging, Jonathan Dewar and Mike DeGagné (Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2009).

4 The Iqqaumavara Project, ”Larry Audlaluk – His Story,” http://www.iqqaumavara.com/en/larry-audlaluk/.

This Feature was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.


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