The hood of a school bus emerging from a snowbank. A passenger jet parked in the middle of nowhere. Snowmobiles disappearing into the fog. The thick smoke from a diesel generator keeping a village alive. These are only a few of the visual dichotomies of Canada’s Northern territories.
Western perceptions of Inuit lands tell of romantic landscapes portrayed by movies such as J.H Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and Doug Wilkinson’s Land of the Long Day. These movies retell the stories of traditional nomadic Inuit lifestyles of building shelter and hunting for food, a simple and primitive lifestyle, yet one reflecting more modern ideologies of sustainability. These paradigms of virtue and simplicity prevailed throughout the first half of the twentieth century when the slow and gradual colonization and exploration of the North disrupted traditional Inuit ways severely impacting the landscape.
Though the Inuit’s first encounter with Western culture was limited to the lone explorer, trader and occasional missionary, it soon led to the much larger fur trade established by the Hudson Bay Company and the Christianization of many of the northern villages by the Catholic and Anglican churches. This period saw the introduction of Western tools including metal animal traps, firearms, and other hunting tools that were initially beneficial to survival in the raw northern environment; it wasn’t until the beginning of the Cold War that the detrimental impact of Western culture would truly be felt. The collapse of the fur trade was a major source of impoverishment and created a state of welfare dependency. The fear of a Soviet invasion led to the construction of the Distant Early Warning Line and a renewed interest in establishing sovereignty in Canada’s northern territories. This led to the separation and relocation of many families from the Nunavik region of Inukjuak to the High Arctic under the High Arctic Relocation Program (HARP) – which I will cover in Volume II : Promised Land. By the 1950s the once “happy go lucky Inuit” described by Flaherty had been designated an “Eskimo problem” by the Canadian government.; years of social welfare and trauma from the slaughter of their sled dogs had forced a once semi-nomadic people into sedentary communities entirely dependent on government subsidies. Hunters of meat had become trappers of fur, and the seasonal transition from igloos to tents evolved into subsidized housing of substandard quality.
Today’s electrical grids depend on diesel fuel to provide electricity for lighting, water purification systems, pumping stations and satellite communication. Modern amenities such as heating, recreational and construction vehicles, snowmobiles, and planes all require fuel stored in large silos located near village ports delivered by ship. These technologies of modern Western life have assimilated Inuit culture and created dependencies on resources not easily accessible to the Inuit. The northern landscape has transformed into a cookie cutter mold of modern cities in southern Canada; Inuit travel to neighboring villages by plane while children go to school in yellow school buses (many ending up in village junkyards poking through the snow). Rows of identical houses covered in aluminum siding only vary slightly by year of construction. Broken down vehicles and machinery cannot be repaired and are left to rot in place. These strange microcosms often feel like dystopian societies in a parallel universe and reflect the incompatibility between western concepts of land ownership, materialistic values, and a monetary economy with a culture that values self-sufficiency, living off the land and rich ancestral traditions.
This first volume of Northern Exile examines the beautiful yet visually jarring landscapes of the Nunavik region in northern Quebec, their undergoing transformation over the last century, and questions man’s precarious dominance over nature in the far north.