Sled dog slaughter part of pattern: report
The Inuit have a word for it, qimmiijagtauniq, meaning "the slaughter of many dogs."
But during an Inuit-led inquiry into the government-mandated killing of thousands of sled dogs in the 1950s and '60s it became clear the word stands for much, much more.
"The killing of qimmiit (sled dogs) has become a flashpoint in Inuit memories of the changes imposed on their lives by outsiders," says the inquiry's final report after two years of hearings in 13 communities in Nunavut's Baffin region.
Not only does the report dismiss a previous RCMP investigation into the mass shootings as "overly legalistic," it uses them as a window through which to view two generations of well-intentioned but misguided government policy.
And, the report concludes, an apology is due.
"I recommend that the government of Canada formally acknowledge that the high rates of suicide, substance abuse, incarceration and social dysfunction among Inuit are in part symptoms of intergenerational trauma caused by historical wrongs," writes James Igloliorte, head of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission.
Officials with the federal government and the RCMP were not available to comment on the commission's report.
The commission is the first large-scale Inuit attempt to reconstruct what happened to them between 1950 and 1975, when Inuit in the Baffin region went from living in more than 100 small, mobile camps to 13 permanent communities. It's long been accepted in the Eastern Arctic that the federal government enforced the moves through the slaughter of up to 20,000 sled dogs, which robbed the Inuit of their mobility and their means of living a traditional life.
Tales still circulate of hunters entering a trading post and leaving to find their dogs had been shot. Others tell of dogs being killed as they cowered under buildings, their carcasses piled on the sea ice.
In 2006, the RCMP conducted its own investigation into the slaughter. It found no evidence of a plot and concluded the dogs were shot for humanitarian, safety and health reasons.
But few Inuit co-operated with that inquiry, which relied mostly on government records and the testimony of former officers or other public servants. The commission combined both government records and the memories of about 350 Inuit to reach its own conclusions.
It found the dogs, used to camp life, were sometimes a hazard in the closer confines of a community. But the government response was disastrous.
Dog ordinances required owners to chain their animals, in a land where chains were unavailable. It required dogs to be muzzled, which stopped them from eating snow for hydration and removed their defence against polar bears or wolves. Owners were supposed to be 16, an age that meant nothing to Inuit even if they knew how old they were.
As a result, says the report, "it became easier to shoot qimmiit than go through the process outlined in the dog ordinance." It says that the RCMP review did not consider "the inappropriateness of the law under which qimmiit were killed."
"The (RCMP) also dismissed Inuit memories of the killings as false, or arising from faulty memories, and condemned Inuit leaders who brought the incidents to public notice as being motivated by a desire for monetary compensation."
It's a pattern the commission found over and over — southern bureaucrats imposing southern solutions, always in a sincere belief that it was for the good of the Inuit.
"The dog ordinance was completely consistent with standard government policy that Inuit must, at their own expense, accommodate newcomers' needs and wants."
Settlement sites were chosen because they were handy to sea access or flight paths, but they weren't close to food animals. Wildlife officials restricted hunting without consulting those who had lived with the animals for centuries. That forced the Inuit to hide the catches they needed for survival.
Inuit understandings of kinship, marriage and adoption were ignored. Those diagnosed with diseases such as tuberculosis were wrested from their families and shipped south, sometimes literally scooped from their camp by helicopter.
"They took the parents — mother and father — and the ships would pull away and the kids were left standing on the beach," one former bureaucrat told the commission.
Another said: "If it was a mother with a baby in the hood, the radiologist would pick the baby up and give it to whoever was standing closest."
Many Inuit were happy to move into communities because of promised housing, jobs and education. Sometimes they were moved so quickly they weren't even allowed to bring the equipment they depended on.
Too often the promises were unkept. Families were left shivering in tents over winter or sleeping 20 people in a four-by-eight-metre shack.
Relocations at the behest of one government department or another were common. One group was moved four times in about 12 years.
And it was all done by officials who rarely stayed more than two or three years, not long enough to learn the language or culture of those whose lives they controlled.
"Even though the environment and culture were completely foreign to them, most Qallunaat (whites) thought they knew better than Inuit," the report says. "Throughout the period, Qallunaat demonstrated a sense of cultural superiority and a belief that their role was to lead Inuit as quickly as possible into the 'modern' world."
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