Thursday, August 28, 2008

Reader's Diary #388- David Damas: Arctic Migrants/ Arctic Villagers

Debbie bought me this book as a Christmas gift last year, figuring I'd be intrigued by the controversy promised on the back:
"In recent years the view has emerged that the Inuit were coerced by the Canadian government into abandoning life in scattered camps for centres of habitation. In Arctic Migrants/Arctic Villagers David Damas demonstrates that for many years government policies helped maintain dispersed settlement, but that eventually concerns over health, housing, and education and welfare brought about policy changes that inevitably led to centralization. Damas shows that while there were cases of government-directed relocation to centres, centralization was largely voluntary as the Inuit accepted the advantages of village living."
We both had the sense that his would not be another "white man is evil" argument that has plagued so many books about the north. Furthermore, there's an implicit sense that all is not well in the Arctic in that someone would want to point fingers in the first place. And while we certainly enjoyed our 6 years in Nunavut, all is not well. It needs to be addressed and addressed publicly.

Fortunately, Damas does not let white people off the hook. While I've spoken out against novels like Consumption and White Eskimo that oversimplify the intentions of white men as evil, racist and money-grubbing, I'm well aware that actions of many white people have been terribly unjust to Inuit and First Nations people in this country. I've only asked that authors present the issue with a little more complexity. This is where Damas exceeds.

The bulk of Damas's research comes from RCMP and government documents, and in the time frame that he focuses most of his attention, this means that it comes from white sources. While it might be instinctual for some to criticize him for that, it is important to note that those were the ones that made the decisions affecting the Inuit. If Damas's research seems problematic, it only highlights the larger, and more systemic issue at hand: white paternalism.

Often it was the case that the whites genuinely wanted to do what they felt was best for the Inuit. Not only should it not have been the white man's decisions to make, but without adequate input from the Inuit, the whites really didn't know what was best. In a few cases, Damas mentions some people that tried to discuss issues of well-being with them (still failing because of the language barrier) but in most cases all decisions seemed pretty one-sided. The Inuit, for instance, exhibited signs that they were interested in aggregating into communities, while the whites decided that they should preserve their culture, avoid large groups due to tuberculosis and other communicable diseases and basically, get back on the land. Of course, culture preservation and health are noble concerns and are good intentions. Occasionally, some of the documents provided by Damas revealed a more subtle racism underlying those aims, letters that talked about the Inuit "loitering" around the Hudson Bay posts, as if they were pests and didn't have as much right-- if not more-- to be there.

The policy of dispersal first promoted by the government gave way in the 60s to the institution of a welfare state. Southern bureaucrats and their Northern representatives then decided that it wasn't fair that southern families were given such monies as family allowance and started implementing more financial relief in the North. Of course, having had more experience with trading versus buying, some were concerned that the Inuit would give up traditional ways (valid concern) and placed certain restrictions on the money (but it doesn't promote equality when you consider that southern, white Canadians, didn't have these strings attached). These debates, while interesting and again well-intended, rarely had input from the Inuit. Damas illustrates this best in his discussion on the advent of schools in the North. Citing a letter from J. V. Jacobson, superintendent of Education for the Arctic in the 50s, where he states that the aim of education "is not to fall into the pattern of the white man's way of life but to make them better Eskimos," Damas goes on to add, "The difficulty of defining just what elements of the native culture were to be retained and which were to be altered was not addressed."

After years of residential schools, the relocation of Inuit in Northern Quebec to the high arctic, and general meddling that has caused hard feelings and emotional stress even to this day, ending the book by discussing the creation of Nunavut and showing that Inuit are finally in control of their own destiny, provides some hope. I fear, however, that it could be too late to hand over the reins once we've already wrecked the qamutik.

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