Opposition leader and Inuit demand an inquiry
KUUJJUAQ, Nunavik - "I have nothing, I have nothing," Johnny Munick cried
out, remembering the day in 1960 when his team of sled dogs, in their
harnesses and ready for a hunting trip, was shot by government authorities.
The incident was part of an extermination of Inuit huskies - and, as a
result, the abrupt end of their owners' ability to provide for their
families - that took place from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s.
Arms flung wide, an anguished figure in a heavy black parka, the elderly
Inuk was standing on the auditorium stage following the Jan. 12 premiere of
"Echo of the Last Howl," a film that includes both documentary material and
reenactments of the slaughter. One by one, he and two dozen other older men
walked to the microphone to recount their experiences of the cataclysm to
an audience of about 800 community members and visiting politicians,
including Canadian opposition leader Gilles Duceppe.
So far, neither the national nor the provincial government has acknowledged
the killings. Duceppe promised that he'll push the issue to the fore by
showing the film to members of Parliament and, in a move that appears
calculated to embarrass the current administration, to its contingent of
foreign ambassadors. "Then we'll make a motion for a public inquiry," he
said. "We have to find the best and fastest way to learn why this happened.
We can't wait five years."
"It's very important that Canada acknowledge that a wrong was done to the
Inuit," said Pita Aatami, president of Makivik Corp., a nonprofit formed to
administer a 1975 land claims agreement. Aatami added that the Inuit are
seeking an apology and reparations. He noted that Canada dealt similarly
with Japanese-Canadians interned during World War II.
Today, 9,000 Inuit live in Nunavik, which is the northernmost portion of
Quebec. An area about the size of France, it's bounded by Hudson Bay on the
west and Ungava Bay on the east. During the mid-20th century, the
population was about 2,500, generally living in such tiny, far-flung, and
mobile camps that stories of the slaughter were not widely known until the
At that time, Makivik Corp. began holding community meetings to learn about
residents' concerns. One by one the recollections emerged, said Johnny
Adams, chairman of Kativik Regional Government, which administrates the
area. Until then, many Inuit had thought that they - or a small number of
people they knew - were the only ones who had lost their dogs.
The killings were carried out arbitrarily, often dangerously. Elders
interviewed for the film told of going to a trading post for supplies, only
to have their teams destroyed, leaving them with no way to return home
across the many miles of frozen snow. Others who took the microphone
described hugging their animals in an attempt to shield them. Some dogs
survived a bullet to run away in agony, and one man recalled a pregnant
female he owned miscarrying - giving birth as she lay dying.
In Kangirsujuaq, the entire community was ordered to lead all its dogs down
to the sea ice to be killed; even children had to bring their puppies,
according to people interviewed for the film. The animals were shot, then
piled up and incinerated. "The dogs went willingly," recounted one grieving
The men's autonomy, mobility and identity as providers ended when they lost
their teams. "The thought-consuming part of our lives was over," said one.
Economic and social devastation ensued.
Two days after the film showing, with his wife Harriet weeping by his side,
Johnny Munick talked about the consequences of the slaughter: "The day my
team was shot, we had two small children: a one-year-old and a baby who had
just learned to sit up. Life became a struggle to keep the children warm
During the 1950s and 1960s, a changing assortment of reasons was offered
for the dog-slaughter program: Loose animals were dangerous, they might be
rabid, they ate a lot of food and competed for resources with their owners,
and what many Inuit today suspect was the clincher: The federal government
wanted them culturally assimilated and living in permanent settlements. The
exterminations coincided with the shipping of Native children to
residential schools, since closed.
The methods of carrying out the extermination program were as varied as the
rationales. The Canadian Solicitor General's office has said that Royal
Canadian Mounted Police records from the era were destroyed, so it can't
determine precisely who did what. After interviewing hundreds of witnesses,
Makivik Corp. officials believe that the RCMP did most of the killing;
however, Hudson Bay Company traders and the Quebec Regional Police were
also involved. It also seems that occasionally any available white person
available was deputized to destroy dogs, mostly by shooting them, but also
In any case, few of the nomadic, non-English speaking Inuit were aware of
the policy or its assorted regulations until they ran afoul of them.
"No one had warned me of anything," recalled Munick.
Those who did hear of the new prohibition against loose dogs found this
incomprehensible. An immobilized animal could freeze to death in the Arctic
winter; further, a powerful husky can only be reliably secured with heavy
chains, which were unavailable in the area at the time. Some improvised
seal-skin ropes, only to find that they were up all night capturing animals
that broke loose; others shared dog-watching duties in an effort to keep
track of their teams.
And rabies? Aatami noted that animals were not examined for disease before
In a "let them eat cake" gesture, the subsistence hunters, who traded furs
for the few consumer goods they used, were advised to buy snowmobiles,
which had price tags of around $10,000. Most, like Sandy Suppa's family,
couldn't even consider such an expenditure.
Suppa, now a wildlife technician at Nunavik Research Institute, was 12 when
the police shot his father's dogs in 1963. He described walking long
distances for firewood and hunting on foot - an exhausting and dangerous
proposition in the North, where Inuit relied on their dogs to travel
quickly over long distances in order to find game or wood, haul large
loads, and find their way home when caught in a blizzard. To this day
snowmobiles, which break down frequently in the frigid climate, are
regarded as a menace. Stories are told of hunters freezing to death when
their machines fail.
Munick, now a carpenter by trade, explained how valuable and highly trained
a sled dog is, better compared to a Thoroughbred racehorse than to a pet.
After being socialized as a puppy - often by the owner's children - a young
dog underwent a two- to three-year program of increasingly demanding
physical training. At first, it was allowed to run unburdened alongside its
mother while she was working as part of a team. Eventually, it learned to
pull a sled and respond to voice commands.
In addition to pulling sleds, dogs warned of danger, such as polar bears,
and found game. "They could smell caribou from miles away," Munick said.
"Dogs equaled life."
Young Inuit are bringing back the dog teams. Charlie Watt Jr. demonstrated
the skills of his modern contingent, with which he's won Nunavik's Ivakkak
race, run annually since 2001. As soon as Watt slipped his lead dog into
the traces, the others yipped and danced, begging to be hitched up. After
all were in place, Watt stepped aboard the sled and they sped across a
When Munick was asked to compare today's teams with those of his youth,
both he and his wife laughed as he responded, "The satellite phones. When I
was out on the land, my family never knew when I'd be back. I was
completely out of touch. But then, when I returned - ahh, the smell of
home. Thinking about it, I feel as though I'm back there now."
"After decades of holding in the despair, seeing the film and talking about
what happened has been a healing experience for the men and their
families," said Ida Saunders, director general of Kativik Regional
Government. "The whole community has to heal."