The Last Inuit of Quebec
I was searching for a different way of life, but so were the Inuit.
On Canada Day, I landed in Kuujjuaq, a community of 2,000 on the tree line. An icy wind spat cold rain. On the shores of the Koksoak River, families picnicked beside their SUVs and Canadian flags flapped in the drizzle. “Things are changing so fast,” said Allen Gordon, the head of the Nunavik Tourism Association. I later learned that his wife was the first one in town to ship north a Hummer. We celebrated the holiday at the Ikkariqvik Bar, a cavernous dive without windows. There were darts and a disco ball. “If you’re a woman, you’ll win a sewing machine. If you’re a man, you win nets. If you don’t want either, you’ll get four beers,” shouted a lady selling raffle tickets. A teen dressed in black showed me a tiny silver pistol and someone collapsed on the edge of the dance floor. “We are drunk because it’s Canada Day,” said a man at the bar. When the raffle lady stumbled back on stage she was too drunk to announce who had won what.
Kuujjuaq is regarded as a city, severed from Inuit traditions. To find magic, I needed to go further north, so I boarded a propeller plane for Ivujivik, a town of 300 on the stormy coastline where Hudson Bay meets Hudson Straight. Trees disappeared then reappeared and then disappeared for good. This was tundra — a sopping, pitted landscape that shone brilliantly in the sun. Confused ribbons of water connected an endless splatter of lakes, some green, some yellow, some with red edges and bright blue centers. Ancient channels were etched in the stone. We unloaded and picked up passengers in Inukjuak and Puvirnituq. Over Hudson Bay, a passenger spotted a pair of belugas.
A drunk woman named Saira showed up at the airport in a Bronco packed with relatives and wanted me to live with her. We had met in Kuujjuaq at the home of a woman who peddled black-market booze. Saira was drunk on Smirnoff at the time, but had somehow remembered my travel plans. I ignored her. A construction worker dropped me at a drab house on the edge of town occupied by a security guard named Chico who I had been told would have a free room. A man with a beat-up face came to the door. “Why are you here?” he asked. I explained. “I can’t wait to get the hell out,” he said. “I hate this place.”
I was in e-mail contact with a nurse who supposedly had a room, but that too evaporated — her boss was in town. Reluctantly, I sought out Saira. She opened the door with a grin. “I’m drunk,” she said, “but it’s OK.” I joined her and a niece with whittled teeth at a table covered with empty Budweiser cans. The women looked at me and giggled harshly. They bantered in Inuktitut. Saira explained that she was getting evicted in a few days. “We will live in a tent in the back,” she said, “and come in to take showers.”
I stepped out to clear my head. A stiff wind whipped white caps from the cobalt straight. I headed for it, walking over dinosaur egg-like rocks littered with ammo boxes and potato chip bags. At the edge of a headland, long rolling swells beat the boulders and blasted spray skyward. Beyond, the sea swirled. I stood there for some time, thinking about good meals and the New York subway. The strong wind dragged tears across my cheeks. I later learned this was the site where hunters once came to woo belugas into the bay so others could harpoon them.
Ivujivik had one store, a cooperative, which serves as a bank, post office, hardware store, and grocer. There were no bars and no restaurants. There was a school, a health center, a municipal building and a power plant that burned diesel fuel imported by a ship that comes twice a year. Homes were red, orange, blue, green; identical warehouse-like structures subsidized by the Quebec government. Each had a water tank and a sewage tank and trucks circled daily, refilling and relieving. All roads ended a few miles outside town. I was there in late July, and for children, who represent nearly half the population, these were the dog days of summer.
Kids began the day in small groups that expanded as night neared. Afternoon activities included hide and seek, cavorting atop shipping containers, pouring buckets of water over slanted wooden planks and watching a bulldozer demolish a building. By nightfall, which lasts from 9 p.m. until well past midnight, children can be roaming the streets in groups of 10 to 20. Often, they get rowdy. The summer I was in Ivujivik, youths regularly broke into the youth center to steal video games. In an adjacent community, a posse comprised of kids as young as 12 pummeled a man with a hockey stick and golf clubs.
In August, I noticed a flier in the co-op about a bowhead whale hunt in the community of Kangiqsujuaq, several hundred miles down the coast. Bowheads can live for 150 years and weigh as much as five school buses. The Inuit of Nunavik had not landed one in more than a century although locals had been pushing for a hunt since the mid-1980s. At that time, the Hudson Straight bowhead was designated as “endangered” and hunting was prohibited. The Inuit claimed that the whales were plentiful. In 2005, a study by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirmed the Inuit’s suspicions and in 2008, the Inuit of Nunavik were granted permission to hunt one bowhead. Kangiqsujuaq was chosen as the hunt site for its proximity to known bowhead grounds and the hunting prowess of its inhabitants. I emailed an editor at the Nunatsiaq News, a paper delivered across the Arctic by propeller plane. She said they’d pay for a story and photos. I hitched a ride on a canoe headed south.
Kangiqsujuaq, a town of 600, was bursting at the seams. The Inuit were delirious over the chance to eat bowhead maktak, or whale skin. On a blustery day I joined a group of Inuit at a sort of tailgate for the bowhead hunt. We picnicked on a barren knoll outside town that overlooked a rocky cove with several fishing boats and a dozen or more canoes. Tinned anchovies, sandwich pickles, Ritz crackers, Spam, and a jar of Miracle Whip were spread over an impromptu plank table. A man with a buzz cut approached our group from the water’s edge, his eyes hid by tinted shades, and the women shrieked. In each hand he grasped a fat glistening Arctic char. Two ladies with buns of gray hair tucked beneath colorful bandanas laid the fish on a dismantled cardboard box. We squat in the dirt and went at them with pocketknives and curved blades called ulus, slurping flesh from the skin as if spooning grapefruit. The meat was bright orange and sticky. “Chew the bones,” the fisherman, whose name was Tiivi Qumaaluk, said. “They’re the best.”
The Inuit reached what is now northern Quebec more than 2,000 years ago. In winter they dwelt in igloos along the coast, skewering seals and walruses at breathing holes in the ice with ivory-tipped harpoons. In summer they tracked caribou into the interior, ambushing them at river crossings or chasing the animals toward hidden archers. Whales were corralled in shallow bays with kayaks made from sealskin stretched over bone. Polar bears were immobilized by dogs and then knifed. Still, famine was common. Elderly that slowed the group were left behind to die. Clans that settled near Kangiqsujuaq fared better than most. The large tides created caverns under the frozen sea that could be reached at low tide by chipping through the ice above. In times of hunger hunters scavenged these caves for mussels and algae. “There are numerous indications that starvation and famines accompanied by infanticide and even cannibalism were not rare,” writes Bernard Saladin D’Anglure, a 20th-century anthropologist who spent time in Kangiqsujuaq.
By the late 1800s the Hudson Bay Company had built several trading posts in Nunavik and in 1910 Révillon Frères, a French fur company, opened one in Kangiqsujuaq. Inuit hunters stopped traveling with game and began searching for fox, which they traded at posts for nets, guns, and metal needles. Inuit began camping around stores rather than by hunting spots. They developed tastes for foods they had never eaten — flour, biscuits, molasses, tea, coffee. From the posts also came disease and dependence. “About 15 families camped in the settlement,” reads the 1928 log from a Hudson Bay store operator in the Central Arctic, “they have no inclination to hunt or exert themselves but are content to sit around in a state of destitution.”
By the 1960s, the north had become such a black eye that the Canadian government took steps to recuperate the region. Teachers, healthcare workers, and police were sent north. Homes and hospitals were built. Dogs were corralled by the police and shot. Some Inuit youth were shipped to southern schools against their will. The government’s aim was to quell poverty and spur development, which to them meant providing Inuit with Western educations and eliminating sick dogs. But to many Inuit, these actions appeared to be part of a much more sinister agenda, the annihilation of their culture.
In 1975, the Inuit and their native neighbors to the south, the Cree, protested the Quebec government’s seizure of their land for a massive hydroelectric project and received a settlement of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in what was called the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. The Inuit’s share went toward the creation of the Makivik Corporation, a development agency charged with promoting economic growth and fostering Inuit-run businesses. Makivik is presently invested in construction, shipping, fishing, tanning, and air travel. They recently started a cruise ship company.
Kangiqsujuaq was trying to get itself on the adventure travel map. Much of the town’s funding comes from a nearby nickel mine. Recent tourist oriented projects have included an elder home, a community pool, a new hotel with a $400 suite, and a visitor center for a remote provincial park that protects a two-million-year-old meteor crater said to contain the purest water on Earth.
When I entered the office of Lukasi Pilurtuut, who manages the Nunaturlik Landholding Corporation that oversees development in Kangiqsujuaq, I found him alone at the end of a long table with his laptop, wearing a cap, jeans, and sneakers. Sunlight streamed through large windows and the hilltops surrounding the town gleamed with freshly fallen summer snow. He was an ace student in high school but dropped out of a Montreal college after just three semesters, homesick. “It wasn’t the problem of going to school,” he said, “it was more the problem that I couldn’t go hunting.”
Dependence has made some people lazy, said Pilurtuut. The Canadian and Quebec governments subsidize housing and health care and many Inuit also receive welfare checks. In 2007, high nickel prices helped the mine turn record profits and each Inuit resident of Kangiqsujuaq received a check for $4,700. Some families got checks for $30,000. They bought ATVs, SUVs, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, motorized canoes, computers, and flat screen TVs.
Tourism money will be different, Pilurtuut said. Rather than destroying tradition, it could bring it back. In fact, this was already happening. As we spoke the phone rang several times. “Yes!” he cried during one call, and then turned to me, “We have good news, four single kayaks coming in today.” The Inuit invented the kayak but no one in Nunavik remembered how to operate one. Kangiqsujuaq had to order kayaks from southern Quebec and hire an outside guide to train locals.
On a crisp summer evening, I raced into the Straight to greet the bowhead hunters on a bright orange government speed boat. The sun sank through thin clouds and spilled across the horizon like paint. “This is so special for us,” our navigator, a man named Tuumasi Pilurtuut, said to me, practically speechless with joy. “We’re back with our ancestors.”
The hunters fired flares to mark their position. A tremendous cheer went up as we arrived and strips of maktak were passed aboard. “Better than beluga,” Pilurtuut said between chews. Lines of turquoise fire billowed in the night sky — the northern lights, in their first appearance of the season.
One tradition that had survived intact was the caribou hunt. Nearly a million caribou dwell in Nunavik and when a herd nears towns, offices empty. By mid-August the chatter around Kangiqsujuaq was that the animals were close. One morning at the grocery store I ran into Tiivi, the man who had caught the char at the tailgate party. He invited me to go hunting with him the following day.
Tiivi killed his first caribou at age nine while looking for bird eggs with his five-year old brother. Unable to cut the carcass themselves, the boys rushed back to tell their mother. “She was so excited,” Tiivi said, “she was like shouting of joy.” In his teens he worked as a garbage man and at 21 he took a job pulverizing rock at the nickel mine, earning a $2,500 paycheck twice a month.
Tiivi married a janitor from the mine and they moved in together, living in a town on the Hudson Straight called Salluit. The marriage was a nightmare. Fights were frequent; in one she bit him, leaving a knotty scar over his bicep. Another time she plunged a steak knife into his chest. He was medevaced to a hospital on the other side of Nunavik for a tetanus shot. “The next day I couldn’t lift my arm because all the muscles were cut,” he said. One night, while she was asleep, he snuck out with just the clothes on his back. While visiting cousins in Puvirnituk, he met a second cousin named Elisapie. “A lot of different girls tried to be with me but I refused them all because I saw Elisapie and I wanted only her,” said Tiivi. “She was so fine looking.” They recently married.
I met Tiivi at his home just after 9 a.m. He wore muck boots, grease-stained pants, and a hunting cap. He carried a rifle for caribou and a shotgun for geese. We were joined by his aunt, Qialak, and his brother, Jimmy, who trailed us on a second ATV. On a ridge patterned with jackknifed rocks Tiivi signaled a shiny outcrop where carvers come for soapstone. Cumulus clouds splotched the sky and sunbursts lit mats of lichen red and orange. “There might be some gold particles,” Tiivi said, as we crossed a stream. “Our land is full of minerals.”
With mud splattering from the tires, we descended a spongy slope then looped around a lake where the week before Jimmy and Qialak had strung nets. Tiivi and Qialak reeled them in, half a dozen flapping Arctic char. “So fresh the heart is still beating,” Tiivi said. Qialak sliced open the bellies of the females and wailed — two had eggs. I held a sandwich baggy open while she scooped in the long slimy packets.
We sat at the water’s edge and slurped the bright orange flesh from flaps of skin. The meat was sticky and chewy, like a fatty piece of steak. The fresh blood tasted sweet. We drank tea from a thermos and ate packaged biscuits. Tiivi smoked two cigarettes and then we left. A muddy track led above the lake to the next ridge. Arctic poppies bobbed in the breeze. Jimmy spotted snow geese.
“They’re going to land because of the wind,” said Tiivi. We abandoned the ATVs and crouched low. Jimmy and I followed Tiivi along a sliver of wet land behind a low rock ridge. We crawled close on our bellies. When the geese took flight the men bolted upright and fired. Two birds fell. One goose lay sprawled in the tundra with wings still beating. Its handsome white coat was ruined by a single red smear. Tiivi pinned its chest with his arms. The long neck slowly lifted and the head cocked sideways and gasped. “Now it’s dying because I’m holding the lungs,” he said.
With a soft thud the head dropped. “Hurray!” Tiivi said and peeled a Clementine. He tossed the squiggled rind aside and gave me half. Qialak looked at me beaming, “You’re probably getting the experience of a lifetime.”
On a ridge above a river, under a sunset the color of skinned knees, Qialak spotted a large buck. Tiivi slowly extended his arms above his head, bent his elbows out, and pointed his fingers skyward, imitating antlers. The buck stared at us intently then resumed foraging. A smaller buck beside him followed suit. We splashed across the river and sped, sheltered by the ridge, towards the buck. Its impressive rack was just visible above the hill’s crest in the grainy light.
“Stay low,” Tiivi said. He crept up the ridge, rested on a rock, and fired several shots. The buck rushed forward frantically then halted. It seemed to not know where to step next. Tiivi fired again and it swayed. Its massive head lowered to the ground, eyes still opened. The body slumped. Labored, spastic breaths rose from the ground. The younger buck remained for a moment then darted.
Everyone produced knives; Tiivi held one in each hand. The buck lay on its side, its chest heaving. Tiivi approached from behind and it kicked the air violently. He jabbed a knife into its neck, then jostled the blade back and forth. As darkness fell the three Inuit dismembered the carcass. Everything was taken but the head and intestines. Tiivi tied his parts in a bundle — heart, hindquarters, filet, stomach, ribs. Recrossing the river we washed our hands and drank cold river water from our palms. “I’m all clean,” Tiivi said.
During my last week in Kangiqsujuaq, I met with Father Dion, a Catholic priest originally from Belgium who had been in Nunavik for nearly five decades. He was a tiny, puckered man whose congregation was dwindling, but he was a bull. He laughed loudly, spoke with a thick French accent, and commanded respect from everyone in town, young and old, Inuit and non. His church was a pint-sized building in the center of town and he lived inside. When I knocked one drizzly day he didn’t hear me. I entered. He was on the couch, in leather sandals with socks and a sky-blue sweater, watching CNN.
He shook my hand with a strong grip and heated a cup of tea in an old microwave then served it to me with the last two of a package of biscuits. He handed me a pair of ivory binoculars wider than they were long and suggested I view the Hudson Straight, which he had a clear shot of. When he was 19, the Germans invaded Belgium. Father Dion was in the seminary and went to war. When it ended he was given the choice of working in a hospital in his home country or being sent as a missionary to the Congo. He chose Congo, a dreadful two years. “It was hot,” he said. “A lot of animal, a lot of sickness.” Afterward, he requested to be sent to the Arctic, where Belgium had some missionaries stationed. He arrived in Nunavik in 1964, and spent his first nine years in a community of 300 called Quaqtaq. He survived a famine and a fall through the ice on a snow mobile. “I have a very strong esteem for these people and how they survived in such harsh conditions,” he said. “I appreciate them very, very much.”
Father Dion addressed some misconceptions. The dogs were shot because they were starving and had been eating Inuit babies. The schooling the government imposed on the Inuit helped create a generation of bright leaders. A change he wasn’t fond of concerned the church. Newer community members were now following the Pentecostal church, whose loud hectic services made some think the group was a revival of shamanism. Inuit once depended on shamans to bring good results in a hunt or lift them out of famine, but shamans could also bring death. “It was a kind of liberation when they disappeared,” said Father Dion. Shamans were replaced by the Catholic Church.
I asked Father Dion if the Inuit would be better off as Nunavik modernized. He chewed his cheek and looked out the window at the gray town. The tide was going out, leaving black pools of water between the rocks. A septic truck passed. “When I arrived, this land was empty,” he said. “Nothing. No houses, nothing. People were living in tents in the summer and igloos in the winter. Now, they have enough to eat, warm houses, transportation, communication. They don’t fight for survival.”
Just before I left, Tiivi began a job managing the new elder home. I stopped in to stay goodbye. A hefty woman in a pink nightgown was working on a puzzle of a snowy European forest. The place smelled of new furniture and cleaning agents. Tiivi led me into his office. The walls were bare and he had taped a black trash bag over the window to keep the sun out. On his desk was a flat-screen computer; the screensaver was a shot of his son taken during the bowhead whale hunt. “So,” said Tiivi, indicating his office items. “I have a good job.”
Summer ended and I returned to Kuujjuaq days before the first blizzard hit. In mid-September, I flew to Montreal and boarded a Greyhound bound for the border. My bus crossed into the U.S. at midnight and by dawn I was in New York City. The day was warm and breezy, the city still smelled of summer. I began an internship at Audubon magazine but without enough money to get an apartment I moved back in with my parents, in the suburbs. Unable to sleep in my teenage room, still lined with posters of conspiracy and aliens, I set up the tent in a wooded spot near where my childhood dog was buried.
I imagine that in a far-off land, harbored by the heartwood of a massive forest, there are a people that still remember how to do the things their ancestors did and there are still shamans and nobody has ever heard of God. I don’t know how long that place will last or even if it deserves to, but surely it will soon enough be gone.
The leaves turned crisp yellows and oranges and fell to make large colored mats on the forest floor. Holes formed in the tent and spiders moved in. It got cold and I moved out. I had saved enough money from the internship for a cheap spot in Brooklyn. • 8 January 2010
Justin Nobel is a writer living in New York
Photographs by Justin Nobel.