May 31, 2002

Captain Bernier lives on

Beloved Arctic explorer left his mark on Baffin Island through his descendants, and became an enduring part of Inuit history


There is a story that Jeela Palluq likes to tell that describes how the boundaries of history and of family have come to overlap in Nunavut. Last weekend, as history and family converged during a banquet in Iqaluit, she told the story once again.

"When I started dating, I would constantly have to ask my father if we were related to the man’s family." It’s a hazard of small communities, she explains, that you never know whether the mysterious stranger across the room is really a second-cousin.

But when she met Stéphane Cloutier, who at the time worked as a project coordinator for the Association Francophones du Nunavut, she was sure she didn’t have to worry. "When I met Stéphane, I was sure we weren’t related. After all, he’s a qallunaat from Quebec City."

For the past two years, Cloutier has been researching the family history of Captain Joseph Elezar Bernier, the French-Canadian explorer who was given orders in 1904 to stake claim to the Canadian Arctic.

Cloutier’s fascination with the explorer began when he realized that their families were distantly related. Through his research, he discovered that his and Bernier’s grandfathers were brothers.

But in his efforts to find his distant Arctic cousins — related through Wilfrid Caron, Bernier’s nephew and successor — Cloutier made an unexpected discovery.

He found a picture of Palluq’s great-grandmother in the explorer’s archives. The old photograph is projected on a screen behind her as Palluq finishes the story. "My great-grandmother had relations with Mr. Caron, who is related to Stéphane’s mother," she says, smiling broadly.

"Of course, Stéphane and I aren’t related," she adds, almost as an afterthought.

While Palluq and Cloutier don’t share blood, they share common ancestors — with each other and with the roomful of people gathered this night to celebrate the family ties that have brought them together.

This Bernier family reunion was organized by Cloutier, as the culmination of his years of research. "It’s more than just history — it’s family," he says.

"The short captain"

From 1904 to 1925, Bernier made 12 trips to the Arctic and spent eight winters there. While explorers before him are renowned to have used Inuit in their conquests, Bernier is widely said to have worked alongside Inuit, learning from them and living with them.

"They celebrated Christmas together, they intermarried," said Paul Landry, president of the Francophone Association. The explorer was known affectionately among the Inuit as Kapitaikallak, or "the short captain."

Legend has it that Bernier couldn’t have any children of his own. But he is known to have adopted the daughter of his female cousin. That girl’s brother was Wilfrid Caron. He was raised by his mother, though Bernier treated him as a son.

Caron was a member of one of Bernier’s early Arctic expeditions. He remained in North Baffin, looking after Bernier’s trading post, and he lived as an Inuk and had an Inuk wife. Many of Bernier’s long-lost Inuit relatives descend directly from Caron. One of Caron’s grandsons, Cloutier says, was the famed Atanarjuat, whose story has brought Inuit international attention.

Three descendants of Bernier’s daughter have flown in from Quebec City for the Iqaluit reunion. For Michelle, Suzanne and André Ouelette, all in their early 70s, it is a reunion with a woman they knew as a friend — before they realized she was a relative.

In 1967, Michelle Ouelette began opening her house to Inuit students and medical patients. One of her first Inuit charges was Leah Idlout, who was working for the government at the time, and Leah’s son Terry.

The pair stayed with Michelle’s family for about a year. That summer, André was driving Leah to the family’s cottage, where Leah was waiting with baby Terry. As they passed by the Bernier museum in L’Islet-sur-mer, Quebec, André pointed it out and began telling the family’s story. "Leah started to laugh," Michelle recounts.

"Leah said, ‘Captain Bernier is my grandfather,’" Michelle says. When they arrived at the lakeside cottage, André told his sister that the family had just grown a little larger.

"Years before, Bernier adopted my grandmother," Michelle says. "And years later, I was in charge of his grandchild."

"There was a little boat"

Leah’s father, Joseph Idlout, is believed to be Bernier’s only son. However, his connection to the Bernier family tree is not widely known.

During the family reunion, Cloutier made a point of recognizing Leah Idlout’s family connection — as a direct blood descendant of Bernier.

Though researchers for years believed that Bernier was unable to have children, that view is finally changing. "We even say in Quebec that he had a child who died at a young age," Michelle says.

While his journals, photographs and films reside in the permanent collection of the Musée maritime du Québec in the town where he was born, Bernier’s legacy still lives in the memories of Baffin Island Inuit.

"Whenever hunters would visit the ship. Bernier would set the table and play the gramophone to welcome his Inuit guests," Cloutier says. He learned much about the early expeditions from interviews with elders in Igloolik and Pond Inlet.

"The song on the gramophone was ‘Alouette.’" He begins to sing the well-known French-Canadian children’s song. "Alouette, gentille Alouette, Alouette je te plumerai." Inuit on North Baffin island still sing this song, he says.

"Inuit in North Baffin thought it was the Canadian national anthem."

The song that has come to embody the Bernier expeditions is an old French sailors’ song "Il était un petit naivre," or, "There was a little boat," and it’s Inuktitut cousin, "Ilititaa." The Inuktitut name is also the name given to the Bernier museum exhibit that is travelling through Baffin Island.

At the reunion, Rhoda Ungalaq, a grandaughter of Wilfrid Caron, sings the song in three languages, along with her husband, John Maurice, and nine of his elementary school students.

"It’s amazing," Cloutier says. As Ungalaq learned the song in Inuktitut from her mother, so Cloutier learned it in French from his mother. "It makes as much sense to me in Inuktitut as it does in French."

Bernier’s brothers

In a speech welcoming the guests from Quebec City, Peter Irniq, the commissioner of Nunavut, congratulates the group on the connections they were able to make. "It really is important that you know where your ancestors come from," he said.

"I wish someone would undertake to find out where our ancestors come from. I know where they come from on the Inuit side, but what about the whalers, the traders…?"

Indeed, for many of Captain Bernier’s descendants, the picture is still not complete. The Bernier museum exhibit, currently in Iqaluit, will make its next stop in Pond Inlet. And perhaps another family reunion will follow. The greatest concentration of the explorer’s relatives reside in North Baffin, as that is where he spent his winters.

"I’d like to celebrate Christmas in Pond Inlet," Cloutier says, "the way they did in 1910 — with a feast and music and games."

In a speech to the Empire Club of Canada in 1926, Bernier told his peers the secret to his success. "I learned by experience that if you work with nature you are bound to succeed. Otherwise, you are sure to fail."

In fact, Bernier’s success — and his survival — is the direct result of the help he received from his Inuit friends. They drew maps, traced new sea routes and were responsible for many of the discoveries the explorer made on his journeys.

A recount of the speech says: "He told how the natives were invited to the ceremony of taking possession of the islands. They were given luncheon on board the Arctic, and he told them that they had become Canadians, and were now the same as himself, and were his brothers."