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 mans family." Its 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 didnt have to worry. "When I met Stéphane, I was sure we werent related. After all, hes 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.
Cloutiers fascination with the explorer began when he realized that their families were distantly related. Through his research, he discovered that his and Berniers grandfathers were brothers.
But in his efforts to find his distant Arctic cousins related through Wilfrid Caron, Berniers nephew and successor Cloutier made an unexpected discovery.
He found a picture of Palluqs great-grandmother in the explorers 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 Stéphanes mother," she says, smiling broadly.
"Of course, Stéphane and I arent related," she adds, almost as an afterthought.
While Palluq and Cloutier dont 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. "Its more than just history its 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 couldnt have any children of his own. But he is known to have adopted the daughter of his female cousin. That girls brother was Wilfrid Caron. He was raised by his mother, though Bernier treated him as a son.
Caron was a member of one of Berniers early Arctic expeditions. He remained in North Baffin, looking after Berniers trading post, and he lived as an Inuk and had an Inuk wife. Many of Berniers long-lost Inuit relatives descend directly from Caron. One of Carons grandsons, Cloutier says, was the famed Atanarjuat, whose story has brought Inuit international attention.
Three descendants of Berniers 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 Leahs son Terry.
The pair stayed with Michelles family for about a year. That summer, André was driving Leah to the familys cottage, where Leah was waiting with baby Terry. As they passed by the Bernier museum in LIslet-sur-mer, Quebec, André pointed it out and began telling the familys 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"
Leahs father, Joseph Idlout, is believed to be Berniers 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 Idlouts 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, Berniers 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 childrens 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 its 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.
"Its 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."
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 Berniers 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 explorers relatives reside in North Baffin, as that is where he spent his winters.
"Id 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, Berniers 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."