Ahiarmiut hope to close third and final chapter of their story
But no word on whether Ottawa intends to honour group’s claim
For the Inuit who once called Ennadai Lake home, and for their descendants, the time for reconciliation and healing is ripe.
Through the late 1940s and 1950s, the federal government relocated Ahiarmiut from their traditional campsite at Ennadai Lake to other lakes hundreds of kilometres away, where the group’s main source of food — caribou — were scarce.
Before the group was eventually moved to their permanent home of Arviat, many starved to death, but all endured hardship adjusting to their new life.
Elisapee Karetak was the youngest of them, and her story is one of the best-known.
She was only an infant carried on the back of her mother, Kikkik, who during the winter of 1958 killed her husband’s murderer, and was then forced to abandon two of her children as she trekked across the Barrens to seek help at Padlei for her starving family.
Karetak, along with filmmaker Ole Gjerstad captured that story in their 2001 film Kikkik. A second film, E1-472, delved into the relocation story further, including interviews with Karetak’s surviving siblings, David Karlak and Annacatha Aulatjut.
Now, Karetak has embarked on a third and final film about the relocations, in an effort to help the surviving Ahiarmiut close a painful chapter of their lives.
“This story will be tied into the reconciliation for the Ahiarmiut,” she said. “It will focus more on how we deal with the past and how we choose to turn it around and forgive, so we’re not bombarded with hatred and resentment.”
In 2013, the Ahiarmiut group filed a special claim against the federal government, seeking an official apology and other compensation for their relocation, including a memorial at Ennadai Lake.
Work is also under way to clean up the infrastructure for a signal and weather station that has sat on the shores of Ennadai Lake for more than 60 years.
With the help of Gjerstad and members of the Arviat Film Society, Karetak plans to document those events, through visits to the site and interviews with surviving relocates and their family members.
But, she adds, the film is not meant to highlight the pain Ahiarmiut have lived with for many years.
“I choose for my story to be a time to celebrate a great people, how strong we are and how forgiving,” she said.
“[The federal government] thought the Ahiarmiut were just portable people — they thought they could turn us into fisher people, but we were caribou people,” Karetak said. “But even though we were subject to those things, I chose to forgive. We have a much happier life because we don’t let it fester in our hearts.”
Karetak hopes to use the film to show how the Ahiarmiut succeeded in their adopted homes, communities such as Arviat, Whale Cove and Rankin Inlet.
“Most of us have permanent jobs and our children are graduates — they’re nurses and teachers,” she said. “We want to celebrate that success.”
But Ahiarmiut still don’t know whether the federal government will honour their special claim or how long it will take Ottawa to decide.
In an email to Nunatsiaq News, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said the federal government “takes the matter seriously” and will conduct a thorough review of the claim.
“This internal review must be completed before next steps can be determined,” read the email. “The goal is to move forward in as timely a manner as possible.”
There are fewer than 20 surviving members of the Ahiarmiut group, and only one remaining elder in Arviat, Mary Anowtalik, who actually remembers being relocated.
“The federal government knows that it’s urgent,” Karetak said.
Karetak’s third film is also timely given the recent death of Farley Mowat, the famed Canadian author who wrote about the trials of the Ahiarmiut in his books, The People of the Deer and The Desperate People.
Although there has been debate among Northerners about the factual accuracy of some of Mowat’s writing, Karetak said he played a vital role in publicizing her family’s story. Karetak met and interviewed Mowat in her first film, Kikkik.
“Farley, as far as I’m concerned, told the truth,” Karetak said. “It’s because of what he wrote that the federal government took action.”
Karetak’s film will also mark the first time a film or documentary will be almost entirely produced in Arviat, by local Inuit.
Karetak and members of the Arviat Film Society will produce five to ten short episodes, said Gjerstad, who is acting as a consultant on the project.
“There’s a good group of people [in Arviat] equipped to help Elisapee produce this,” Gjerstad said. “I think it’s important that Inuit are able to tell their own stories.”