Nov. 8: National Aboriginal Veterans Day
Remember the late Eddy Weetaltuk, Canada's first Inuk soldier
On Nov. 8, National Aboriginal Veterans Day, and on Nov. 11, Remembrance Day, there’s a veteran that many should remember: late Eddy Weetaltuk of Umiujaq, Canada’s first Inuk soldier and a Korean War veteran, who died in 2005 at the age of 73.
Weetaltuk changed his name to disguise his Inuit origins and at age 19 joined the military as Eddy Vital.
With a fake social insurance card, Weetaltuk went to Ottawa and joined the first battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
For the next 17 years, he went by the assumed name of Vital.
Weetaltuk quickly impressed his superiors in training and on the battlefield, and became known for his sharp eyesight in rough conditions.
He’d survived the 1930s, when his large Inuit family was struggling through a famine while living on islands in James Bay.
Three of his sisters died of tuberculosis, and Weetaltuk grew up learning to hide his hunger in order to ease his parents’ worries.
Despite strong attachments to family, Weetaltuk decided he wanted a better life, prompting him to join the army, notes an earlier story in Nunatsiaq News.
That decision later became the backbone of a book that Weetaltuk later wrote, which began with the following words:
“I, Eddy Weetaltuk, E9-422, I was born in the snow while my mother cut wood to keep the family warm. My parents used to go to the Strutton Islands every spring to hunt belugas. That’s when I was born…”
Weetaltuk finished editing his diary entries with the help of researcher Thibault Martin, just before he died of a heart attack in Umiujaq in March, 2005.
Weetaltuk’s book, E9-422: Un Inuit, de la toundra à la guerre de Corée, published by the French publishing house, Carnets du Nord, remains only available in French.
Thibault calls Weetaltuk’s work “unique.”
“It goes way beyond a simple autobiographical exercise and is more a work of literature, “ he wrote in Nunatsiaq News in 2009.
”It’s the story of the personal quest of a man who wants to forge his own destiny, and who, at the end of his journey, looks back on his life and the world he’s travelled. It offers an unflinching look— but never a harangue— against the western way of life.
Instead, it’s the questioning of a man who wanted to give sense to his life, to understand why he saw, the horrors of war and the joy that love can offer.”
Martin describes Weetaltuk as a man “who travelled the world to escape the shackles of colonialism and, like white people, to feel free to know other cultures.”
“To do this, Weetaluktuk had to hide his identity because when he was young, Inuit had been reduced to an Eskimo number. Their freedom of movement was also limited,” Martin said. “This ‘borrowed’ life was the price Weetaltuk paid for being free.”
Weetaltuk believed it was illegal for Inuit to join the armed forces because the government wanted them to stay in the North.
Weetaltuk was the grandson of George Weetaltuk, one of Robert Flaherty’s guides for filming the famous documentary, Nanook of the North, along Hudson Bay.
He spent time with his grandfather after the family moved by dog team from his birthplace, Strutton Island, to Cape Hope Island.
The family of 13 subsisted on hunting and trading silver fox furs for credit to buy supplies at the Hudson Bay store in the Cree village of Eastmain. While fishing at the nearby village of Old Factory, they agreed with a missionary to send Weetaltuk and a brother to residential school at Fort George.
Weetaltuk’s friends said he later recalled the Oblates with affection. He said he freely converted to Catholicism, although most Inuit were Anglican.
Weetaltuk mastered English, French and Latin, which he added to his other two languages, Cree and Inuktitut.
Weetaltuk credits one of his mentors, Brother D’Amour, for inspiring him to go south in search of work.
In his book, Weetaltuk casts both a critical and flattering light on his years in the army.
But Weetaltuk praised the army for treating him as an equal.
“He saw Canadian mainstream society had little respect for indigenous people,” said Martin. “In the army, he had the feeling that he was judged by what he did and not what he looked like.”
After the war was over, Weetaltuk trained as a parachutist in Manitoba and did tours of duty at a military base in Germany. While in Europe, Weetaltuk fell in love with a German factory worker.
Weetaltuk wrote that the relationship failed because he was scared to tell the woman about his origins as an Inuk from a poor family in Canada.
After being decommissioned, Weetaltuk moved to Kuujjuaraapik and briefly married a schoolteacher. He later moved to Umiujaq after his house burned down, destroying his army medals and uniform.
Note: Another Inuk soldier who came from Rigolet, John Shiwak, died in France during the First World War — but at that time Newfoundland-Labrador was a self-governing dominion and not part of Canada. You can read here about Shiwak’s life in a special 2006 Taissumani column by historian and regular Nunatsiaq News contributor, Kenn Harper.