Dear white people in Nunavut, the 1975 version

Earlier this year Sandra Inutiq caused a stir with a Facebook posted titled “Dear white people in Nunavut” (reprinted by CBC North here).

In kindly, measured prose, she offered 22 points for white people living in Nunavut to consider as a starting point for addressing “the level of damage having a highly transient, mostly white population does to Nunavut.”

Sandra’s list is deadly accurate. A few passages hit me (a white woman who lived in Iqaluit from 2004 to 2013) particularly hard. First, her plea for white people to stop asking other white people how long they’ve lived in the North; nobody is or becomes an expert or voice for Nunavut through proximity, no matter how long they’ve been there. Second, her request for people to stop asking colleagues to translate words or phrases from or into Inuktitut. I can’t count how many times I’ve done that. The fact that it’s me, or another white person, who needs to ask this is the problem. Third, but not last, her very good point about white people “embellishing” resumes by working in the North. Yes, I’ve benefited from this, far more than any Inuit ever benefited from my short presence.

Sandra’s list is valuable because transient workers are fundamental to Nunavut. The framers of the Nunavut Agreement knew it, hence the inclusion of Article 23, which sought to train and educate Inuit to take over the majority of public service jobs, though that objective has long been in limbo. But outside of that, the phenomenon is not often talked about as a problem. It’s a difficult subject.

So imagine my surprise and delight — if that’s the word for it —to pick up a copy of Hugh Brody’s The People’s Land from 1975 and read the subtitle: “Inuit, Whites and the Eastern Arctic.”

The book takes an anthropological approach to this distinct and troubling group, examining their way of life, their motives and their blind spots (this cute little reversal, by the way, is also the premise of a 2006 mockumentary written by satirist Zebedee Nungak). In his preface to the 1991 edition, Brody laments that his book may be better read as history, given how quickly Inuit leaders are taking control of communities, but concedes that the colonial relationship is likely to persist for some time. Right again.

Brody wrote his book after spending time in Sanikiluaq and Pond Inlet in the early 1970s — long enough to learn the language — but the situation he describes could have been written today.

The book opens by pointing out how few white people have ever gone north just to live: almost all arrive with a purpose and motive: trading, proselytizing, career-building. In spite of this, he writes: “A White may talk about why he came north, but much more often he is eager to explain why one or other of his colleagues came north.”

He then discusses the material circumstances of these whites: almost always better than that of the Inuit they lived among.

Next he addresses the romance of the North. “Most whites enjoy the idea at least of living among Inuit. Only very few are unqualifiedly idealistic or optimistic about the part they can play in the future of the North, but most feel some deep attraction to the special features of the place and its people.”

Fellow (white) northerners, deny this if you can.

“High salaries and comfortable accommodation may be the necessary conditions for going north, and equally necessary for staying north, but enthusiasm for, and an emotional involvement with, the North, its land and its people, is also important to many people and, more than any other cause, keeps them there.”

Yes! So true!

Then comes the sting:

“The complexity of this involvement includes — almost amounts to — the attraction and gratification of being important. Not only do many settlement whites live a good life materially, they also have a degree of power to which they were never likely to have had a chance to become accustomed had they remained in the South.”

This is hardly news. I heard some version of this in my first week in Nunavut in 2004, perhaps even in the airport on my way up. But seeing it, in print, from 1975, has a special power. It was true then, is true now, and will likely remain true for some time, hence the importance of Sandra’s letter. (I probably don’t need to add, but will, that Brody is white, and had a somewhat different purpose in writing his book.)

There’s much more in this book: about attitudes towards Inuit, about the way southerners tend to categorize Inuit as “real” (hunting and sewing) or somehow not real (lazing around town). The most valuable section comes at the end, when he relates the stories about qallunaat that he learns through Inuktitut conversations with Inuit. These are instructive and revealing.

Tom Berger — of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry and the 2006 Conciliator’s Final Report in the lawsuit over implementation of the Nunavut Land Claim — sums it up best on the cover of the 1991 edition: “An important, controversial, shrewd analysis of White-Inuit relations in Canada’s Eastern Arctic. It puts White culture under a microscope, and our residual colonialism stands out with embarrassing clarity. The People’s Land is still the best analysis of southern imperialism in our northern world.”

Almost 30 years later, it’s still a good read. Available at the Yellowknife Public Library or new (it’s still in print, on demand, from Douglas and McIntyre).

This review was reprinted by CBC North on April 21, 2019.