Life Among the Qallunaat, a vital memoir by Mini Aodla Freeman

Early on in Mini Aodla Freeman’s memoir, she describes an encounter with a reporter. 

She had moved from the North to Ottawa in May of 1957 to work as an interpreter for the Department of Indian Affairs. “A man came to me and said that I had to be televised,” she writes. “I was given fifteen minutes to get ready and be there by taxi. I did not know what was going to happen to me.” 

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Arriving at the CBC, the reporter shakers her hand and introduces himself, then proceeds to ask questions. “What do you miss most from home? What can you not get used to here?”

“I was amazed by him,” Aodla Freeman writes. “He was the first qallunaaq I had met who asked very human questions. How come the people I see every day do not ask me those questions? For a long time he stood out in my memory.”

As someone who worked as a reporter in the Arctic for many years, the passage is both troubling and familiar. Troubling because many people are interviewed without much understanding of why or what will happen to the information. Even today!

But familiar because: it’s true. Reporters do have a licence to communicate at a human level that’s often not possible in everyday life. People sometimes ask why anyone talks to reporters. The secret is right here. Many people are delighted to step out of an average day to reflect on what they’re doing and why. 

Aodla Freeman especially. From the very first page of her memoir, she’s bursting with observations. She writes like a talker — like someone who could find something to say to nearly anyone, and probably make them laugh. She’s unafraid of any subject, and has a detailed memory (a traditional skill, she asserts) that allows her to tell long, rich stories from her childhood and youth.

Her book is not just a delightful but an essential read. 

Aodla Freeman was born in 1936 on Cape Hope Island, an Inuit community in James Bay led by her maternal grandfather Weetaltuk. Though Life Among the Qallunaat starts out with observations of life in Ottawa (she was married to an anthropologist), the bulk of this memoir recounts her early life in the North. She spent two years at an Anglican School in Moose Factory. She also did stints in a Catholic residential school in Fort George, Que., and the infamous TB sanatorium in Hamilton. 

In every case, her brightness and intelligence was recognized by all around her. The teachers assume she needs to be trained as a teacher; the nurses that she should become a nurse. Aodla Freeman was too young and too formed by the racism around her (she’s unaware that Inuit could do these jobs because she doesn’t see any) to have much say in this. In all cases, it was assumed she should be torn from her family and thrust into western life.

Her grandmother also urges this, partly because the boy Aodla Freeman was supposed to marry has turned into a no-good layabout, and partly because the world as the grandmother knew it was changing beyond recognition.

It happened suddenly in this case, when Aodla Freeman’s grandfather Weetaltuk died in 1960. Northern administrators took the opportunity to move everyone remaining on Cape Hope Island to Kuujjuarapik. Her father, who had navigated boats, run stores, built houses and repaired watches, was made a janitor. “Every able-bodied person from James Bay was set back by this move,” Aodla Freeman writes. 

By this time, she had already made the big move to Ottawa. 

Her book, first published in 1978, has many funny moments. Unpacking her clothing in the room where she’ll be staying, Aodla Freeman’s roommate invites several girls in to watch: “I concluded that she had invited them in to see what kind of clothes I had, and that they expected to see sealskin clothing, maybe along with a folding igloo.” 

She also describes somewhat darker experiences. 

She was somehow photographed for a soda ad. “Seeing my picture on the back of Pure Spring Ginger Ale trucks made me feel funny and odd. My feelings were hurt, especially when girls I knew would come to me and say, ‘Who do you think you are? Why did they pick you? Why does it have to be an Eskimo?’”

The same man then asked her to advertise something else. She refused, and was told that “other girls were just itching to be televised, that I should be proud to be chosen. To this day, the man does not know that I had to put up with insults and dirty letters.” 

She took part in a Miss Northern Affairs contest at her office that would make a good subject for a dissertation (she regretted entering almost immediately and came second out of 36).  

She also noticed the big, really dark things going on at the time, and remember this book was first published in 1978. On the Hamilton sanatorium: “We were shipped like cargo and we were treated like cargo.” 

On residential schools: ”The most different thing about the schools in the South is that the reports are given to parents on how well their children are doing, in what way the children need help, and the parents can go and see the teachers. I have not seen this done in the North.”

On seeing the Rideau River. “I would wonder why qallunaat stressed to Inuit people that they keep their houses clean, when the water right in their backyard looked so filthy.” 

If you haven’t heard of this book, or read it, here’s why: when it was first published, the Department of Indian Affairs bought up half the print run (only about 6,000 were printed) and kept the books in a basement for eight months. Aodla Freeman believes this was deliberate, though it may have been just another boondoggle. Either way, it was enough time for the rave reviews to die down and public interest to fade in someone who may otherwise have become an important figure in Canadian literature. 

No other copies were printed until 2015, when a set of academics decided to correct the former practice of white editors running rampant through Indigenous writers’ works. The new version includes several passages that were cut by the Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig back in the 1970s. The editors worked closely with Aodla Freeman (still alive and living in Edmonton) to make sure she had a say in the final product. 

The edition is lovely: from the brilliant “Downtown Vancouver” print by Elisapee Ishulutaq on the cover, to the map and photographs reproduced inside. 

And if you want a detailed, human, funny and tragic picture of changing Inuit life in Canada in the 1950s and ‘60s, look no further.

Life Among the Qallunaat by Mini Aodla Freeman
Edited and with an afterward by Keavy Martin and Julie Rak
First Voices, First Texts, University of Manitoba Press, 2015
278 pages

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