An Arctic Man, the classic memoir by Hudson Bay Boy Ernie Lyall

This book is an actual classic, or at least the cover of the 2011 re-issue I have says it is, and that cover is right. Wanna know why?

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Lyall spells it out himself in the first pages:

A lot of people have thought that I am Eskimo or at least part Eskimo, but I’m a white man. My name is Ernest Wilson Lyall and I’m sixty-nine years old. My first job was with the Hudson’s Bay Company at a post in 1927 when I was seventeen. My grandfather, my father and three of my brothers all worked for the Bay at one time or another along the northern Labrador or in the Arctic, and I was with the Bay most of the time until 1962 when I went with the government in Spence [Spence Bay, now Taloyoak]. Now I’m a local Justice of the Peace, and coroner and game officer here, and I’ve known Eskimos all my life.

This opening chapter is called “Facts, Fairy Tales, and Baloney,” which gets straight to the heart of the project: to tell the truth about the North. Not to belabour the point, but: 

I didn’t have any fancy education in any university, and I wasn’t studying the land or the people as an outsider that’s dropped in, or was living in the north for a while, or just looking in. All my life I’ve been living on the inside of what these other people have been looking at and writing about. And to tell you the truth — which is the whole idea of this book — the outsiders, or what I call outsiders, have written so much baloney that sometimes it’s been hard to recognize in their books the land and people that I know so well.

Having established who he is (an important element in Inuit storytelling), Lyall sets straight to the task: telling his life story and correcting all the other writers who’ve recounted some of these events inaccurately or even with careless abandon. It turns out that Farley Mowat, Duncan Pryde and Kenneth Butler have all published books that stand for major correction. And just to be clear: Lyall is correcting actual events in his own life — not just things he’s heard or knows about — that all those people have written about. 

Mowat is the worst. “Baloney,” Lyall writes. Then: “More baloney.” And my personal fave: “Oh my goodness, what baloney!”

Lyall learned the Inuit language as a kid, and refined it by working at posts in Pond Inlet and elsewhere, so among other things, he worked as an interpreter when Justice Jack Sissons came to town for a murder trial that Mowat wrote about. The trial was for two men who had killed a woman who had gone “berserk” and was threatening the camp. 

It’s crossed my mind, while writing this blog, to really go to town on Mowat and sort out definitively all the things he got wrong, but the labour for that project would be intensive. In the case of this trial, according to Lyall, Mowat got the facts, names, dates and places wrong, while also misreading the entire situation. A sample:

Then he says that by the end of the trial Napacheekadluk ‘had become a shambling, incoherent travesty of a man whose mind dwelt only on the past,’ that Shooyook’s father Kadloo (Mowat called him Kadluk) ‘tried to drown himself in the swirling waters of Bellot Strait not far from the ruins of Fort Ross,’ and that Aiyout and Shooyook ‘were now themselves forever broken. Some of the people would survive in the flesh a little while longer, but the spirit within them was dead.’

Oh my goodness what baloney! Kadloo didn’t try to drown himself. Napacheekadluk is now sixty-seven years old and living in Spence. Kadloo and Shooyook both live in Arctic Bay. And Aiyout is here in Spence — he drives machinery and is a mechanic for the co-op. And I can tell you there’s a hang of a lot of ‘spirit’ left in the lot of them — and always was.

Lyall also corrects a book written by a former RCMP officer (who later became a surgeon in Ottawa), Kenneth Butler. This one is also tragic. It has to do with Lyall’s older brother, who died of exposure while following Butler back to Port Burwell during a storm. Butler, Lyall says, had insisted on trying to walk to the port instead of the nearer Inuit camp; the brother followed out of a sense of duty.  Butler writes this the other way round. 

Duncan Pryde, we learn, stole an anecdote of Lyall’s. If that seems like a small thing, remember the part up top about the importance of who is telling the tale. Lyall also corrects some stories about the RCMP Sergeant Henry Larsen published in a book called Plowing the Arctic by GJ Tranter. “Now that’s another story in a book that got things all wrong.”

John Leechman, a government archaeologist, also wrote a book, based partly on time spent with Lyall, “which actually I could say is the only true story about the north that I’ve read that happened the way he wrote it.” (The book is Eskimo Summer, Ryerson Press, 1945.)

Unlike the people who went north only to write about it, Lyall only wrote this book through the prodding of people around him who knew it would be great. Nick Newbery, a teacher, interviewed Lyall, then got everything typed up and approved by Lyall. The great Canadian story scout, Mel Hurtig, published the book in 1979. 

Lyall grew up in Port Burwell (today a part of Nunavut, now abandoned) with his Company father and two of his nineteen brothers and siblings (“I’m afraid I couldn’t even name them all”). He went to residential school in Nain, then St. John’s, and had a brief sojourn in Montreal training for the Company before heading back North. He spent time in Kimmirut and Pond Inlet before winding up at Fort Ross and later, what would become Taloyoak (he very nearly founded that community single-handedly). 

While he worked for the Bay most of that time, he also got married and had six kids, many of whom are well known throughout Nunavut today. At one point, he left the Company (“I thought I was through with the whites,” he says) and lived off the land on Somerset Island. He spoke only Inuktitut with his kids, not thinking at the time that this could be a setback when they headed off the school. He himself had the job of flying around picking up other kids to be sent off. Some of his own spent five years at a time in Aklavik without him seeing them. 

I could go on — should I mention the time he got a perfect hand in crib? Someone present even had the wherewithal to get him registered with the society that acknowledges this — because Lyall’s life is hugely interesting, especially if you’ve ever lived and worked in the Arctic and know even a few of the people and places he’s talking about, but instead, I think I’ll just highly recommend this book.

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