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Euripedes of the Arctic
September 30, 2000
Saturday, The Globe and Mail

Review of Walking on the Land
By Farley Mowat
Key Porter, 208 pages

In early September, Canadian church leaders offered sorrow and the hope of reconciliation to the Innu of Newfoundland and Labrador for "500 years of assimilation." The Innu declined the apology, invoking the explicit image of a small boy being forced to take the penis of a priest in his mouth. This event was an odd mixture of blatant PR stunt, deathbed recantation and Greek tragedy, especially as behind the altar of piety and remorse, the Roman Catholic church is actively contesting Innu abuse suits and, with the federal government, denying counselling to Innu who say they have suffered abuse.

On the other side of the country, the Anglican diocese of Caribou may declare bankruptcy because of residential school lawsuits; there are almost 6,000 of these lawsuits. In the Maritimes, hung on an exquisitely Solomonic Supreme Court judgment, the native fishermen of Burnt Church throw their lobster traps into the sea, day after day, and Fisheries officials cut them down, night after night, and fires burn on the highway and grown men decline to sit down with one another. Another fragment of the ongoing tragedy.

Canadians (nice, conscientious and fair to a fault) would not recognize their mingled history with aboriginal peoples as Greek tragedy, but the hallmarks are there: the awful accumulation of seemingly unconnected events over a very long time; horrors hidden and then revealed; godlike pronouncements and policies dropped on human beings as a foot onto a fly.

So it is not unreasonable to think of Farley Mowat as the Euripides of the Arctic, telling over and over again the tragic stories of the Inuit. In Walking on the Land, Mowat returns to the late 1940s and '50s, when he spent time in the Barren Lands of the Arctic with the Ihalmiut, an inland-dwelling Inuit group, whose "unwitting genocide" was the subject of his earlier books, People of the Deer (1952) and The Desperate People (1960). This book recounts some material from the earlier books, with the addition of a catastrophe he knew about then, but had not written about. He is moved to do so now by a visit to his Cape Breton home by the daughter of one of the protagonists in the other stories. The result is profoundly moving and, as always with Mowat, no doubt provocative. And, in the light of lawsuits and the uncertain implications of treaties, causing restiveness in both aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, unexpectedly timely.

What Mowat tells and retells is the story of the white man (priest, trader and government official) and his conquest of the Arctic and its peoples. That conquest results in starvation, exile, death, abuse and forced removal to residential schools of disparate groups of Inuit. The drama plays out in a vast, harsh landscape and a scattering of tiny settlements. A laborious and often hapless journey is part of every story, resulting always in tragedy: starving men crawling over ice to emptied storehouses; children left to die by a mother too weak to pull their light bones to safety. There are in these stories always the unseen gods (church in France, government in Ottawa, Hudson's Bay Company headquarters in Winnipeg) and their agents: vain, impractical priests expecting the Inuit to feed them whenever they turned up; arrogant policemen and comfortably housed government and HBC officials, of greatly varying intelligence and compassion. There is always the great deus ex machina of the weather to contend with, the obliterating blizzards, the ice moving like ghosts, the cold that sits in the bones of people and the earth for months on end, the darkness, the winds tossing boats and planes with caprice, and, as journeys are interrupted or delayed or thrown off course, another tragedy results.

There are villains; the heroes (a judge here, a mine operator and government official there) are few. There are acts of compassion, acts of revenge and what appears to be an insidious and complicitous understanding among the white characters that the aboriginal characters are less than human. They can be used to find furs and game, like pigs are used to find truffles; they can be saved, their souls as jealously counted by rival churches as pelts are counted by traders; they can be exiled, shuttled off like cattle to distant pens. Their children can be given like kittens as playthings for priests. They can be overlooked, forgotten and left to starve, leaving behind the record of their existence in a trickle of bones and the detritus of meagre camps.

This is the substance of the tragedy. But Mowat is a storyteller. He names people and places. He recounts events precisely. He imagines the final moments of people whose story can only be known by their bones. He makes a narrative out of the scraps of history and the broken memories of survivors. His images, and the words of the Inuit who speak to him, hang like icicles in the reader's mind. They are the equivalent of the Innu leader's image of the boy with the priest's penis in his mouth. Those who would compose official apologies and Supreme Court judgments should be required to read the stories of Farley Mowat, who like Euripides, recounts the tragedy of a people subjected to the ruthless determinations of distant gods.

What Canadians -- nice, conscientious, fair to a fault -- must recognize is that the gods are us and that the tragedy is not over. The lines of memory and responsibility are not yet broken by time or reconciliation. Having made the drama one of commerce and occupation (the trade in pelts and land and souls), we (our governments, our churches, ourselves) are sorely committed to a denouement on those terms. The drama is not finished until all the players agree that it is finished, until the measure for measure, the contemporary cost of historical wrongs, has been agreed upon and retribution made in the currency of the day. The Inuit have found political and economic resolution with the creation of Nunavut. But deathbed apologies are not the coin of the realm. Supreme Court rulings are as useless as swords for those, native and non-native, who would fish the waters of Miramichi Bay.

This is why Farley Mowat tells us, again, these stories from what we prefer to think of as the closed book of history. This is why Burnt Church smoulders on.