Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut compiled and edited by John Bennett and Susan Rowley
McGill-Queen’s UP (2004), 473 pp.
“Inuit Quajimajatuqangit” is a form of knowledge passed down from generation to generation—how to build an igloo, how to navigate across the ice in the dead of winter, how to make a parka out of caribou hide, how to thwart evil spirits. In a way, it is the thread that holds together Inuit culture and history. The result of five years of intensive research, combing through archives and interviewing elders, Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut is not the history of a territory so much as a portrait of a way of life that has largely ceased to exist, told from the point of view of the people who lived it. It is Inuit Quajimajatuqangit.
Uqalurait is divided into two parts, “Inuit Identity” and “Regional Identity,” with individual chapters consisting of quotes on subjects such as naming, hunting, shamanism, and architecture. “An Inuk believes that when you name your child after the dead one, then the dead one lives again in the name, and the spirit of the dead one has a body again,” Armand Tagoona said in 1975. “I was held up solely by names,” a certain Maniilaq told Knud Rasmussen in 1931. “Through all these names I have grown old. I have withstood the attacks of shamans and all the dangers that would otherwise have uprooted me from the dwelling places of men.” But most of Uqalurait is more pragmatic than this—how to properly stab a polar bear (reach around and stab it from behind so the bear turns away from you) or what kind of snow is best for an igloo (snow from a single storm, since blocks made from layered snow tend to fracture).
Uqalurait: An Oral History of Inuit is above all a project that recuperates and preserves the dwindling knowledge of how the Inuit lived prior to moving into permanent settlements. The purpose of the project, according to the editors, is to offer part of “the answer to the question, so crucial to young Inuit today, of what it means to be Inuit.” The project aims also to provide Southerners with an inside perspective on the history and culture of Nunavut. Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is in the cumulative force of its voices, which are by turns profound and remarkably humorous.
Arctic Hell-ship: The Voyage of the hms Enterprise 1850–1855 by William Barr
University of Alberta Press (2007), 318 pp.
Three parts northern exploration and one part The Shining, William Barr’s Arctic Hell-ship tells the astonishing story of the hms Enterprise, half of a search team dispatched by the British Royal Navy in 1850 to find the missing Franklin Expedition. Northern exploration because Captain Richard Collinson did manage, despite his stubbornness and naïveté, to survey a small portion of uncharted land; The Shining because the other element here is the depths of paranoid delusion into which an isolated mind can descend while trapped on board an icebound ship for three consecutive Arctic winters.
Barr’s compelling account shows a captain who was an oblivious explorer, a lucky navigator, and an unbalanced man. He came within fifty kilometres of skeletal remnants of the Franklin Expedition, yet ignored obvious clues that should have sent him in that direction. While his safe passage through the Dease Strait would later earn him high praise from Roald Amundsen, Collinson failed to deduce that he was largely combing territory that had already been explored. Perhaps most bizarrely, he systematically turned on his crew, making unfounded allegations with alarming frequency. By the time the Enterprise emerged from the Bering Strait in August 1854, Collinson had placed every executive officer on the ship under arrest, leaving only the surgeon and assistant surgeon free.
The real strengths of Arctic Hell-ship are the depth and meticulousness of Barr’s research. His judicious inclusion of primary source material, most of it previously unpublished, gives the narrative additional colour and urgency. On the voyage home, a crewman notes that Inuit now demand liquor whenever they trade, and if they can’t get it, gunpowder will do: “I was forced to give them a 2lb. Cannister of fine powder [for a caribou leg] but before they would have been content with a few trinkets of little or no value.” By bringing such telling details to light, Barr puts his Hell-ship where it belongs: in the dark waters of history as the winds began to change.
Measuring Mother Earth: How Joe the Kid Became Tyrrell of the North by Heather Robertson
McClelland & Stewart (2007), 334 pp.
Halfway between history and hero worship, Heather Robertson’s biography of Toronto-born explorer and geologist Joseph Burr Tyrrell brings to life both the romance and the hardships of northern exploration at the turn of the twentieth century. Tyrrell’s first job was with the Geological Survey of Canada, and the country’s hunger for mineral wealth and consternation over Arctic sovereignty soon sent him west and north “to run his eyes and hands over Earth’s skin and bones.” In 1893, Tyrrell embarked on an eightman expedition by canoe to chart the Barren Lands of what is now the eastern Northwest Territories and southcentral Nunavut. His team spent three gruelling if often enchanted months north of 60—we watch through Tyrrell’s eyes as a shoreline apparently covered in waving grasses resolves into “a restless, milling mass of caribou, their antlers seeming to float above them like a forest of bleached branches”—culminating in a hungry race down a solidifying Hudson Bay.
Tyrrell went on to an almost comically unlucky career in minerals. He visited Dawson City at the height of the gold rush and abandoned his young family to pursue the first of several failed mining schemes. After frustrating years alone in Ottawa, Tyrrell’s wife issued an ultimatum, and he headed back east. Casting around in Edwardian Ontario’s burgeoning mineral belt, the ever-arrogant Tyrrell finally struck it rich with a gold mine in Kirkland Lake, which bought him the status he’d felt was his due since his early voyages into the interior.
Robertson’s narrative meanders into biographical sketches of peripherally related scientists and adventurers, sometimes at tiresome length. The atheistic Tyrrell was a minor player in post-Darwinian geological politics; though his discovery of early “Dinosaurian bones” offers a momentary thrill, his scholarly work doesn’t leap off the page. But despite these asides, Robertson communicates the era’s mystique. Outbound on a field mission as a young man, Tyrrell rides the rails to “the end of steel.” Through his wonder, we glimpse a vanished world.
Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company by James Raffan
HarperCollins (2007), 473 pp.
Peter C. Newman once labelled George Simpson “a bastard by birth and by persuasion.” Fair to say Sir George did well by both. Driven to overcome the low status conferred by his out-of-wedlock birth in the tiny town of Dingwall, Scotland, Simpson became a key businessman and statesman in an era of Western Canadian history when company and country were one and the same. He remains an underappreciated figure, however, and a reviled one to those who believe no bastardly deed should go unpunished by history.
Onto this contentious terrain steps travel writer James Raffan. His narrative begins in earnest in 1820, when Simpson arrived in the Dominion with a mandate from the Hudson’s Bay Company to prevail in its fortyyear battle with the North West Company. After the companies merged, he was appointed governor of the northern territories, staying on through the fractious waning decades of the hbc’s monopoly on the fur trade—a time when the Columbia territory was being contested and demands for Metis selfrule were stirring.
Simpson was industrious and ruthless, much admired for being “more voyageur than viscount” thanks to feats such as record-setting canoe trips and a round-the-world odyssey. He was also as coarse as Coast Mountain granite, siring at least eleven children by at least eight women, referring to his Indian mistresses as “bits of brown,” and spurring the downfall (and, some suspect, the murder) of a cousin who might have discovered the Northwest Passage were it not for Sir George’s envious machinations.
Raffan tackles these raw details admirably, balancing his appeals to more enlightened sensibilities with respect for Simpson’s accomplishments. Emperor of the North suffers at times from scanty source material, but it succeeds as an unflinching yet sympathetic look at an important nation-builder. When Raffan reaches historical biography’s inevitable end, we are left to appreciate that Simpson was no angel, but that, lacking wings, he nonetheless travelled far.
Daniel Baird is a regular contributor to The Walrus, Canadian Art, and Border-Crossings.
Jared Bland, a former Walrus editor, is books editor of the Globe and Mail.
Jeremy Keehn is an editor at Harper’s Magazine, and a former senior editor at The Walrus.