I had the privilege this summer of visiting Beechey Island, a desolate wind swept stretch of gravel at 74 degrees north off the south west corner of the larger Devon Island. More importantly, these days, Beechey is the site of the graves of three men from the ill-fated Franklin expedition. It has become a symbol of Franklin’s expedition, and a symbol of Canada’s recently invigorated sovereignty claims in the arctic.
The desolation and solemnity of Beechey settled deep into me as we drank a toast to Franklin’s men: Torrington, Braine, and Hartnell. As I watched the wind whip the foaming tops off a steel grey sea the horrific significance of this place was inescapable. Beechey is iconic in the founding stories of our nation.
But to stop the story with Beechey is to sell our country short.
At 79 degrees north, off the east coast of Ellesmere Island sits Skraeling Island. There, 4500 years of human history in the Canadian arctic lies at your feet. There, the bias of Beechey Island is laid bare.
At the top of a dry dirt slope about 30 meters above sea level are the remains of an ancient pre-Dorset hearth that has been carbon dated at 4500 years old. Walking down that slope one can literally walk through layers of history. Dorset tent rings date from 2500 years ago, and more recent Thule winter dwellings are 1000 years old. A carpenter’s plane, rivets and wool fabric found here are of Viking origin, though nobody knows how they got this far north. Here, one can look across to Alexandra Fiord, to the painted white and blue buildings of Canada’s northernmost RCMP post, dating from a scant 60 odd years ago.
Standing on Skraeling, I hold in my hand a boiling stone that was in use when the pyramids were built, and I am humbled by how transient and superficial the presence of my European ancestors is in the Canadian Arctic. The recent find of the second of Franklin’s ships is fascinating, but it pales in comparison to the history of the paleo-Inuit that lived in these most northerly of lands, pushing the geographic envelope of human civilization. For me, Skraeling Island, not Beechey Island, is the symbol of Canadian Arctic history.
I am fascinated by the European explorers who endured countless hardships searching for the fabled north west passage, and striving to reach the elusive north pole. Names like Franklin, Sverdrup, and Larsen ring in my head. But then, my blood runs thick with my Scottish and Norwegian ancestry.
The European explorers of the arctic suffered time and again for their failure to recognize and learn from the traditional Inuit ways of life. Indeed, the tragedy of the Franklin expedition is itself an example of the arrogance that my ancestors brought to this continent.
Today, we risk reliving the same arrogance. Melting induced by climate change, coupled with a healthy dose of nationalism, has brought renewed attention to the matter of Canadian sovereignty in the arctic. We assert our sovereignty by pointing to the recent history of European explorers. Yet, it was the pre-Dorset, Dorset and Thule that populated these northern lands and waters for generation upon generation.
A thousand years before Franklin’s fateful voyage, the Thule people, the immediate ancestors of the modern Inuit, hunted, bore children, and carved out lives throughout what we now call the Northwest Passage. The Thule were a maritime culture, a people defined by water, not land – defined in fact by these same waters that today we struggle to claim sovereignty over.
The history of First Nations is critical in building the case for Canadian sovereignty in the arctic. But much more importantly, to achieve our own moral sovereignty it is critical we learn to accept not just the story of Franklin but also the story of the Inuit hunter as the story of our nation.
Inuit oral history tells a more recent story of sovereignty. In 1969 when the US government flaunted Canadian jurisdiction by failing to request permission for the SS Manhattan to traverse the Northwest Passage, it was two Inuit hunters that stopped the super tanker by driving their dogsleds into its path. The Canadian government denies the incident took place.
Standing atop the dry gravel slope of Skraeling Island, I feel my connection to this land as keenly as I feel the wind blow across my face. Accepting the importance of the paleo-Inuit people that lived here 45 centuries ago, as well as the accomplishments of Franklin in the 1850’s, does not diminish, but enriches my connection to this place. Just as it enriches who I am as a Canadian. Truth and reconciliation demand that we rewrite the bias of the past.
The key to sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic is not to be found inside the sunken hull of the Terror. The key is to be found out on a battered ice floe, clasped firmly in the bloody and weather beaten hands of an Inuk hunter as he butchers a seal for his family. The history of the Inuit and paleo-Inuit in the arctic is the history of Canada in the arctic.
And it is a history to be proud of.
Author: Dave Weir Photo: Marilyn Scriver