For centuries, the Inuit and their dogs depended on each other
Teams of the legendary canines pulled hunters' sleds across the
Arctic tundra in pursuit of seal and caribou. Now, the dogs are
largely gone from the north country - the few remaining teams are
used for tourist rides.
"Our dogs were like your workhorses," says Peter Irniq, an Inuit
politician and activist, during November testimony before the
Qikiqtani Truth Commission, a body established to help tell the
Inuit side of history.
In particular, the commission is trying to shed light on what
happened to thousands of Inuit dogs. Some in the Inuit community
believe Canada's federal police killed thousands of the canines in
the 1950s and '60s in an effort to cut Inuit from the land and push
them into larger settlements.
However, the change occurred during a time when Ottawa's interest
in Arctic lands intensified and imports from "down south," including
the snowmobile and alcohol, replaced age-old Inuit practices,
including the use of dog sleds.
What's undisputed is that the dog populations almost disappeared.
For many Inuit, losing the animals symbolizes their transformation
from an independent, traditional hunting society into a marginalized
part of Canada.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) denied conducting
systematic killings of the dogs, saying only that it killed roaming
or sick animals that posed a threat to public safety, according to
the results of an internal inquiry from 2006.
That an additional review is necessary reflects ongoing mistrust
between Canada's Inuit and white communities.
Many Inuit participants in the commission process declined to
participate in the earlier RCMP investigation. "The commission is
trying to produce a more accurate history of this period," says
executive director Madeleine Redfern. "The period of transition has
been written about, but primarily not from an Inuit perspective."
The commission was established at a time when Canada is
attempting to make amends for its mistreatment of aboriginal people.
Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the
government's policy of forced "residential schools."
The sled dog controversy remains relatively obscure among the
general public, but it's hardly a hidden tale for the Inuit. Over
the past year, the commission has interviewed hundreds of Inuit
elders across Nunavut, Canada's largest and least-populated