Sled dog slaughter: Nunavik Inuit demand inquiry

 Published by Indian Country Today in 2005. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Hunters recount losing dogs to a Canadian-government extermination program.

Kuujjuaq, Nunavik — “I have nothing, I have nothing,” Johnny Munick cried out, remembering the day in 1960 when his team of sled dogs, in their harnesses and ready for a hunting trip, was shot by Canadian government authorities. The incident was part of an Arctic-wide extermination of Inuit huskies -- and the abrupt end of their owners’ ability to provide for their families -- that took place from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s.

            Arms flung wide, an anguished figure in a heavy black parka, the elderly Inuk stood on an auditorium stage following the January 12, 2005, Nunavik premiere of “Echo of the Last Howl,” a film that includes both documentary material and reenactments of the slaughter. One by one, he and other older men, shown above, walked to the microphone to recount the cataclysm to an audience of about 800 community members and visiting politicians, including Canadian opposition leader Gilles Duceppe.

            The men described hugging their animals in an attempt to shield them. Some dogs survived a bullet to run away in agony, and one man recalled a pregnant female giving birth as she lay dying. 

Pita Aatamie (left) and Giles Duceppe
            So far, neither the national nor the provincial government has acknowledged the killings. Duceppe promised that he will push the issue, including by showing the film to members of parliament and, in a move that appears calculated to embarrass the current administration, to a contingent of foreign ambassadors. 

            “It’s very important that Canada acknowledge that a wrong was done to the Inuit,” said Pita Aatamie, president of Makivik Corporation, a nonprofit formed to administer a 1975 land-claims agreement. Aatami added that the Inuit are seeking an apology and reparations. He noted that Canada dealt similarly with Japanese-Canadians interned during World War II.

            Today, 9,000 Inuit live in Nunavik, the northernmost portion of Quebec. An area about the size of France, it is bounded by Hudson Bay on the west and Ungava Bay on the east. During the mid-20th century, the population was about 2,500, generally living in such tiny, far-flung, mobile camps that stories of the slaughter were not universally known until the late 1990s.

            At that time, Makivik Corporation began holding community meetings to learn about residents’ concerns. One by one, recollections emerged, said Johnny Adams, chairman of Kativik Regional Government, which administers the area. Until then, many Inuit had thought that they -- or a few people they knew -- were the only ones who had lost their dogs.

            In Kangirsujuaq, the entire community was ordered to lead all its dogs down to the sea ice to be killed; even children had to bring their puppies, according to people interviewed for the film. The animals were shot, piled up and incinerated. “The dogs went willingly,” recounted one grieving resident. Elders recalled going to a trading post for supplies, only to have someone walk out and shoot their teams, leaving them with no way to return home across many miles of snow. 

Johnny and Harriet Munick
            The men’s autonomy, mobility, and identity as providers ended when they lost their teams. “The thought-consuming part of our lives was over,” said one. Economic and social devastation ensued.

            Two days after the film showing, with his wife Harriet weeping by his side, Johnny Munick talked about the consequences of the slaughter: “The day my team was shot, we had two small children -- a one-year-old and a baby who had just learned to sit up. Life became a struggle to keep the children warm and fed.” 

            During the Fifties and Sixties, a changing assortment of reasons was offered for the dog-slaughter program. Loose animals were dangerous, they might be rabid, they ate a lot of food and competed for resources with their owners, and what many Inuit today suspect was the clincher: The federal government wanted the Inuit culturally assimilated and living in permanent settlements. The sled-dog exterminations coincided with the shipping of Native children to residential schools, since closed.

            The extermination methods were as varied as the rationales. The Canadian solicitor general’s office has said that Royal Canadian Mounted Police records from the era were destroyed, so it can’t determine precisely who did what. After interviewing hundreds of witnesses, Makivik Corporation officials believe that the RCMP did most of the killing; however, Hudson Bay Company traders and the Quebec Regional Police were also involved. It seems that any white person available could also deputized to destroy dogs, mostly by shooting them, but also with poison.

            Few of the nomadic, non-English-speaking Inuit were aware of the policy or its associated regulations until they ran afoul of them. “No one had warned me of anything,” recalled Munick.

            Those who did hear of a new prohibition against loose dogs found it incomprehensible. An immobilized animal will freeze to death in the Arctic winter; further, a powerful husky can only be reliably secured with heavy chains, which were unavailable in the area at the time. To comply, some improvised sealskin ropes, only to find that they were up all night capturing animals that broke loose; others shared dog-watching duties in an effort to keep track of their teams. And rabies? Aatami noted that animals were not examined for disease before being killed.

Charlie Watt Jr. hitches up a sled dog.
            In a let-’em-eat-cake gesture, the government advised the subsistence hunters, who traded furs for the few consumer goods they used, to buy snowmobiles, which had price tags of around $10,000. 

            Most, like Sandy Suppa’s family, couldn’t even consider such an expenditure. Suppa, now a wildlife technician at Nunavik Research Institute, was 12 when the police shot his father’s dogs in 1963. He described walking long distances for firewood and hunting on foot -- an exhausting and dangerous proposition in the North, where people relied on dogs to travel quickly over long distances in order to find game or wood, haul large loads, and find their way home when caught in a blizzard. To this day, snowmobiles, which break down frequently in the frigid climate, are regarded as a menace; stories are told of hunters freezing to death when their machines fail.

            Munick, now a carpenter by trade, explained how valuable and highly trained a sled dog is. After being socialized as a puppy -- often by the owner’s children -- a young dog underwent a two-to-three-year program of increasingly demanding physical training. At first, it was allowed to run unburdened alongside its mother while she worked as part of a team. Eventually, it learned to pull a sled and respond to voice commands. 

            In addition to pulling sleds, dogs warned of danger, such as polar bears, and found game. “They could smell caribou from miles away,” Munick said. “Dogs equalled life.”

Charlie Watt Jr.’s team is off and running
            Young Inuit are bringing back the dog teams. Charlie Watt Jr. demonstrated the skills of his modern contingent, which has won Nunavik’s Ivakkuk race, run annually since 2001. As soon as Watt slipped his lead dog into the traces, the others yipped and danced, begging to be hitched up. After all were in place, Watt stepped aboard the sled, and they sped across a frozen lakebed.

            When Munick was asked to compare today’s teams with those of his youth, both he and his wife laughed. “The satellite phones, he responded. When I was out on the land, my family never knew when I’d be back. I was completely out of touch. But then, when I returned -- ahh, the smell of home. Thinking about it, I feel as though I’m back there now.”

            “After decades of holding in the despair, seeing the film and talking about what happened has been a healing experience for the men and their families,” said Ida Saunders, director general of Kativik Regional Government. “The whole community has to heal.”

Text and photographs c. Stephanie Woodard.

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