By Lloyd Dolha
They are one of the few original Canadian breeds of dogs. The Inuit of Artic Canada called them “Qimmiq.” They were an integral part of Inuit society and culture for the last 11 centuries; some say the dogs date back 2000 years or more.
Today the Canadian Eskimo dog is all but a vanishing species. The Canadian Kennel Club says the world-wide population of these registered dogs is only 279 as compared to more than 20,000 in 1950.
What happened to these dutiful dogs who stood at both poles, serving nearly all of the famous names in Artic and Antartic exploration? This powerfully built breed that was capable of pulling between 45-50 kilograms (per dog), over distances up to 70 miles per day; they served as hunting dogs as well, able to locate seal breathing holes, hold polar bears at bay and muskox for Innu hunters.
The Canadian government had them slaughtered.
Beginning in the 1950s, up until the 1960s, government authorities undertook the wholesale extermination of Canadian Eskimo dogs – or Inuit huskies as they are better known. What is shocking is that the arbitrary and often dangerous way that the killings were carried out was largely unknown among the general public until the late 1990s.
At that time, Makivik Corporation began holding a series of 200 community meetings to learn about Nunavik community members’ concerns. As the recollections emerged one by one from the disparate communities, a pattern became apparent that was hitherto unnoticed. Until that time, many of the Inuit thought that the killings were isolated instances among the far-flung isolated communities.
Makivik Corp. and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association sent several official complaints to the governments of Canada and Quebec.
Makivik’s collection of interviews with Inuit elders suggested that the police conducted the purposeful slaughter with the stated objective of controlling rabies and ridding the communities of Baffin and the northern region of Quebec of loose sled dogs.
Feds deny killings
But the federal government still refused to acknowledge, let alone admit what had happened. The Canadian Solicitor General’s Office had said that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police records of the era had been destroyed, so there could be no determination of exactly who was responsible.
Nevertheless, from the hundreds of interviews of witnesses, Makivik Corp. officials were led to the conclusion that the RCMP did most of the killings, aided by the Quebec Regional police and Hudson’s Bay trappers. They concluded what many of the elders already suspected: the real goal of the slaughter was to force the Inuit to give up their nomadic way of life and assimilate them, beginning with the establishment of permanent settlements.
Late in 2002, forty residents from the communities of Inukjuak and Puvirnituq, signed a petition asking the federal government to recognize the “significant social, economic and cultural repercussions” the dog slaughter had on Nunavik’s Inuit.
Guy St-Julien, the Liberal member of parliament for northern Quebec (Abitibi-Baie James Nunavik), presented that petition to the house of Commons on October 1, 2002.
Pita Aatami, president of Makivik Corp., said he was pleased St-Julien was supporting the work Makivik had begun nearly four years earlier.
Film convinces government
“Up until now, we haven’t been able to convince the government to do a public inquiry into the RCMP and Suréte de Quebec’s slaughter of the sled dogs,” said Aatami.
But the push for a public inquiry reached its climax on January 19, 2005, at the premier of the film Echo of the Last Howl, at Kuujjuaq, Nunavuk. The film featured documentary footage and re-enactments of the slaughter and was attended by 800 community members and visiting politicians that included Quebec Opposition leader Gilles Duceppe.
The film depicted some of the most heartbreaking instances of the slaughter of the sled dogs and what the loss of the sled dogs meant to the Inuit of Nunavik.
Elders interviewed for the making of the film took to the stage following the film recalling their experiences of watching their beloved sled dogs cut down before their very eyes.
In one instance, the entire community of Kangirsujuaq was ordered to lead all its dogs down to the sea ice to be killed. Even the children were told to bring their puppies down.
The dogs were all shot, their bodies piled up and incinerated.
“The dogs went willingly,” recalled one grieving elder.
Duceppe promised he’d push for a public inquiry by showing the film to other members of parliament.
Early in March 2005, representatives of the Makivik Corporation and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, appeared before the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs. They spoke of how the slaughter of the sled dogs negatively impacted their livelihood, culture and society.
QIA president Tomussie Aliqqatuqtuq wondered why it took so long for this issue to be acknowledged by the federal government.
“Why is it that since the 1950s those dogs were killed and [we were] never told why? Perhaps it was too painful back then and those RCMP who shot those dogs [understood they] did wrong. Those who should have been there to help, hurt Inuit instead. Now [the Inuit] have a place to turn where they will be believed. Now they can speak. This is open now,” said Aliqqatuqtuq.
Nunavik liberal MP Nancy Karetak Lindell, chair of the standing committee said the testimony was important.
“It’s very moving to hear first hand what people have gone through, different incidents in our history of course we’re not proud of,” said Karetak-Lindell.
The Inuit are seeking an apology and compensation for the slaughter of the sled dogs who were such a critical part of their lives for so long.
Terry Aula, executive director of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, said the standing committee has recommended to parliament to appoint a superior court judge to look into a public inquiry over the dog slaughter and report on the matter to the House of Commons in three months from April 15, 2005.
“It’s more to bring about answers to why there was a slaughter,” said Aula. “From the outset, we realized that it was happening in all 22 communities at the same time. That tells us it was systematic.”