Canada’s Tibet: The Killing of the Innu 
by Colin Samson and James Wilson et al.
Survival International, 51 pp., £5, November 1999, 0 7567 0419 7
Show More
Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo 
by Kenn Harper.
Profile, 277 pp., £9.99, August 2000, 1 86197 252 0
Show More
Show More

A series of sixty-second commercials shown on Canadian television tell us that Canadians invented basketball and Superman and that Winnie the Pooh is based on the mascot of a Canadian regiment sent to fight for Britain in the First World War. One of these Heritage Minutes is about the Hunkpapa Teton Sioux leader, Sitting Bull. After the defeat of General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, he and five thousand other Sioux fled from the US Army to Canada. They were met by a few Mounties, who welcomed them and gave them sanctuary. The cosy myth of a benevolent Canada continues to shape attitudes about native people and contemporary government policy, and Survival International’s report on its treatment of the Innu – comparing it with that of China in Tibet – has met with some anger. The authors are quick to make clear that Canada has not imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of Innu over the last forty years, but they point out that the difference in strategy is not as important as we usually assume.

The Innu live in the northern and eastern regions of the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula. Distinct from the Inuit, or Eskimo, the Innu speak a variant of the Algonquian language. About twenty thousand live in the area they call Nitassinan, where for centuries they depended on hunting caribou. The Innu were relatively few in number, but because their society was organised around the movements of the migratory caribou, they traversed – and controlled – a vast inland territory. They have long traded with other indigenous people and with Europeans, and have adapted their culture to incorporate other technologies and methods. Because the land wasn’t hospitable to non-natives and because the resources it contained were more easily available elsewhere, the Innu were largely left alone by Europeans.

In the late 1920s, reductions in the caribou herds drew the Innu to coastal settlements and forced them to rely more heavily on the fur trade. The shrinking of their traditional hunting patterns also weakened their claim to the territory. When Newfoundland-Labrador gave up its colonial status and became a province of Canada in 1949, full-scale exploration, investment and industrial development came to Nitassinan. Forced settlement and low-level flying by Nato planes on training missions have made it nearly impossible for the Innu to hunt the caribou. The disruption of the hunt, like the destruction of the buffalo on the Canadian and US prairies in the 19th century, has destroyed the basis of the Innu way of life and forced them into dependence and poverty. Missionaries and educators have eroded their culture and traditions. Alcoholism, poverty, sexual abuse and violence are endemic. The infant mortality rate is three to five times higher than for the Canadian population as a whole; more Innu die before their fifth birthday than after their sixtieth. The suicide rate, 13 times higher than in the rest of Canada, is calculated by Survival International to be the highest in the world.

The response of the Canadian Government to the Survival International report was to point out that it gives millions of dollars to the Innu, and to argue that since other native groups had considerably reduced their suicide rates as a result of appropriate programmes and services, some of the blame had to rest with the Innu themselves. The response typified that of many white Canadians. The deaths, the alienation, the despair were lamentable, but were hardly deliberate policy. The plight of the Innu was the result of their inability to adapt to the new world.

How could it be otherwise? After all, the United Nations regularly rates Canada as the best country in the world in which to live. A middle power, it is big enough to count on the world stage but too small to be evil. A loyal ally to the British and American empires, other nations and blocs trust the country to act as neutral observer and peacekeeper. In particular, Canadians take satisfaction from being quietly yet significantly different from Americans. The gap between rich and poor is much smaller in Canada than the US. We have universal healthcare, a lower infant mortality rate, more accessible education, and our cities work – film crews shooting in Toronto and Vancouver have to dump stunt litter on the streets to make them resemble the US cities they are standing in for. We don’t have urban ghettoes, we don’t glorify violence outside the hockey arena and we don’t shoot each other in the streets. There is nothing like the gunfight at the OK Corral, the St Valentine’s Day Massacre or the Vietnam War in Canadian history. Social studies teachers and media pundits like to observe that while the US Constitution promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the Canadian Constitution emphasises peace, order and good government.

Nowhere is pride over the distinctions between the US and Canada more evident than in discussions of aboriginal policy. After the Civil War, the US Government turned the world’s most powerful war machine against the country’s indigenous peoples. The bullet, bayonet and sabre were used to take land and exterminate peoples in more than nine hundred military engagements between 1866 and 1895. Canada fought fewer than ten battles in the same period, most of them during the Métis and Native Rebellions of 1885.

What is usually ignored, however, is that Canada’s more moderate policy wasn’t a matter of principle. Politicians and businessmen longed to make the economy grow at the same rate as that of the US, but Canada remained the destination of second choice for successive waves of European immigration and capital. Because settlement, commercial agriculture, railways and resource extraction lagged far behind the US, Canadian industrialists and governments had less incentive to force natives off the land as quickly and violently. And they couldn’t have done even if they’d wanted to. The US annual military budget in the 1870s was about $20 million, most of it spent fighting native peoples from Oregon to Florida. The entire Canadian federal budget in that period was about $19 million a year, and it was a strain to secure $400,000 for the five hundred or so Mounties patrolling more than 750,000 square miles of territory. When Sitting Bull and his people entered Canada, they outnumbered the force by about ten to one: no wonder they were greeted in peace.

Warfare is not the only measure of violence, however. Deliberate policies of starvation and relocation can do as much damage as military operations, and there was little to distinguish Canada from the United States on that front. Hunger and disease decimated native populations and made armed resistance nearly impossible. On both sides of the border, the alternatives of forced isolation on reserves too small to sustain the traditional economy and forced assimilation had much the same result: loss of autonomy, poverty and the destruction of native culture. In recent years, armed stand-offs between natives and the military at Kanehsatake in Quebec and Gustafsen Lake in British Columbia have resembled the clashes in the US.

The crucial issue has always been control over the land. A nomadic people with an economy based on hunting and the careful consumption of resources cannot co-exist peacefully with a voracious capitalism that needs to expand, to log and to strip-mine. That was the case in 1867, when Canada was created, and it is the case today, as the Innu clash with governments and corporations that want to log the forests, dig up nickel deposits and dam rivers to produce hydro-electricity. The point is not that native people have no impact on their environment – they do – but that their use of resources has been largely sustainable and does not require constant, rapid expansion for survival. The same cannot be said of capitalism. The two modes of production demand mutually exclusive uses of the land. Native people have only ever been offered two choices: to assimilate or to be cordoned off. The solution they have sought, to maintain their way of life while adapting to – and adopting what they wanted from – the new invaders, has never been on the table. Survival International is right to describe the actions of governments and corporations in Nitassinan as ‘colonialism’.

In the early days of colonialism, as part of the self-justifying process of presenting subjugated races as inferior, eager scientists, intrepid explorers, shameless promoters and greedy businessmen – often one and the same person – found common interest in coercing or bribing ‘exotic’ natives to be put on display in travelling circuses and human zoos. In Paris, for example, the Jardin d’Acclimatation put on several such exhibitions between 1877 and 1912, which were well attended and well received.

The US, too, created human zoos, giving them a smear of respectability by labelling the inmates ‘live ethnographic specimens’. Kenn Harper has put together a detailed and readable biography of one such ‘specimen’, describing the damage done to him and his people by science in the harness of capitalism. In September 1897, six Greenland Inuit, including six-year-old Minik and his father, Qisuk, were taken by Robert Peary to New York City and put on display. Peary needed money for further expeditions to the North Pole, and the Inuit, together with an iron-rich meteorite he stole from them, would attract investment for his Arctic adventures.

The Inuit were, for a short time, a hit in New York. In the space of two days, thirty thousand people gathered at the docks to view them. Many others were disappointed when they couldn’t get a closer look. The crowds thrilled at the sight of the colourful native garb and the melodic, if incomprehensible native songs, while the New York press published several sensational and sentimental stories about the Eskimos, who were trotted out to meet scores of visitors, scientists and dignitaries.

At first, the six Inuit were delighted with the city and its people. Soon, however, Peary, who had promised them tools, goods and a return passage to Greenland, abandoned them. Handed over to the American Museum of Natural History, they were housed in its basement. The Inuit found the high temperatures in New York oppressive; even the crowds were daunting: Harper tells us that their own community consisted of about 230 people. By November, they had all contracted pneumonia. Within nine months of their arrival, four of them, including Minik’s father, were dead and one had been returned to Greenland. Only Minik remained, on display to scientists and the public.

He was adopted by William Wallace, a member of the Museum’s staff, and began to adapt to the new culture, learning English and going to school. Wallace and others hoped the boy could become a missionary, a teacher, perhaps even a doctor, who could return to the Arctic and bring the best of American civilisation to his people. In that way, fluent in both cultures, he could be a bridge between them. In reality, he was adrift in both. Wallace loved Minik and did his best for him, but he was soon fired for embezzling Museum funds and his business collapsed. Peary and the museum denied any responsibility for the boy, and the plan to educate him was abandoned.

Worse was to come. When Minik’s father died in 1898, the Museum had performed a burial service that approximated Inuit tradition, for Minik’s benefit. Nine years later, the newspapers revealed that Qisuk had not been interred. A log wrapped in cloth had been buried in his place while his flesh was stripped and bleached from his bones and his skeleton put on display in the Museum. Minik learned the grisly truth from his schoolmates. The discovery of the fraud and the treatment of his father’s body alienated him from his adoptive society. His efforts to claim his father’s remains and bury them properly were rebuffed by the Museum, and his health, never good, was weakened by another bout of pneumonia. When Minik tried to return to Greenland in 1909, Peary, breaking his earlier guarantee, refused to take him. Desperate, the boy set out for Newfoundland, hoping to find passage home from there with other explorers or traders. Travelling by foot and freight train, he got as far as Quebec City, where his food, money and health gave out. A priest took him in for a time. Eventually he was found by friends and brought back to New York.

Later that year, Minik was reunited with his people. Although Peary and others had promised to give him supplies and goods, he arrived on Greenland with little more than the clothes he was wearing, and they were grossly inadequate for the northern climate. He returned to find he had become an Inuit legend: stories of the boy who had gone with the white explorer were now part of the oral culture. The Inuit were astonished both that Minik had returned and that he could not speak a word of their language. He learned quickly, however, and soon became an expert hunter, but he remained trapped between the two cultures. In 1916, he returned to New York, hoping to parlay his earlier celebrity into a career, only to discover that there was more interest in the war in Europe than in polar exploration. He left the city, eventually finding a job as a logger and farmhand in New Hampshire, where he worked for room and board. He was respected for his ability to work, and seemed to fit better in this place somewhere between the Arctic Circle and the lights of Broadway. Then, in the autumn of 1918, Minik, who was always susceptible to respiratory disease, contracted Spanish flu and died. In a final indignity, the small tablet that marks his grave has the year of his birth wrong.

Harper is a businessman in Iqaluit, capital of the new Canadian territory of Nunavut, and has lived in the Arctic for more than thirty years. He speaks Inuktitut, and is married to an Inuit woman whose mother was named after Minik’s aunt. His book takes the matter of colonialism and exploitation to the personal level, but that’s also where he leaves it. His criticism of scientists, explorers and businessmen is tied to individuals, not a social system, and it anchors their crimes firmly in the past. Minik might have thought differently. Near death in Montreal as he tried to make his way back home, he wrote:

These are the civilised men who steal, and murder, and torture, and pray, and say ‘Science’. My poor people don’t know that the meteorite that they used till Peary took it fell off a star. But they know that the hungry must be fed, and cold men warmed, and helpless people cared for, and they do it . . . Tell them to let my people alone to live the way nature made them to live. When they are perfect themselves, then let them tell everybody else that their way is the only way.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 23 No. 7 · 5 April 2001

Mark Leier (LRB, 8 March) and ‘social studies teachers and media pundits’ should not observe that the US Constitution promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The words come from the Declaration of Independence. Alas, by the time of the Bill of Rights the politicians had come to their senses. The Fifth Amendment states that an individual is guaranteed certain rights when on trial and the right to life, liberty and property.

Richard Morris
London SW18

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences