Statement of Apology for the Relocation of the Ahiarmiut
On January 22, 2019, in Arviat, Nunavut, the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, apologized to the Ahiarmiut, on behalf of the Government of Canada, for past wrongs relating to the multiple relocations of the Ahiarmiut that took place between 1950 and 1960.
Speaking notes for the Honourable Carolyn Bennett
Ahiarmiut Elders, youth, and community members, I am honoured to be here with you today, on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, to deliver a formal apology to the Ahiarmiut for the multiple forced relocations of your people. Before I begin, I would like to recognize the 21 survivors of the relocations who are with us today and whose courage, determination and advocacy have brought us all here.
I would also like to acknowledge those Ahiarmiut who lost their lives as a result of the relocations and who have passed away in the years since. This apology is a tribute to their spirits and their memories. It is also an opportunity for all Canadians to learn about and reflect upon a dark chapter in our history.
I humbly and sincerely offer these words to all Ahiarmiut past and present: we are sorry. Mamiapugut.
Nearly 70 years ago, in May of 1950, the Government of Canada relocated the Ahiarmiut for the first time, moving your people from their homeland at Ennadai Lake to Nueltin Lake. This relocation was undertaken without explanation, without consultation, and without consent. The Ahiarmiut were moved in a matter of hours, but the effects of the Government of Canada's actions continue to be felt to this day. Families were directed onto an airplane and flown to an island in Nueltin Lake. They were forced to leave behind their territory, their shelters, and most of their belongings, including tools critical to survival such as axes, knives and outdoor clothing. Elders speak about having their tents destroyed in front of their eyes before getting on the airplane.
Once at Nueltin Lake, Canada did not provide the Ahiarmiut with adequate food, shelter, tools, or other supplies. They had no shelters and no caribou skins to build new ones. There was insufficient country food on the island to sustain their people. What assistance the Ahiarmiut received came not from government officials, but from Dene hunters in the area who shared some food and supplies. In the face of these harsh living conditions, a number of Ahiarmiut became ill and several passed away. In the fall of 1950, knowing that they could not survive in this environment, the Ahiarmiut undertook a three-month journey to return home to Ennadai Lake, walking more than 100 kilometres through wind, ice, and snow.
The Ahiarmiut knew that Ennadai Lake would sustain them, as it had for generations. They knew where the caribou migrated and where to find small game and fish when caribou were less plentiful. They knew the lands and the waters. However, the Government of Canada thought it knew better and, in 1957, decided to relocate the Ahiarmiut a second time.
This time, the Ahiarmiut were relocated to North Henik and Oftedal Lakes, several hundred kilometres away. Once again, this relocation was done against the wishes and without the consent of the Ahiarmiut. Prior to the move, government officials were told by the Ahiarmiut that this area was poor country for game and that their people would be hungry there. Once again, this relocation was undertaken without providing the Ahiarmiut proper supplies and support. The Ahiarmiut were flown to unfamiliar lands and left with only six dogs, basic provisions and "starvation boxes" of food meant to last just a short time. And, once again, the Ahiarmiut suffered tragic consequences as a result of the Government of Canada's actions.
As the Ahiarmiut had foreseen, the new location had insufficient caribou, small game, and fish to feed their people. In response to starvation conditions, Ahiarmiut hunters did everything they could to find food for their families. When several hunters took some supplies from a nearby prospecting cabin, they were treated as thieves. Instead of recognizing that the Ahiarmiut were merely trying to survive, government officials put these hunters in jail in Arviat, exacerbating an already desperate situation. While being held in Arviat, the hunters were compelled to do menial labour and one of them lost his eyesight.
Starving families at North Henik and Oftedal Lakes were forced to eat what little they could find: caribou hides stripped of fur, a single ptarmigan shared among ten children, one fish cut into tiny pieces to last a family several days. Malnourished mothers were unable to nurse their own infants. The ill and elderly became so weak that they had to stay in bed for days on end to conserve energy. In these horrifying conditions, a number of Ahiarmiut passed away from starvation and exposure. It was only after seven Ahiarmiut had died by February 1958, including one who was murdered and another killed in self-defence, that the government intervened and relocated surviving community members to Arviat. By that point, many Ahiarmiut had already made the three-day trek to Padlei Post on their own to seek help.
Even in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of their community members, the Ahiarmiut were poorly treated by government officials. In Arviat, they were held in police custody, where their caribou skin clothing was destroyed and they were discouraged from engaging in traditional activities, such as drum dances. One community member, Kikkik, was put on trial for killing the man who had murdered her husband. Though she was acquitted, the heartbreaking events of that time remain with the Ahiarmiut to this day.
From Arviat, the Ahiarmiut were subjected to two more relocations — first to Rankin Inlet and then to Whale Cove. These relocations further severed the Ahiarmiut's ties to their traditional lands and practices. Elders speak of being treated as outsiders, of losing their dialect and of having to adapt to new foods and cultural practices.
The relocations of the Ahiarmiut between 1950 and 1960 were misguided, mishandled, and tragic. These relocations profoundly and permanently impacted Ahiarmiut community members and the Ahiarmiut way of life. To this day, the Ahiarmiut remain far from their homeland at Ennadai Lake and have never forgotten the friends and family members lost as a result of the relocations.
The Government of Canada had multiple opportunities to learn from and acknowledge its mistakes. However, it has taken us until today to publicly admit that our actions were wrong and to apologize for these actions.
We are sorry that we moved the Ahiarmiut from Ennadai Lake. We are sorry that the Ahiarmiut suffered so immensely — experiencing indignity, starvation and death — as a result of our actions. We are sorry that you were not treated with the kindness, respect and humanity that you deserved. Finally, we are sorry that it has taken so long to settle your relocation claim and to acknowledge the wrongs of the past.
Like so many of the darkest chapters in Canada's history, the story of the Ahiarmiut relocations is not only one of tragedy, but also of resilience. In spite of unimaginable hardship, the Ahiarmiut have survived and thrived, ensuring that the past has not been forgotten and that Ahiarmiut culture remains vibrant.
I recognize that no apology can make up for the harms you suffered, the terrible memories you still endure and the loved ones you lost. While we cannot change the past, I believe that we must look back upon, and learn from, our history in order to move forward. We now understand that the Government of Canada moved the Ahiarmiut from your homeland based on a colonial mindset that ignored your deep ties to the lands and the wisdom gleaned from your ancestors.
In acknowledging the wrongs of the past, it is my hope that today's historic apology can provide a foundation for healing, serve as an enduring milestone along the continuing path toward reconciliation between the Government of Canada and the Ahiarmiut, and guide us toward a brighter future.
Thank you. Matna.