Approaching Kuujjuaq. Photos by Conor Goddard.
The Inuit Sled Dog is one of the most rugged dogs ever. In the 4000-odd years the breed has been around, it crossed the Bering Strait as it helped the Thule civilization (ancestors of the Inuit) migrate from Mongolia to the Eastern Arctic via Alaska in less than three years. These dogs have protected people from polar bears, transported and helped guide countless European and North American explorers and prospectors, and are so badass they served in World War II when sled dogs were airdropped from planes to run rescue missions (sometimes without parachutes), and are credited with saving over 150 lives.
Insanely cool plane-jumping missions aside; the Inuit sled dog has also obviously had an inseparable attachment with the Inuit people themselves. Up until 50 or 60 years ago, the entire existence of the Inuit’s nomadic culture, and their basic survival as a people in the Eastern Arctic, depended on the indivisible relationship they shared with their dogs.
When it came to hunting seals or whales, the dogs were essential. They knew the time and the place. And in whiteout conditions, when it’s impossible to see anything through the snow, hear anything over the 100 km/h arctic winds, or see the sky from the land, they literally acted as the eyes and ears of their masters, bringing them toward settlements or hunting grounds that have been established over centuries.
So it goes without saying, if you remove the dog from these people you remove their way of life. Between the 1950s and 70s this is essentially what happened, and the Inuit Dog of the Eastern Arctic was nearly wiped out.
There were a number of contributing factors leading to the decimation of their population that include mixed breeding with the introduction of other dogs, a few serious cases of canine diseases, the introduction of the snowmobile, and the forced transition of the Inuit to a static lifestyle. But the most troublingly brutal aspect of the dog’s decline came at the hand of the Canadian government.
It’s no secret that our governments—federal and provincial—wanted to see First Nations and Inuit cultures assimilated or isolated. So with the nomadic, Inuit hunting culture, how would the government be able to keep them on stationary settlements? By removing their transportation.
In a time frame of 20 years, the RCMP and the Quebec Provincial Police killed thousands of Inuit Sled dogs under a ruse of public safety and a loophole in a law designed for agriculture.
The stories are vast and severe. In testimony given to the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, affected hunters emotionally described how law enforcement dealt with their dogs in ways that had nothing to do with health and safety; or the endangerment of crops.
According to testimony, dogs were shot while they were harnessed and ready for a hunt; pregnant dogs—who were the last of their pack—were killed, shot by laughing policemen in front of their owners. The RCMP had children help them in the killings. Dozens of dogs were allegedly burned and piled into pyramids in front of communities to whom they once belonged.
Of course, these claims have been challenged and refuted by the government. And although it has been acknowledged in many ways, it has never been legally proven that there was a government and/or police policy to kill dogs, in an attempt to oust the Inuit from their traditional lands or way of life.
After being required to investigate these claims by Inuit elders in 2005, the RCMP conducted an internal report that apparently examined their actions in the north. The Mounties couldn’t find any evidence of a government or police designed policy that prompted the systemic slaughtering of dogs—their own report absolved themselves from any wrongdoing. Shocker, right?
In this 775-page report, which didn’t collect any testimony from the affected hunters, the RCMP seemed to use the same logic as the government does, when, say, they withhold crucial documents pertaining to the alleged torture at St. Anne’s Residential School.It’s been 50 years, how can the hunters’ stories hold up if there isn’t any documentation of their allegations?
In response to the RCMP’s internal investigation, the Makivik Corporation, whose mandate is promoting and preserving Inuit culture in northern communities, lobbied the government of Quebec to conduct its own inquiry.
Retired Judge Jean-Jacques Croteau was commissioned to submit his own report, and his findings pointed to a much more complex and shady set of circumstances that allowed for the dog slaughter to take place. He points particularly to the absurdity of using an agricultural law—that was designed for the south to keep stray dogs from somehow ruining crops—as being used as a veil of protection to recklessly kill dogs in the arctic.
“I do not see how a stray sled dog in the Arctic territory of northern Quebec (now Nunavik) could be injurious to agriculture,” he wrote. “The evidence indicates that northern Quebec Inuit were never consulted regarding the application of the Agricultural Abuses Act, a law totally inappropriate for them and in no manner supporting the exercise of their aboriginal rights.”
Croteau also describes how the dog slaughter irreparably damaged many individuals and that ultimately the federal and provincial government are responsible.
“Several dog owners and their families were left without means of sustenance… They gave up and started to drink, as reported by several children of these owners… I have no other choice than to declare that there was a breach on the part of Canada and Quebec of their fiduciary obligations towards the Inuit. On numerous occasions I asked the owners and their children if the federal or provincial authorities had offer some help following the slaughtering of their dogs. Each time they gave a negative answer.”
In 2011 the government of Quebec acknowledged that the dog slaughter had in fact happened, and offered $3 million dollars in compensation. In his statement, then Premier Jean Charest stated, “The Quebec government recognizes that Inuit society has been affected by the sled dog slaughter.” There has still been no acknowledgement by the federal government that the slaughter really took place.
Flash forward to 2013 and Conor Goddard (who provided the photos for this article) has moved to one of the settlements where the slaughter of dogs was widely known to have taken place: Kuujjuaq. He works there as a guide—spending his time kayaking, dog sledding, and working with the sled dogs—after first falling in love with Baffin Island and the Eastern Arctic.
Conor has learned more, from friends and family members, about the impact of the sled dog slaughter. "It would be a like a government power coming in and taking your vehicle and being like, ‘We're brining this to the dump and you can't have it anymore. All of your vehicles, all gone.’’ Many hunters had their dogs killed and were therefore stuck in the Kuujjuaq. His own father-in-law’s dogs were killed on a visit to Kuujjuaq, and another friend’s father’s dogs were killed while they were tied up outside the Hudson’s Bay Company, when he was inside trading, and was left with no means to get himself home.
The horrors of the sled dog slaughter clearly are still resonating in Canada, but it seems there has been some healing. The reintegration of the sled dog is progressing, and Conor is doing his part to maintain the sled dogs’ way of life. However the refusal by the federal government to acknowledge the systemic massacre of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent sled dogs by law enforcement in the northern territories makes the Inuit’s road to recovery difficult. "The feeling is definitely that it happened, it was real. You can't tell us otherwise because everyone has a story in their family of that happening and it's so widespread. Where I've traveled in the arctic and where I have friends, all over the Eastern Arctic I hear stories like this from everybody."
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