Boreas: MOVE

Inuit Relocations in the Eastern Canadian Arctic and in Greenland: Evolving Perceptions and Long-term Outcomes

Funded by the Danish Research Agency
PI Professor Yvon Csonka
University of Greenland


In several countries/regions of the circumpolar North, particularly Canada, Greenland, and Russia, resettlements of indigenous people were a salient feature of twentieth century history. With the passing of time, it becomes increasingly apparent that, despite widely differing national political and ideological regimes, they were synchronous to the point of characterizing an era. Furthermore, the methods for carrying out, the consequences of, and even some of the justifications for, these relocations were strikingly similar throughout the North. Recent publications have shed light on some of the relocations (cited in Csonka 2004b, see annex 2 below), from both insiders’ and outsiders’ perspectives, but there exists as of yet no interregional nor circumpolar synthesis. These relocations and their aftermath thus beg an in-depth, comparative study.

This IP will focus on relocations of indigenous people, in two neighboring regions: the Eastern Canadian Arctic (currently Nunavik, parts of Nunavut, and the northernmost parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan; mostly Inuit, but also Dene), and Greenland. While doing so, it will also consider the migrations to and from the south of these countries, as the relocations of indigenous people were in most cases carried out under the supervision of southern immigrants. The beginning of the period of study will be set in the 1920s, when Inuit both in East Greenland and in northern Canada were induced to move to better hunting and trapping grounds.

In a first phase, the project will document resettlements from outside as well as insiders’ perspectives, as existing sources allow, and compare them across regions and across the two countries. The description will take into account relocations as widely different as those from Ammassalik to Scoresbysund, from Thule-Uummannaq to more northerly districts, from Ennadai Lake to the coast of Hudson Bay, from Inujjuaq to the High Arctic, and the Qullissat diaspora.

In a second phase, the aim will be to document and understand the consequences of resettlements over time, up to the present day. The approach will follow two axes, corresponding to the perspectives of those who encouraged the relocations (the state and its agents and associates), on the one hand, and of those who were relocated, on the other hand—plus an intervening area in which these different views interacted or collided. This IP can be conceived of as a diachronically oriented study, within which the emic perspectives of all parties involved will be expressed, not (only) as objects of analysis, but as concurrent first person voices (and in that sense depart from mainstream ethnohistory). In this phase, historical sources will complement data that will be obtained through fieldwork, in one or two case study areas each in Canada and in Greenland.

The underlying hypotheses of this second phase are that:

1) relocations are not just one-time perturbations followed by a gradual return to some new “steady state”, the intricate social processes they set in motion reverberate over generations; in fact, these twentieth century relocations changed forever some aspects of what was left of the traditional (=immediate pre-relocation) settlement patterns and lifestyles;

2) the views of stakeholders on (past) relocations and on their consequences, being elements of histories that have a “presentist mandate” (Nabokov 2002), are forever under construction. As recently redefined, historicity “describes a human situation in flow, where versions of the past and future […] assume present form in relation to events, political needs, available cultural forms and emotional dispositions” (Hirsch and Stewart 2005: 262)—this IP is as much about historicities as about history.

A third phase, concurrent with the second, will consist in running comparisons with findings from other IPs within the CRP, particularly IP 1, which looks at similar topics in Alaska and Chukotka, with a view to synthesis. State policies toward indigenous people were as different in Greenland and in Canada as they were in Alaska and in the Soviet North. Still, despite national differences, one can observe commonalities in the actions—which point to a period effect—, and in the reactions—which suggest the existence of common ways of coping with displacement and attempting to rebuild communities.

The obvious fact that it is difficult to isolate the long-term effects of relocations from other factors has already been empirically verified. As a contribution to the ongoing discussions about northern (indigenous) “senses of place”, and “social fabric of communities” (see other IPs within this CRP), however, this IP will test the hypothesis according to which it is the fact that they were initiated by outside pressure, in a paternalistic framework, that sets these twentieth century relocations apart from the ubiquitous movements of population which have characterized the North at all other times.

In this context, the perspectives of relocaters and relocatees didn’t match, and little effort was expended to include local perspectives into decision-making. Population movements, and in particular the closing and relocation of communities, will continue in the circumpolar North, as consequences of economic policies and of climate change. An interesting and important research question for this IP and CRP will be whether one can bring these two perspectives closer to one another, for the sake of making future relocations less traumatic and more easily overcome. It is our contention that fundamental humanities research can contribute to inform policy decisions just as well as, and in some cases possibly better than, applied research with limited mandates.