Chesterfield Inlet, the oldest settlement in the Canadian Arctic, has a fascinating history that live on today in the memories of its treasured Elders. by David F. Pelly
She has been called “grandmother of Chesterfield Inlet.” Although her precise age is unknown, Leonie Sammurtok is either mother, grandmother, or great grandmother to more than half the people in this hamlet on the western coast of Hudson Bay. Chesterfield (Igluligaarjuk) is the oldest settlement in the Canadian Arctic, and Leonie Sammurtok has been here from the beginning.
“My parents were living at Cape Fullerton,” she says, The early post of the Royal Northwest Mounted police which was located 125 km up the coast of Hudson Bay from Chesterfield Inlet. “My father worked for the police, remember him going out on patrols with the policeman we called Keekiaksik – I don’t know his English name. I remember because I got tired of my father being gone for so long,”
In the spring of 1914, Leonie’s father, Johnny Tamanguluk, set out by dogteam to get the mail from Churchill, 700 kilometres across Hudson Bay from Fullerton. “The ice melted, so he couldn’t come back. He sent word to us, and told us to come down here from Fullerton. That was the first time I remember seeing this community. There were very few people here then. Just a few Inuit camped up on top of the hill. My father came back to Chesterfield on the Nascopie later that summer.
The only buildings Leonie remembers were the small grey mission house built by Father Turquetil, and the first Hudson’s Bay Company buildings -“small ones, with slanted roofs.” Both the Bay and the Roman Catholic .”Church had established their outposts on the west coast of Hudson Bay two years earlier.
Their representatives arrived together, on the same ship from Montreal, disembarking on September 3rd, 1912 to the sandy beach where Chesterfield Inlet stands today. Trading quickly became part of life for the Inuit of the region. Religion took a little longer, but in 1917 the first four Inuit families were baptized, Leonie’s among them.
One of the families camped at Chesterfield Inlet when Leonie’s family moved in was composed of Aguatik, his wife Nanaouk, and their adopted daughter Mary Nuvak, who was then six years old – just slightly older than Leonie. Leonie and Mary have been close friends ever since.
Aguatik worked for the first HBC trader. Solomon Ford. “We called him Isuumatatnak, the little boss. -and he could speak Inuktitut. “He was all right,” recalls Mary Nuvak.
Mary, now 84, remembers the early work of the missionaries “They would show pictures of Jesus Christ and on Sundays they would have church services That’s how they got people involved in the religion. That changed a part of our culture. There were a few who became Catholics right away, but it was a long time before they had a big parish.”
Mary speaks of those transitional day’s with a hint of lasting frustration. She is among the very few people in Chesterfield Inlet who did not join the Roman Catholic Church
“They were trying to change the Inuit. Back then we had shamans, who used to heal sick people The Church didn’t want Inuit to practise shamanism. The missionaries said we were praying to the wrong faith. But Inuit didn’t think shamanism was wrong.
“I remember when I was a child, there was a man who got sick and swollen. A shaman cured him and he lived to be an older person. Shamans were not terrible people. They did save lives But when the Church came we lost the shamans”
Both Mary and Leonie remember Father Turquetil’s efforts to teach them how to read Inuktitut syllabics “But we were so young. we didn’t understand what he was trying to teach us,” Mary says “We didn’t learn syllabics.”
For Inuit still living nearby in semi-nomadic camps, the highlight of those early years in Chesterfield Inlet was the annual arrival of HBC’s supply ship, the Nascopie. But the crew had few happy memories of the settlement
Recalled the chief engineer, J. Ledingham, “Chesterfield has absolutely no shelter, and it is exposed to all winds; bare, barren, weather beaten, rocks all-round; gales frequently.”
The Nascopie brought supplies for the whole region. In the 1920s, the Fort Chesterfield, a smaller schooner (called Umiajuatnak by the Inuit), relayed goods to more remote posts at Baker Lake, Wager Inlet and Repulse Bay, establishing the transportation and communications network that bound together the people of the Keewatin.
When the ship came in, people were happy, Leonie recalls. Not only did its arrival mean replenished shelves at the trading post; the job of unloading also gave many families the chance to earn the credit they needed to stock up on flour, tea, tobacco and bullets before heading back out on the land for the fall caribou hunt.
Unloading was a labour-intensive process. “They would tie two whaler boats together to make a barge, and pile the supplies on top,” Mary explains. “Those two boats would go back and forth between the ship and the beach. But they couldn’t unload when the tide was out. While they waited for the tide, we ended up dancing and having fun. When the tide came in, they started unloading again. They never slept. But we never seemed to get tired back then. There were lots of people here around ship time. Right after the ship was unloaded and people were paid, they would go back out on the land until Christmas.
“Then, for that week, there were lots of igloos built along the shoreline right in front of the mission, and lots of people walking around, all wearing caribou clothing. There would be times out on the sea ice and at night we would gather at the mission to play games. We played all sorts – like the finger-pull, and where two people lock wrists and try to pull each other – games of strength. Somebody would play the accordion, and everyone would dance. We were happy. That would go on all week, right up to New Years’. Then they started to go back out to their camps.”
The “somebody” playing the accordion was frequently Mary herself. According to local stories, her dexterity on the keyboard was unsurpassed. She dismisses such praise. “When people are happy, it is really easy to play.”
When Leonie and Mary were teenagers, one of the most famous expeditions in Arctic history passed through Chesterfield Inlet. Knud Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition traveled by dogsled down the coast of Hudson Bay in 1921. Both women still remember Rasmussen’s visit, but say no one in the community really understood the expedition’s purpose (In fact,.it produced a comprehensive ethnological description of the Caribou Inuit, among others.) Knud Rasmussen, a Dane, was born in Greenland, the son of an Inuit mother. Mention of his name in Inuktitut – Kuunuut – brings a smile to Mary’s serene face. “I was just about 13 at the time. Kuunuut had a son back in Greenland, and he wanted to take me back there to marry his son.” Her parents said no.
The Chesterfield Inlet Leonie and Mary knew in their childhood consisted of a few simple buildings, just enough to house the triumvirate that reigned here as it did across the North: the Bay, the Church, and the police. To each was attached a family of Inuit, who served as guides, labourers and interpreters The Inuit lived in igloos and tents alongside the Qallunaaq until a few privileged families were given small houses. The Sammurtok family’s house was provided by the RCMP.
Mary moved into her own first house after she was married and her first child was born. In those days, her husband worked for the Ministry of Transport.
Another event stands out in Mary’s memory. Shortly after her son Aupaluktuq was born, the first airplane arrived in Chesterfield. “It was yellow, and it had two sets of wings, one on top of the other. I remember it doing fly pasts, and flying under a wire that stretched from a pole down to the trader’s house, flying very close to the hill. We were really surprised. All the older ladies, including my mother, were standing outside watching, but when the plane came toward them, they ran into the tent!”
The young girls had grown up, and so had the community. Not long behind the old triumvirate came the Ministry of Transport. A doctor arrived in 1929, and the hospital was built in 1931.
Chesterfield Inlet’s first four nursing sisters, Grey Nuns of Nicolet, continue to serve in Chesterfield Inlet to this day. They arrived in August 1931, after a long and uncomfortable voyage from Montreal. The official history of Ste. Thérèse Hospital records their approach in the MS Ungava: “Now, with the naked eye, they can see the white red-roofed building of the Company, set on a rocky point jutting into the bay. Then the mission comes into view. It over looks a sandy beach, set between the sea and a freshwater lake. West of the hospital, they spy a house – the Doctor’s – and, to the left, upon a rise covered with grass, hiding the ground (frozen the year round), are the RCMP barracks where reside two constables and Sergeant Wight, whose wife and three sons are also aboard the Ungava. Sloping down to the sea, a forest of poles and cables marks the site of the radio station that broadcasts the movements of vessels and storm warnings in the Hudson Bay.”
Chesterfield Inlet became the hub of a huge region that stretch north as far as Pond Inlet, and west to Gjoa Haven, taking in the entire coast of Hudson Bay. Nearly all the missionary priests who worked in that area came first to Chesterfield Inlet, to received their introduction to the language, the culture and the people they were here to serve.
Father Roland Courtemanche remembers his arrival on August 15th, 1940, after three days in a small boat from Churchill. Life in Chesterfield Inlet, as he recalls it, was healthy and happy, but it was not without its hardships. “Mail came but twice a year, once in the ship in late summer, and once by dogteam in mid-winter. The Bay, the police and the mission took turns organizing the winter trip, by dogsled, to Churchill. The tradition was for the courier to leave on January 2nd, carrying our Christmas letters out. And he returned in early February with Christmas package from home”.
At the time, the mission was very much the centre of life in the growing community. Nearly everyone would gather every day in the basement of Ste. Thérèse Hospital, with the strict understanding that the games began at 6p.m., and not before. They played pool, ping-pong, checkers and cards, until precisely nine o’clock. “We didn’t need to tell them,” recalls Father Courtemanche. “They just watched the big clock.”
Leonie Sammurtok’s growing family came to stay at the mission while Father Courtemanche was the priest in charge. Her husband, Victor Sammurtok, had been taken to south to be treated for polio. One of Leonie’s sons, Leonard Putulik, began working around the mission. More than 40 years later, he’s still at it. “I am grateful for what they have done for my family. When my father left, we had no more food, and the mission helped us. That’s the reason I keep on working there.”
In 1949, at the age of 15, Putulik hauled chunks of ice to the mission’s water tanks. He shovelled coal for the heaters. And when the priests travelled to outlying camps, Leonard went along as their guide and hunter. “I didn’t make any money then, but they would feed me and give me clothes. After about three months, I started making 50 cents a day.”
As the mission grew, so did Leonard’s responsibilities. He built a greenhouse so the priests could grow their own lettuce, radishes and other vegetables. He looked after the chickens. “They were a lot of work. I had to clean the chicken house, scrub the floor three times a week, feed them every day, make sure they had water, and pick up eggs. There were about 150 chickens.”
Centuries of Visitors
Ever since ancient times, Inuit hunters have gathered on this low coastal strip on Hudson Bay at the mouth of Chesterfield Inlet – a long, narrow fissure that penetrates deep into the Keewatin Barrens, as far as Baker Lake. Many hunted seal here and moved on when the seasons changed. By about 1,000 AD, the Thule culture had emerged across the Arctic and moved down the Hudson Bay coast. The Aivilingmiut, who moved inland along the Inlet in caribou season, built houses not far from the present-day community; several hundred people are thought to have lived together at one such site. The Inlet itself looked promising to Qallunaaq explorers in search of a passage to the west. The English sea captain Sir Thomas Button arrived in 1612, and was followed by Luke Foxe and others. The Northwest Passage eluded them, but by 1719, the Hudson’s Bay Company had arrived. The Europeans plied the coast in sailing ships, trading with the Inuit. They also plundered the virgin bay of its whales.
In the mid-eighteenth century, Dr. John Rae came by as he search for the Franklin Expedition, and in 1882, Dr. Robert Bell conducted studies for the Geological Survey of Canada. The RCMP set up bases at Cape Fullerton in 1904, and at Chesterfield in 1914. But it was Father Turquetil who began Chesterfield’s official history when he established a Roman Catholic Mission in 1912. Bay traders set up shop the next year.
Chesterfield Inlet’s annual shipload of supplies always included livestock in those days: young hens for the mission, and pigs for the Hudson’s Bay manager. The pigs were fattened up through the autumn, and slaughtered as soon as the days turned cold enough to keep their meat frozen through the winter.
“In the 1950’s, the mission built the first school here, and then the power house,” says Leonard. “The government built houses for some people. I noticed the community began to grow then. Airplanes started coming, to bring in mail and take patients down south. There was a single engine Norseman; I remember the pilots, Charley and Gunnar.” (Charley Weber and Gunnar Ingebrigsten piloted Arctic Wings, the single-engine Norseman that did most of the flying for the Roman Catholic missions.) “Before it came in, I had to smooth out a runway for that airplane. I would cut the rough spots off the snowdrifts with a shovel. There was no way to light up the runway, so we would just take some old brown coal bags, fill them up with snow and line them up along the runway, to let the pilot know where to land. Most often it was on Mission Lake, behind the hospital. If that got too rough, then we would clear a runway down on the sea-ice.”
On February 1st, 1958, a Norseman crashed in fog not more than 50 km from the settlement. Everyone on board was thrown clear of the wreckage, but all were unconscious, and would have frozen to death except that a dogteam travelling across Hudson Bay ice caught their scent. The dogs forced their master off his trail and brought him to the crash site. Leonard remembers that day very well.
“There was a police patrol returning from Rankin Inlet. The mine had just opened, and the police from here had to go down there on patrol. Nicholas Irkootee was their guide and his dogteam found the plane crash. Irkootee built an igloo for the survivors and he left the policeman at the crash site, so he could come into Chesterfield Inlet quickly to tell everyone. The MOT Bombardier took nurse out to get the passengers and the pilot. When they got back into town, lots of people were waiting to help carry them up to the hospital. The next day an army plane came with doctors and took all the survivors down south.”
There had already been a resident doctor in Chesterfield Inlet for 30 years, but Dr. Patrick was one of the crash victims sent south. He did not return, and a replacement was never sent.
The nickel mine at Rankin Inlet, which operated from 1955 to 1962, brought change to Chesterfield Inlet. Chesterfield Inlet’s population dropped almost overnight from about 250 to fewer than 100, as people moved to Rankin for the employment opportunities. Today, Chesterfield Inlet’s population has climbed back up to just over 300.
Chesterfield Inlet is no longer the hub of the Keewatin. The hospital is now a home for the severely disabled. The residential school closed its doors in 1969, as the government initiated community – based education across the NWT. Policing is now handled by the RCMP detachment in Rankin Inlet.
Chesterfield Inlet remains a small and rather traditional community. There lingers a sense of its historic role, a feeling enhanced by the powerful presence of the Elders.
Last winter, Leonie Sammurtok sat on her bed looking out the window at her community – her extended family. She feels detached now, and she’s unable to go out. “It’s kind of boring. In the old days, there was always something going on. Now that there are houses here, it’s just boring.” The window provides her final view of the Arctic’s oldest settlement; the town she watched grow from its earliest beginnings. Today she sees much the same things as she would see in any Arctic community: a mixed assemblage of houses, some old, some new, and the same assortment of institutional buildings – the Co-op store, a hotel, the hamlet garage, a new school, government offices. They sprawl over a widening arc around the head of an indent in the Keewatin coastline.
In summer Hudson Bay sparkles to one side, the rocky tundra dominates the other. In winter a blanket of whiteness stretches from the inland horizon, several kilometres across the frozen bay to the floe edge, where the open water is cold and grey. The picture has remained much the same, as the settlement developed to its zenith, and then retreated into its present quiet existence.
Other Inuit Elders have memories of Chesterfield Inlet’s formative days. But none has seen as much as Leonie Sammurtok, who watched the gathering of her people into a community. Her family grew large here, and her story is the story of Chesterfield Inlet itself.