by Patricia Boulter
Although Inuit voices, experiences and actions can be accessed (to a certain extent) from archival documents and anthropological reports, it became central to our research to understand first hand how the mine has been memorialized and remembered in the minds of Inuit. As a result our research team conducted 10 interviews with elders (men and women) who had either worked in the mine or had lived in the community while the mine was operative. From these interviews we heard an array of personal stories and histories associated with Rankin Inlet’s mining history and the many socio-economic and cultural upheavals that were occurring simultaneously. The stories ranged from being celebratory and nostalgic to cautionary and tragic. Many people had fond recollections of the “good old days” and stressed the important role the mine had played in their lives and the continued importance of mining in Arctic communities. Others, however, referenced the hardships faced when they relocated/migrated from other regions in the eastern Arctic to Rankin Inlet, the poverty experienced by many upon arrival and the difficulties adjusting to life in a settled community.
By the time the last interview was conducted I realized that a connecting theme, adaptation and survival, had weaved its way through each individual interview. As Peter Irniq and many others stressed through the telling of their own stories Inuit were and are a highly adaptive people. As I began to process what each individual had shared in their interview, it struck me that we had spoken with members of a generation of Inuit who had been born into a world that no longer existed except in their own memories. Each elder we interviewed, to a certain degree, had experienced and survived (either personally or collectively) famine, relocation, residential schools, TB clinics, government directed settlement, insufficient community infrastructure, poverty and other upheavals. Although the transition for many Inuit from igloo to mineshaft was difficult and emotionally fraught, these past realities did not saturate their memories of those times. Despite the fact many Inuit had come to Rankin Inlet solely to find work in order to make a living after the collapse of the fur trade and caribou herds, the community (for many) very quickly had become their home. Even after the mine closed in 1962 many Inuit (more than half) decided to remain in the community. When asked during our interviews, elders were extremely proud of the role Inuit played in the opening of the mine and ultimate survival of the community (now the second largest in Nunavut). It was a humbling experience to hear their stories, for in their minds the feelings of surviving and adapting as a community were the most cherished.
Although certain individuals’ perceptions of Rankin Inlet’s mining era had shifted toward the nostalgic, when compared with interviews conducted in the early 1970s, the way the mine was remembered became the most fascinating aspect of conducting oral history research. Oral history is not about collecting facts and figures, it is meant to capture how individuals perceive and interpret their past and how and why these interpretations change over time. Without having collected oral histories it would have been next to impossible to ascertain from written archival records the various emotional connections and reactions Inuit men and women had toward the community and their connection to the mine. In other words in many instances for Arctic history to be written and understood properly it is essential that southern based researchers strive to generate networks, pathways and relationships between Inuit communities. For in the words of Arctic historian Shelagh Grant, “without an Inuit voice telling their story, there can be no true representation of Inuit history.”
Shelagh Grant. “Inuit History in the Next Millennium: Challenges and Rewards” in Northern Visions edited by Kerry Abel and Kenneth S. Coates, (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001): 106.