“That is an impressive list of instructions, boss, but there is a problem - I cannot read.”
My cherished Inuk friend, Ed Ruben, had just been presented with a long list of typed duties, mainly janitorial, at Cape Parry, one of the 8 main stations of the Distant Early Warning Line (Dewline) along the Arctic Ocean coast where, for 13 months 1962-63, I happened to be the military commander. The code name for this 500-mile long (750 km) sector was PIN, so I was known as Pinhead which suited my situation. I did feel like our Queen. She was head of state but it was parliament who ran the show. Likewise, I had the authority, but it was Federal Electric Corporation of Paramus, New Jersey, a unit of the ITT electronic warfare giant that did the hiring, firing, and maintenance of the main station and its 4 satellites, two east and two west of Cape Parry. Our resupply consisted of a weekly lone Douglas Dakota (C-47) aircraft whose stewardesses would claim that, for every mile they flew north of Winnipeg, the more attractive they became. We also had summer resupply by barge down the Mackenzie River and east along the Arctic coast to our sandy beach at the tip of the peninsula.
FEC would hire men on 18-month contracts for 54-hour-weekly shifts. Salaries were good and the food, served 5 times per day, was varied and excellent. My military staff was 4 RCAF and 2 USAF officers.
This boondoggle of short-lived radar lines, demanding amazing and expensive efforts in hostile environments were all due to imagined, but well publicized, threats from the Soviets, those people whose enormous sacrifices were a major factor in winning WWII for us. We were told that Soviet bombers, might sneak over the North Pole with nuclear bombs to devastate the USA whose congress in 1947 voted $161 million to build the Pinetree Line of radar-detection sites across the northern USA and persuading Canada to join in with southern Canada sites. I was to serve briefly at the Bird, Manitoba, site that became operational in Apr 1957. Then came The Mid-Canada Line, known as the McGill (University) Fence of 8 manned and 90 unmanned stations along the 55th parallel, operational in January 1958. That cost $225 million. In 1954 the USAF contracted with Western Electric to build, in a mere 3 years, 63 radar stations along 10,000 km of Arctic Ocean coasts from Alaska to Greenland. Western Electric did it with 3 months to spare. Their reward was watching ITT get future contracts.
Ed was one of six Inuit, whom we called Eskimos back then, hired for our main station. Nearby housing was built for their families who, in spite of overcrowding, kept them neat and tidy. They had trekked north from the Inuit hamlet of Paulatuk, 95 km (59 miles) south. They were followed by a score of relatives who built 10 shacks in what we called the “The village” 2 miles south of PIN Main. The only true building there was Jim Stephen’s Hudson Bay Store where furs could be exchanged for food, clothing, and utensils. Father Leon DeHurtevant had also moved his church there, but it now was a small building. To say mass he would fold up his bed and move in benches that were stacked outside in the snow. He was allowed home to his native France for a month every 5 years. He did miss the trees and greenery so, when a generous Winnipeg donor flew us in a score of Christmas trees that fire regulations prevented me from allowing into our modules, Bill Cann, one of my RCAF officers, and I loaded them into our truck when we knew “Papa Leon” was sleeping and planted them in the snowdrifts around his home. The dogs who watched us had never seen a tree, but knew what trees were for, so were quick to use them. When he awoke, Father Leon was amazed and delighted with his miraculous forest but gradually surrendered all but two to villagers to use as firewood for which I scolded him for being too generous for his own good.
The name “Eskimo”, meaning “Eaters of raw flesh”, is not considered polite by the Inuit who have been in the North American Arctic since at least 1000 AD. It took us southerners until the 1980s to realize our ignorance. While meaning well we did make numerous mistakes as we used “our” north for short-lived mining and military operations, leaving quite a mess behind. I had first encountered the Inuit in 1946-49 when I flew three B-29s, one C-54, and one C-47 out of Edmonton and Fairbanks to test fly over vast distances up to the Pole and down to Bermuda, plus many days of ground monitoring at isolated airstrips, the chain of Low Frequency Loran stations installed along the Arctic coast. I learned to criticize the Canadian policy of collecting children from remote locations and flying them to residential parochial schools for an Alberta-style curriculum, then on graduation dumping them back home, fit for neither culture as there was no southern-type employment. During the summer, school-free, months I enjoyed the company of many of these teenagers.
Jessie Green was an 83-year-old Inuk who told me, after I got to know her well, that she was adopting me and would be my mother while I was in her country. I was fortunate in being able to host frequent tours of scientists, politicians, and the like, from the deep south. I introduced many to Jessie. One of them, noticing that Jessie spoke only Eskimo (now Inuktitut) to her Inuit associates, asked her why she did not speak English.
I was proud of Jessie when she retorted in perfect English, “If I were an English woman I would speak English. I am an Eskimo woman!” Jessie loved corncob pipes, Hers was old and blackened when I met her, so I had my wife, Joan, mail me a packet of six new ones much to Jessie’s delight. Jessie was sharp and took a keen interest in politics. When a sealed voting box for the federal election arrived, Jessie was too sick to allow me to fetch her to vote, so I took it in my truck and got most of the way before stopped by several huge snowdrifts, forcing me to lug the box over them to allow Jessie to deposit her vote.
With the connivance of Doc Roche whom we shared with the Cambridge Bay sites, a remedy was found for Jessie’s age-related ills. To avoid disastrous fires, alcohol was restricted to 6 cans of beer per person per week. The doctor and I smuggled in a bottle or rye whiskey from which we filled smaller bottles labelled as “Medicine” for Jessie. This actually helped her considerably and she thanked us frequently but she was sharp enough to know what we had done, so kept our secret that she was the only one at Cape Parry allowed liquor.
Returning to Ed Ruben who never complained: In his tiny duplex that he shared with the Kuptana family, 13 people were dependent on him His first wife died giving birth to their 5th child, the eldest of which was unmarried but had 3 children. His second daughter, Sarah, at age 15, gave birth to twins while I was there. Both soon died in spite of Doc Roche and my help. Ed’s eldest son was working for FEC at a distant site. Ed had remarried. Pretty, and likeable, Mable had a child when Ed married her and she had 3 more by Ed. I got to babysit them to permit Ed and Mabel to attend movies and bingo games on the base. Ed and Mable also took responsibility for 3 people living in a shack in the village: Mary the dwarf and her two normal children.
Ed would take his annual leave to bundle Mabel and some children up on his dog sled to hunt caribou south of Paulatuk, cover the carcasses with rocks, then return at intervals throughout the winter to fetch still-fresh meat from his Arctic refrigerators. Ed also tried to teach me how to build an igloo. I was not a very adept pupil. Inuit have some 50 words for snow of different consistencies and Ed would take me hunting for the right one for igloos. With sure strokes from his snow knife he could cut slanted snow blocks and erect a crack-free igloo in two hours while alongside I would struggle to build a smaller one with numerous cracks requiring me to stuff them with snow. For 3 weeks, using seal-oil lamps, temperatures inside igloos were quite warm until the snow became cold ice and a new home had to be built, but the material was just outside and free.
Villagers, in their shacks made from surplus lumber discarded by FEC, had oil heat. They used empty FEC oil drums that were everywhere and always containing a residue of oil that failed to get pumped out. Draining the oil from many drums into one to set aside, they would make smaller stoves from retained drums for heat and cooking.
There were 4 dog teams tethered side by side in an area of the village. To me they always seemed hungry, being fed by seal meat. Each day I drove to the village I would first stop at our kitchen to collect the many scraps of meat and bones. When I got within a mile of the village the dogs would set up a chorus of howls to greet me. They then sat patiently as I passed down each row with a tasty gift for each dog. The Inuit tolerated me doing this, but I was to learn that the starved Inuit dogs lived longer than the well-fed and pampered RCMP dogs. Nevertheless I continued the habit as I did bask in the love shown by the dogs.
Relations between the military and FEC were excellent but I did have to submerge my anger one day when several dogs got loose and trotted up to our station to wander about our buildings. The FEC manager shot 4 of them. For several weeks thereafter I ate my meals at the table reserved for the Inuit rather than with him, but I did avoid verbal rebuke. The Arctic was no place for anger.
The Inuit were typically a reserved lot - very respectful but remote - a behaviour that changed dramatically with time. A good example was 5-year-old Renee Ruben. When I would arrive she would run up to me with “Squadron Leader George!’ She knew that I carried oranges in my parka pockets and would reach in to extract one. Yet she remained silent as we strolled across the tundra, eating oranges. One day we passed an outboard motor left in the snow for the winter. When I called it an outboard motor, she corrected me with: “That’s a kicker!” What an immediate change! When she discovered there was something she could teach me she became quite verbose and our subsequent walks became full of enjoyable conversations.
Later I was to walk back to the kicker with 16-year-old Adam Ruben. I warned him he would never get that neglected kicker to work again. And it did not. Unperturbed, Adam took the engine apart with bits and pieces strewn over the hard tundra. I said, “Adam, if you ever get that mess to work again I will pay you $10.” For an hour I watched in amazement as Adam cleaned and re-oiled every small bit and then reassembled it all. It worked! He was happy with my $10 and bought cigars from the HBC to advertise his affluence. He then put the kicker onto his sled to take to the Listers, another Inuit family who had a small boat they were getting ready to take them on a visit to Paulatuk.
On another occasion our dentist was making his annual visit to us. An Inuit with a severe toothache ache came in for a drilling and filling. Two Inuit friends accompanied the patient. While drilling away the dentist was call away, returning in 20 minutes to discover one of the Inuit using his equipment to continue the drilling. After the dentist finished the job, he got quite the ribbing from us, telling him he did not need all that expensive training to be a dentist as just being an Inuit would suffice.
One summer day a Norwegian-Canadian FEC employee and an Inuk rushed in to report a sub surfaced in Franklin Bay off our western shore. I sped to our airstrip to scramble my entire air force - one Dehavalland Beaver - but the sub had submerged and fled before I could see it. I could not resist matching famous terse war communiques with “Sub sighted, Beaver Scrambled. Sub Fled”. Yes, I followed it up with a detailed report but I never got a word back from either HQ: ADC in St Hubert, Quebec, or Norad in Colorado Springs. Who knows, or cared, whether it was one of ours or one of theirs?
A lone Inuit family drifted into the village to build their own shack. The husband was caught stealing from other families so we called in an RCMP corporal to arrest him. Waiting for return airlift the corporal took his prisoner to a movie on base. Mounting the steps the Inuk turned and disabled the corporal by kicking him where it hurts the most. The lightly-clothed Inuk then took off into the bitterly-cold night. Justice was now my responsibility. I called Bob Hornal, a fellow RCAF officer, and we raced in our lone truck to the village, believing the escapee would head there. We alerted the villagers then borrowed two shotguns from the HBC store and spread out to begin a foot search of the intervening tundra. Eight hours later I stumbled across a bleeding, sobbing, shivering, and totally-exhausted Inuk. I called to Bob and both of us carried him back to the HBC store where we stripped and washed him to dress him in warm clothing, taken from the HBC shelves. By this time the corporal had recovered and handcuffed his prisoner for the first time. Two days later he was flown to Inuvik to a warm jail with good food for the winter while the government footed the bill to feed his family. He was released in the spring on the promise to never steal again. He did become a worthy resident of the village.
This, and the submarine incident, emphasized the fact that we Dewline military had zero defences, so I sent a request to headquarters for some token weapons. A year after I left the Dewline, a few WWII Lee Enfield rifles arrived. If all militaries were so armed there would be no wars!
When missiles replaced bombers as threats, the US in 1958 invested $28 billion in BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning Sites) and most Dewline sites were abandoned, leaving messes to be cleaned up, complicated by global warming and melting tundra. The original target date of 2011 has been extended to 2018. Cape Parry Inuit returned to Paulatuk where, among the 300 residents, Rubens and Kuptanas remain among the executives.
The future of the Inuit as an equal participating partner in Canada shows great promise, yet many problems persist. There are 700 Inuit owned and operated businesses including airlines such as Air Inuit that has a fleet of 26 aircraft of 5 different types. On 01 April 1999. Canada carved Nunavut out of its Northwest Territories. Cape Parry and Paulatuk remain in the NWT. Nunavut in Inuktitut means “Our Land”. It is a huge area. With 1,750,000 sq km it is the size of Western Europe, but it has a population of only 36,000, 85% of it Inuit. It has 3 official languages: Inuktitut, English, and French. Its capital is Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) with a population of 7,740. Prince Charles had visited Iqaluit in 1970. His second was with Camilla 29 June 2017.
I knew of no suicides while at Cape Parry but the current Inuit rate has leaped to 11 times the Canadian average, especially among young women. Vast cultural changes, the dramatic warming, increased traffic in the Northwest passage, lack of sufficient infrastructure and unemployment all contribute. For a nation of 36 million, huddled in the south, the north is a very expensive burden, but one that must be enthusiastically embraced.
The $188 million Canadian High Arctic Research Station at Cambridge Bay to be operational in 2018 is encouraging - and look at all that geology to study such as 4.5 billion year old (bya) lava when we thought our crust did not form until 4.3 bya. The North has much to teach us.