In March 2020, Quebec filmmaker Louise Abbott completed a new short documentary about an Inuit group in Nunavut that the Canadian government forcibly relocated in the 1950s and 60s. Through the eyes of survivors Mary (Ayaaq) Anowtalik and David Serkoak, The Out-of-the-Way Dwellers recounts the story of the Ahiarmiut and their determination to keep their history alive and receive justice. For antropologen.nl, Abbott gave permission to publish the film and wrote about the Ahiarmiut she portrayed.

Author: Louise Abbott

In mini-documentary format, The Ahiarmiut: Out-of-the-Way Dwellers recounts the story of a group of Inuit who were forcibly relocated from their homeland in the interior of Nunavut by the Canadian government in the 1950s and 60s and later spent years fighting for redress.

The film features Ayaaq (Mary) Anowtalik and David Serkoak. During their youth, both lived in the ancestral territory of the Ahiarmiut around Ennadai Lake, where they and their families subsisted primarily on caribou. Both experienced the trauma of the multiple relocations.

At eighty-one, Ayaaq is the oldest Ahiarmiut elder. Long ago, she made it her mission to transmit her knowledge of her people’s now extinct lifestyle to younger Ahiarmiut and other Inuit in Arviat, the village on Hudson Bay where she has lived since her relocation there.

David, sixty-eight, also adopted a mission: to document all the details of what happened to the Ahiarmiut and to seek justice for them. He founded the Ahiarmiut Relocation Society, which eventually filed litigation against the Government of Canada and asked for an apology, financial compensation for relocation survivors and their children, and a monument to the Ahiarmiut in Arviat.

The film incorporates excerpts of interviews with Ayaaq and David, photos of the Ahiarmiut at Ennadai Lake in the mid-1950s by Life magazine photographer Fritz Goro and by Dutch scholar Geert van den Steenhoven, and contemporary footage of Ennadai Lake and Arviat.

Louise Abbott directed The Ahiarmiut: Out-of-the-Way Dwellers, which was produced in association with Friends of Canadian Broadcasting for the recently released Tell Our Stories documentary series. She was inspired to make the film after meeting Aayaq Anowtalik during a research trip to Arviat for a cultural repatriation project sponsored by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI).

“I think that Canadians have become aware of the tragedy of residential schools in recent years,” Abbott says. “But I don’t think that they’re nearly as aware of the forced relocations of Indigenous peoples that took place. I wanted to bring the story of the Ahiarmiut to public consciousness and to do so in the spirit of truth and reconciliation.”

Why did the Canadian government relocate Inuit groups? In some cases, officials wanted to establish Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. In other cases, they wanted to facilitate the governance of Indigenous peoples by coercing them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and move into settlements. In the case of the Ahiarmiut, the government appears to have had mixed motivations, including a mistaken belief that the Ahiarmiut would find better hunting and trapping in the new locations. The final resettlement of the Ahiarmiut in Arviat and other coastal communities on Hudson Bay was undoubtedly part of the broader federal strategy to centralize Inuit to make it easier for government administrators to provide services and programs.

More about the Filmmaker

Louise Abbott, a graduate of McGill University, is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in the Eastern Townships of Quebec (www.ruralroutecommunications.com). She has spent most of her career chronicling the history and culture of rural and Indigenous communities in eastern and northern Canada and examining the social and environmental challenges that face these communities. She is the author of The Coast Way, The French Shore, The Heart of the Farm, Eeyou Istchee: Land of the Cree, and Memphremagog: An Illustrated History (volumes 1 and 2).

Abbott has written and/or directed numerous films, including the first documentary on the history of the Inuit of Nunavik (Kativik Educational Television), which was broadcast on TVNC and on APTN.

She researched and scripted The Empty Net (Imageries), an award-winning film that traced the disastrous collapse of the Atlantic cod-fishing industry in the 1990s and was broadcast on both English (CBC, Discovery) and French (Radio Québec) TV networks.

Between 2008 and 2018, Abbott collaborated with Indigenous groups in making a series of documentaries in northern Quebec. Among the films was Nunaaluk: A Forgotten Story (COTA), which followed Inuk Mini Aodla Freeman on her return to her childhood home—Cape Hope Island, or Nunaaluk, in southeastern James Bay. She recounted the story of the Inuit settlement that had once thrived on the island and was subjected to forced relocation by the federal government in 1960.

Nunaaluk: A Forgotten Story won the Best Film by an Established Filmmaker award at the Jasper Short Film Festival and was a finalist for the Best Documentary Short award at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. It was also selected for screening at the Wakefield International Film Festival, the Global Visions Festival in Edmonton, the First Peoples’ Festival Présence Autochtone in Montreal, the Explorers’ Club Polar Film Festival in New York City, and the Indianer Inuit: Das Nordamerika Film Festival in Stuttgart, Germany.

Abbott was chosen as one of five Canadian filmmakers for the 2020 Tell Our Stories project of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. This project presented documentaries that were limited to five minutes. But Abbott hopes to expand her film on the Ahiarmiut in the future and make it available for educational purposes.