In 1968, at the age of 16, John Walker boarded a ship to Resolute Bay in the High Arctic. What he saw up there changed him.
“I’m rocking the boat, definitely, with this film,” says the veteran filmmaker, speaking to the Straight about his newest documentary, Arctic Defenders. “As I was rocked. Profoundly rocked, to the very core, when I found out that the ‘Eskimos’ that I had travelled 2,000 miles to see in Resolute when I was 16 had been shipped there by our government as ‘human flagpoles.’”
In a bid to assert Canada’s sovereignty in the Far North, Inuit families were relocated to Resolute and Grise Fiorde in the early ‘50s and left to fend for themselves. Members of the RCMP who were previously stationed in the same remote regions had lost their minds. But, as Walker explains, “the attitude was, they’re Inuit, they hunt and live off the land—we don’t have to take care of them. This was 1,500 miles north of where they were living [in Quebec]. As somebody says in the film, ‘It was like landing on the moon.’ Up there it’s rock. It isn’t even tundra, its bare shale. Nothing grows. The story is just shocking.”
Miraculously, the community survived. Even more miraculously, Walker reconnected with some of the people he photographed during that first visit when he returned to Resolute to make his absorbing new film—which screens at VIFF with the director in attendance today (October 2) and Friday (October 4).
Arctic Defenders isn’t designed, however, to “make Canadians feel guilty.” Walker’s beautifully photographed doc is a wide-ranging and passionate love letter to the Inuit culture and a stirring account of the creation of Nunavut. John Amagoalik and Tagak Curley were two of the young radicals whose long struggle began at roughly the same time Walker trekked north, and ended some 30 years later with self-governance and the largest land claim in western civilization. Both are on hand to give Walker the first-person account.
But the struggle continues on two fronts, as the filmmaker explains. The Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated is suing the federal government for violating the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement—"It’s a long history of Canadian governments ignoring agreements with First Nations," remarks Walker—while the region in question has started to attract global attention for possibly more mercenary reasons.
“The Arctic is front page news around the world,” he says. “Polar bears are on the front page of Time magazine. We hear about oil and gas exploration. Canada has a quarter of the world’s oil and gas reserves in our territory to the north. We hear our prime minister talk about ‘use it or lose it,’ but we don’t hear from Inuit, the people who’ve lived there for 3000 years. It’s a very simple thing. We need to listen to Inuit.” Regrettably, he adds, “Governments don’t like to listen to local knowledge; they prefer to listen to ‘experts.’”
On that count, perhaps one of the most epiphanic moments in Arctic Defenders comes when we’re shown the relationship between a sort of Inuit home guard called the Canadian Rangers—who appear almost comically inept on first blush—and the Canadian military. As is often the case with this sparkling and clear-eyed doc, things aren't what they seem.
“One of the nice surprises of this film is that the Canadian Forces completely understand the importance of Inuit culture,” says Walker. “They cannot survive in the north without Inuit and they respect their culture, because they would die if they didn’t. The Canadian Forces gets it.”
Arctic Defenders screens today at International Village (6:45 p.m.) and October 4 at SFU (3:30 p.m.)