Point-counterpoint: Artic historiography: Current status and blueprints for the future

Shelagh D Grant

Volumes upon volumes have been written on arctic history, but relatively few are by Canadian academic historians. Who has been writing arctic history and why? Do current trends in arctic historiography suggest the need for change, and if so, what form should it take? And how might these objectives be accomplished?

Before addressing these questions, what do I mean by “arctic historiography”? Since history is essentially a story about people about societies, cultures and civilizations, “Arctic” is defined here as the traditional homelands of the Inuit people.’ In Canada, these lie in the northern region of the Mackenzie District, the proposed Nunavut territory, northern Quebec (or Nunavik) and northern Labrador. “Historiography” is the writing of history, the interpretation of historical facts and events as they relate to the interests of contemporary society.2 Scholars of the Western World traditionally divided Inuit history into pre-history and post-contact history, a Euro-centric perception that seemed to imply there was no history before the arrival of the white man. In both cases, interpretation was deemed the responsibility of anthropologists. Times have changed, as have perceptions, but Canadian academic historians have yet to write a comprehensive history of the Inuit peoples of Canada.

For centuries, western scholars envisioned arctic history to be synonymous with polar exploration history and as such, the exclusive domain of European and Russian scholars, until joined by American historians in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Because it celebrated heroes, conquest and pride in achievement, the history of arctic exploration was readily integrated into nationalist and imperialist histories of the newly industrialized nation states. Preoccupied in the nineteenth century with the politics of nation-building, railway construction and pioneer settlement, Canadian historians seemed content to attach British polar exploration history to their own, as part of their colonial legacy. Until the region offered up comparable Canadian heroes, political significance or sizable resource wealth, the Arctic was not considered of major importance.3 By contrast, the Yukon drew scholarly attention because of the economic and political implications of the Klondike Gold Rush. Here was a truly “northern” history of adventure, discovery of riches and survival of the fittest, a history that inspired national pride in having thwarted United States imperialism.

Coexisting with polar exploration narratives was Inuit history, preserved through countless generations by the oral tradition. These two forms of historiography were rooted in disparate perceptions: one focussed on Western scientific achievements and conquest; the other recounted Inuit spirituality and adaptations to their environment.4 The former described the curious inhabitants of a formidable and alien land; the latter told of the arrival of big ships, carrying strangers who needed help to survive the long winters. Anthropologists have long understood the significance of Inuit oral history. Canadian academic historians have been slow to accept its value as a credible resource.

The apathy towards Inuit studies among Canada’s professional historians has been partially offset by a surfeit of arctic literature written by geographers, surveyors, anthropologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, ethnographers, geologists, botanists, ornithologists, zoologists, journalists and novelists – Canadians and non-Canadians. Many were writing “history.” Some were excellent, but none the less moulded by the perspectives and methodologies of the author’s discipline. The Canadian government also contributed to arctic historiography during these years by publishing detailed accounts of its sovereignty patrols and scientific expeditions.5 Beginning in the 1930s, these were complemented by a number of “official” arctic histories compiled for the government.6 Written for public consumption, most were understandably less critical than were reports of privately funded or non-British explorations.

Popular arctic histories have also filled a potential void, many of them exceptional in their own right. Yet most rely on secondary sources, with the result that they also inherit their inaccuracies. Popular histories appeal to a broad readership, thus playing an important part in fostering pride in our arctic heritage. This does not, however, absolve the responsibility of the academic historian to provide them accurate resources based on primary research.

Canadian readers seemed particularly entranced by arctic autobiographies written by adventure-seekers, former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, ships’ captains, fur traders, missionaries, and later, by doctors, nurses, school teachers and transient visitors. Most were anecdotal, with a propensity for exaggeration and sensationalism. As a result, they tended to be unreliable as sources of accurate information. They did, however, reinforce a romanticized image of the Arctic as a place of adventure and mystique beyond the reach of most Canadians.

The Second World War brought defence activities to the North, and with them, a heightened awareness of deficiencies in health and education services available to northern Indians and Inuit. A number of books on the North appeared as a result of public interest and concern. Some were anthologies, such as The New North-West edited by C.A. Dawson (Toronto 1947) in which contributions by Canadian historians were notably absent.

The first arctic history book written by a Canadian scholar appears to be In Quest of the North West Passage (Toronto 1958), by Leslie Neatby, written after his retirement as a Professor of Classics. This volume was followed by Glyndwr Williams’s The British Search for the Northwest Passage in the Eighteenth Century (London 1962), then by T.J. Oleson’s Early Voyages and Northern Approaches, 1000-1632 (Toronto 1963). As Canada approached its hundredth anniversary, it is significant that these historians still focussed on the distant past, when the Arctic was perceived as a place of adventure, conquest and achievement, and as such, a source of national pride.

His colleagues apparent lack of interest in the North prompted the eminent Canadian historian W.L. Morton to write in 1970 that “the North is yet to be integrated into the historiography of Canada.”7 Scholarly histories, however, are not easily written on demand. Thus, with the exception of a few scholarly articles and Morris Zaslow’s The Opening of the Canadian North, 1890-1914,8 the initial response to Professor Morton’s challenge was relatively limited.

In 1980, Professor T.H.B. Symons issued a similar warning about the status of northern research in the social sciences and humanities. Based on statistical analysis of the previous decade’s grants awarded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (and its predecessor), Symons reported that less than two per cent of the awards were for northern research. Of that amount, two-thirds were allocated to anthropology, archaeology and linguistic studies. Only five grants over 10 years had gone to northern history projects. The problem, according to Symons, was a lack of applications, reflecting “the failure of the Canadian scholarly community to tackle the manifold questions relating to the North.”9 This was particularly true of the Canadian historical profession, where out of more than 1,000 full-time history professors, only 11 indicated interest in the North.10

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the situation improved immeasurably, as evident by a number of northern books written by academic historians such as Richard Diubaldo, Alan Cooke and Clive Holland, Hugh Wallace, Kenneth Coates, William Morrison, Robert Page, myself and others. These were traditional histories, focussing either on exploration, public policy, economic or political development. Two very important histories were published under contract by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs: William Morrison’s Showing the Flag: Canadian Sovereignty and the Native People of Northern Canada, (1984) and Richard Diubaldo’s The Government of Canada and the Inuit, 19001967 (1985). Their distribution, regrettably, was limited.

The same decade also witnessed a proliferation of northern fur trade and social contact histories – Indian, not Inuit. By now, the “North” was defined either politically as the Yukon and Northwest Territories, or as the homeland of northern Native peoples. With the new social contact histories centring on Canadian Indians, the North was moving south to encompass the northern reaches of most provinces. Although the Inuit fell under the rubric of northern Native history, they were generally ignored by academic historians as focal points for their primary research.”

To date, the distinctions between Indian and Inuit cultures have yet to be clearly defined, even though major differences exist historically in terms of culture, socioeconomic background, contact relationships and government policies during the pre- and post-confederation eras. As a consequence, Inuit studies were generally marginalized in the new Native Studies programmes being offered at universities across Canada.

None the less, many excellent articles on Inuit history appeared in the 1980s, written by anthropologists, sociologists and human geographers, many of them associated with GE TIC (the Inuit and Circumpolar Study Group at Universite Laval’s Faculty of Social Sciences). In 1978, GETIC’s anthropologists also played a major role in establishing a new scholarly journal, Etudes/Inuit/Studies, and the biennial Inuit Studies Conference. The volume and quality of work published by affiliates of GP-TIC is phenomenal.’2 Although the majority of their studies have centred on the Indians and Inuit of Northern Quebec, some have encompassed other regions of the Eastern Arctic. Anthropologists at McMaster University and the University of Alberta have also produced noteworthy studies. Yet the calibre of their research and publications only accentuated the lack of similar interest among academic historians. During this same period several historians wrote on public policy as it applied to Inuit affairs’3 and some touched on intellectual interpretations of arctic history,’4 but they were few in number compared to those writing on northern Native issues involving the Dene, Cree and Metis.’5 Meanwhile, media coverage of Native land claims and arctic environmental issues sparked new public interest, which in turn created a ready market for popular histories, environmental studies, political analyses and other forms of arctic literature. The climate of opportunity inspired optimism, prompting historian Richard Diubaldo to suggest that more scholarly interest would naturally follow the increase of popular literature on the Arctic. He warned, however, that “southern-style” historians would have to adjust their vision, as “the north is the north and can not, or can no longer, be understood exclusively from a southern point of view.””

Others had recognized the importance of a northern perspective. When rapid changes in socio-economic conditions threatened the continuity of Inuit oral history, Stuart Hodgson, then commissioner of the Northwest Territories, urged the taping of elders’ stories. The initial results were gratifying. In 1974, the residents of Pangnirtung presented the commissioner with 11 stories that were later compiled into a book.” Similar stories from Arctic Bay were also published at this time.18 In 1975, Montreal writer Dorothy Harley Eber, working with Peter Pitseolak from Cape Dorset, brought together interviews, a syllabic manuscript and his personal collection of photographs to produce a book on his life history.’9

The history that provided inspiration for my current research, however, was a small, but important, volume by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Guy MaryRousseliere. Father Mary, as he was known in Pond Inlet, used Inuit stories, photographs, archival material and other primary sources to trace the nineteenth-century migration of Baffin Inuit to Greenland.20 This book, along with Eber’s When the Whalers Were Up North,21 are hopefully harbingers of future arctic historiography.

In 1986, Bruce Hodgins and I were overly optimistic in predicting the next decade would witness a major increase in academic historiography of the Canadian Arctic.22 Instead, the pattern of the 1980s continued into the next decade. Measured by the number of scholarly articles and book-length studies published in the 1990s, Canada’s professional historians still focussed their social contact histories on northern Indians, not Inuit. In part, this may be a consequence of doctoral graduates finding positions in the new Native Studies programmes that tended to emphasize Indian, rather than Inuit studies.

The scholarly arctic history books published in the 1990s were not, with a few exceptions,23 written by Canadian academic historians. Scholars from other disciplines filled the void: human geographers, anthropologists, archaeologists, sociologists and a political scientist.” The Museum of Civilization and Robert McGhee deserve special mention for producing some excellent publications, as do the GETIC scholars for their exemplary contributions. The native and northern history series published by McGill-Queen’s Press have published important new works relating to Inuit or arctic studies – again none were written by academic historians. Yet, at a recent conference, “Law of the Buffalo – Law of the Musk Ox,” co-sponsored by the University of Calgary’s Department of History and the Osgoode Legal History Society, only four out of the 26 presenters dealt with Inuit topics were historians.’

Three however, since 1990, non-academics have continued to write arctic history books, and some are excellent. These include journalists, a ship’s officer, a retired public servant trained as a clinical psychologist, a sociologist and numerous “freelance” writers.’ Non-Canadian scholars, as well, have published important arctic histories, noting in particular those studying at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) at Cambridge University.’

Recent quantitative studies suggest that Canada’s academic historians are less interested in the Arctic than their peers in the United States and Scandinavia.9 This apathy is also demonstrated in a study conducted by the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies. Of 2,659 Northern Training Grant awards from 1987 to 1995, only 33 were given to history students. Moreover, in the last four years (1992-1995) only seven awards were for historical research, compared to 25 in the four years previous.’

There are other signs that interest in the “north” generally is in decline among members of the historical profession. A once thriving “northern history group” established in the early 1980s no longer meets at the Conference of Learned Societies, and their bi-annual newsletter was replaced several years ago by a column in the Native History Study Group newsletter.3 Either interest in northern history peaked in the mid-1980s, or else it has been diverted to northern Indian or Native studies in general.

Meanwhile, written interpretations of Inuit oral history have not progressed as expected. Although taping of elders’ stories is ongoing, major effort will be required to preserve, catalogue and duplicate the tapes as protection against accidental loss or damage. Written translations also are needed, if southern-based historians are to incorporate an Inuit perspective without costly field research. On a more positive note, a group of Inuit educators met last summer at Pond Inlet to prepare a history text for their elementary students, based on the taped interviews of Inuit elders.32 Other applications of Inuit oral history are still on the horizon.33

In light of arctic interest shown by other Canadian scholars, why then have academic historians remained on the sidelines? There are a number of possible explanations. Without written interpretations of Inuit oral history, a southern scholar must look to new interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies, involving lengthy field trips, team studies and perhaps the learning of a new language, Inuktitut. Anthropologists and geographers are already accustomed to both field work and team studies. In most cases, knowledge of arctic history is a prerequisite for their primary research, thus it is natural that they should begin writing histories to fill a void left by their colleagues in history. For historians trained to study conventional archival and other primary sources, the field trip approach requires a major break from tradition.

Working against acceptance of new approaches by historians are the increased teaching loads and reduced research funds resulting from recent cutbacks. The latter becomes a primary consideration when faced with the high cost of arctic air travel, accommodation and translation. This alone would be a major deterrent for doctoral students contemplating theses in arctic history. Another limiting factor is the maturity of arctic historians and their move to administrative positions.34 Others have retired or are about to be retired, with cutbacks at most universities limiting hopes of replacements.

Still, the historical profession at large has not yet addressed the reasons for their relative disinterest in Inuit or arctic history. Nor have they considered how best to incorporate an Inuit perspective in academic histories and what role, if any, they should play in encouraging Inuit to write their own history. The potential abdication of this responsibility to other disciplines should prompt serious soul-searching.

Canadian Arctic historiography is clearly at a crossroads, with various alternatives open for consideration as we approach the next millennium. A “do nothing” approach will likely leave interpretation of our arctic heritage to popular historians, anthropologists, geographers, non-Canadian scholars and consultants. At first glance, there seems to be a valid argument that Inuit history is best left to those anthropologists who have proven their expertise. Yet leaving the academic historians “out of the loop” sacrifices their ability to place Inuit history within its proper context in the writing of Canadian history. Another consideration is the effect on undergraduate course offerings, and its consequences for how arctic history is taught in public and secondary schools, and subsequently understood by succeeding generations.

While some form of additional financial support may be necessary for research, historians cannot rely entirely on the largesse of government to resolve their problems. In the past, Ottawa has provided generous support to promote Canadian literature, art, music, film and theatre as a means of protecting our cultural heritage. Similar initiatives have been directed towards preserving Inuit heritage and cultural traditions, including funding for the art and crafts industry, for communications, special events, oral history projects, local museums and interpretative centres. Some government departments and agencies have sponsored their own arctic studies, projects and publications.35 The Museum of Civilization, in particular, has made an outstanding contribution to public knowledge of Inuit heritage through archaeological studies, collection of artifacts, publications and special events. Much larger sums have supported arctic research in the physical and biological sciences, economic and political development, and land claims’ settlements. For a variety of reasons, including its own lack of initiative, the historical profession has not been a major beneficiary. To gain entry now will mean competing with other disciplines for access to decreasing research funds.

Co-operation and co-ordination with other scholars seems to be the best option available to academic historicans. Even then, there are no simple answers. The problems associated with arctic research are defined by our geography: a large country, with a relatively small, scattered population and with modest financial resources. A typically Canadian problem may require a traditionally “Canadian” solution, blending centralized efficiencies with decentralized realities. With vision, co-operation and ingenuity, a multi-disciplinary effort could be far more effective and provide long-term cumulative benefits for all concerned. “Blueprints for the future” must be affordable, but they need not be mere band-aid solutions.

As a first step, why not consolidate our scattered resources and create an adjunct and co-ordinating body for existing arctic research institutes across Canada, at a central location, with access to major archival sources, and with direct air connections to both the Eastern and Western Arctic?

Why not resurrect an idea that has emerged many times in the past and establish a Canadian Arctic or Polar Research Centre, along the lines of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge,36 a centre providing post-graduate courses and research facilities?

Why not begin with a focus on graduate courses in Inuit studies, by creating exchange teaching and learning linkages with the Inuit Studies courses at Nunavut Arctic College?

Why not be creative and co-ordinate such a centre with a number of existing degree granting institutions (rather than one university) to develop partnership programs in postgraduate, doctoral and post-doctoral Inuit studies, both in Canada and abroad? In this way, post-graduate courses could be taught at the centre, and accepted towards post-graduate degrees at participating universities.

Why not co-ordinate the centre’s activities to provide financial support and at the same time enhance the role of existing research institutions, such as the Arctic Institute of North America (AINA) at the University of Calgary; GETIC at the Universite Laval, the Canadian Circumpolar Institute at the University of Alberta, the proposed Rupert’s Land Institute at the University of Manitoba, the Nunavut Research Institute in Iqaluit and so on?

Why not work with these and other institutions to further develop and enhance their existing data bases of arctic and Inuit research, literature and expertise, and at the same time, provide a more efficient means to disseminate that knowledge to public and private agencies?37

Why not develop a core of academic expertise which could be affiliated with such a centre, in cooperation with the Scott Polar Research Institute, the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Finland, the Dansk Polarcenter in Denmark, the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the International Arctic Social Sciences Association, to develop more comparative circumpolar studies?

Why not be opportunistic and utilize the abandoned buildings of the decommissioned Rockcliffe military base in Ottawa for offices, classrooms, lecture halls, meeting rooms, cafeteria, lab facilities, libraries, archival storage and for student and visitor accommodation?

Why not create an outreach programme connected to Nunavut Arctic College, and to Aurora College in the Western Arctic, to assist Inuit in developing their own expertise in all aspects of arctic science, social science and the humanities?

As a specific example, why not develop a graduate studies programme with a field work component designed to assist Inuit students in learning both how to preserve, store and catalogue their taped oral histories, and how best to transcribe their oral history for dissemination throughout the Arctic, and the world at large? Senior graduate students might teach semester courses at the two Arctic Colleges in environmental science, biology, zoology, archaeology and anthropology. Exchange programmes might evolve in which Inuit would instruct southern students about their traditional knowledge. Such programmes would have a trickledown effect benefiting both northern and southern students at all levels of education.

Why not be innovative and flexible in developing Inuit post-secondary education programs? For example, might we consider utilizing a one-on-one apprenticeship model, instead of the traditional university requirements of essays and exams?

As a first step, a working group might be set up, consisting of no more than five, senior arctic scholars to represent a cross section of disciplines and research institutions. The objective would be to study the concept of a polar research centre, to set down the objectives and time frame, and to bring forward recommendations on structure, name, programmes, physical requirements, human resources and funding. The initial priority would be to create and promote a postgraduate Inuit studies program. Receiving those recommendations would be Canadian universities, Inuit representatives, territorial and federal government officials, charitable foundations and the private sector. Although the working group might be funded by government on an “expenses only” basis, its success will be determined by the degree of initiative and cooperation shown by the academic community in the initial planning process.

If such a concept were feasible, then the federal government might be asked to consider a matching grants programme for the creation of a Canadian Polar Research Centre, as a millennium project, to facilitate north-south and east-west interaction in advancing knowledge and interest in our Arctic regions, beginning with a focus on Inuit Studies. Canadian Inuit would be both benefactors and beneficiaries, as would academic historians and other scholars, by having direct access to interdisciplinary research in Inuit studies. With commitment and vision, anything is possible.

Copyright Trent University Spring 1998

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

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