A historian’s goal should always be to find a story that has not been told, or to find an old story and tell it a new way. Two new books, both about people in the north of Canada, aim to do one or the other of these things; they both contain stories that deserve to be heard.
In the first, Yukon author and journalist Michael Gates describes how his territory assisted in Canada’s role in the First World War. Despite the Yukon’s higher-than-national-average contributions of both men and money, Gates found little published material about the area’s involvement in the war effort and felt compelled to fill the gap. The result is From the Klondike to Berlin, a narrative built on an examination of Yukon residents’ wartime experiences overseas and on the home front.
Gates traces these stories chronologically through the war and its immediate aftermath. Occasionally, he also devotes a chapter to a figure, such as the poet Robert Service, whose individual story is interesting enough to merit greater detail. These are the most engaging chapters in the book. Gates also does well in drawing attention wherever he can to what was unique to the Yukon during this period, including domestic politics, the special skills the region’s soldiers took to the front, and the way the territory memorialized its fallen.
Gates’s heavy reliance on local newspapers and soldiers’ letters home ensures that the voices are authentic, but also prevents drawing connections between the Yukon and the rest of Canada. I applaud Gates for doing justice to these lost stories, but confess that the book did not grab me or leave a lasting impression, as it contains little new information for someone already familiar with the Canadian experience in the First World War.
By contrast, Eddy Weetaltuk’s memoir presents a completely fresh perspective on a different part of the nation’s history. From the Tundra to the Trenches follows Weetaltuk, an Inuit man from Kuujjuarapik, located on James Bay in Quebec, from his northern childhood to his experience as a soldier during the Korean War. Like Gates, Weetaltuk was driven to write, in part, to tell a story that has never been told. But the power in this memoir comes from Weetaltuk’s
ancillary motivation to inspire and empower young Inuit, and to educate non-Inuit about the common bonds among all Canadians.
Weetaltuk’s earliest memories are full of both suffering and joy. There were many years when his family did not have enough to eat, but there was still a lot of love and a close-knit community that taught him traditional hunting and survival skills. After spending years at a Catholic boarding school, Weetaltuk left the North to look for work, and ended up joining the army. He went to Korea and, when that war ended, stayed in the army and travelled extensively until 1967.
Weetaltuk is a natural storyteller, and his tone is a vast departure from other war memoirs and histories. He recounts disturbing events in a matter-of-fact tone that affected me long after I’d put the book down. He spares no details, including the hunger he experienced as a child, the cruelty of military prisons, or the terrible treatment of Korean and Japanese women by North American soldiers.
When he became desperate to reconnect with his true self, Weetaltuk returned to “his” James Bay. He came to realize that maintaining one’s heritage is the only way “to avoid losing one’s soul.” It is through this message, coupled with his personal story, that the author fulfills his desire to serve as a role model for young Inuit who might think that abandoning their northern home will resolve a sense of powerlessness.
While Weetaltuk’s story “deals in the specifics of individual experience,” the thoughts he provokes serve to “confront us with the greatest of existential questions.” His observations about his time in Korea, in particular, cannot fail to make the reader question the validity of war. Weetaltuk is not trying to convince the reader of any moral truths, and interjects his own feelings sparingly; he is simply relating what happened and letting readers draw their own conclusions.
The book also includes three pieces that provide background and context. The foreword and appendix (by Thibault Martin, who also edited the manuscript), and the introduction by academic Isabelle St-Amand, offer analyses that open the particulars of Weetaltuk’s story onto the broader narrative of Canada’s history and the ongoing relationship with its indigenous peoples.
Both Gates and Weetaltuk succeed in informing us about the significant contributions of far-away communities to the nation as a whole. But Weetaltuk’s story, with all of its ups and downs, also inspires and gives hope, both to his own community and to anyone who struggles with identity and place. His voice, and his perspective on our history, is one we should hear more often.