In 1947 and 1948, Farley Mowat spent time among the Ihalmiut, the inland Inuit whose traditional territory was between Great Slave Lake and Hudson Bay, in what is now known as Nunavut. The Ihalmiut were Barren Grounds people: located far south of the Arctic Ocean and inland from the west coast of Hudson Bay, they were not aquatic hunters, but were dependent instead on migrating caribou herds. Mowat published an account of Ihalmiut life in 1952’s People of the Deer, and detailed the federal government’s forced relocation of the Ihalmiut in 1959’s The Desperate People. His account of the relocation, which described famine and epidemics of disease, was vigorously denied by churches, industry, and government and earned Mowat the nickname “Hardly Knowit.” The denials continued for decades, culminating in the 1990s with Saturday Night’s infamous cover graphic of Mowat with a Pinocchio nose.
Walking on the Land is another account of the Ihalmiut saga, and Mowat’s response to the denials. The author has rehashed much material from the first two books, but in this book he places the blame for the disintegration of Inuit culture squarely on the government, instead of characterizing it as an inadvertent consequence of contact between a hunting society and an industrial society. This book also includes gruesome details that were omitted from the other books in light of delicate 1950s sensibilities.
Mowat’s rollicking narrative and rich characterizations make this an easy read. What’s not easy is the story of horrifying neglect and outright stupidity on the part of the federal government. And what’s pathetic is that those with an anti-aboriginal agenda will continue to claim that the Ihalmiut existed only in Mowat’s imagination, despite this book’s clear details about who Mowat travelled with, what he saw, and when. Fact: the Ihalmiut existed, and they were relocated to useless expanses of land no fewer than three times, shunted about by a government intent on building a colonial vision from sea to sea to sea. One supposes that Mowat will keep on writing about the Ihalmiut until Canadians remember at what cost this country was forged. Walking on the Land is a must-read for anyone who calls themself a Canadian.