A Long Way from Home

karsh eskimoPhoto credit: Yousuf Karsh


This morning I looked up a passage in A Long Way from Home by Pat Sandiford Grygier, one of the books I read while researching The Umbrella Mender. It’s a microcosm of the cultural disconnections that were a regular part of the campaign against TB in the north. An account of a young Inuit boy’s return to his community in the early 1950s, it was witnessed by Robert Williamson, an anthropologist who lived and worked in the North for many years and has written extensively on their culture and language. Williamson was a Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and was named to the Order of Canada in 1983. This is only one of many such stories I read during the course of my research.

The five-year-old boy in this account had been spent several years in a Quebec TB hospital, and during that time he lost his home language and became otherwise southernized. When he was fit to travel he was sent North in stages, with the best intentions of hospital staff, to rejoin his family at their camp. When he reached the nurse’s station closest to that camp, the young, new nurse, who knew little about the country, put him on a mining exploration plane for the last leg of his journey. The plane delivered him to the frozen lake near the camp, far from shore. He was wearing a beret, a white shirt and bow tie, a short-cut jacket, shorts over lisle stockings, and sandals. His family rushed out to pick him up.

In Williamson’s words:

“He was frightened of all these people with their dark brown faces and their skin clothing, and the smell of the North, you know of meat and of a different kind of food. And being nuzzled by these strangers talking loudly, or what seemed loudly because they were so full of joy, in a totally foreign language, was not comforting to him. L. picked him up and carried him to the igloo… and they talked to him about the dogs outside, but he didn’t know what they were saying. And they gave him some morsels of the favourite food they had, like seal meat, which he ultimately ate and threw up: he ate pilot biscuits… By sheer luck, there happened to be staying in that little camp for a short time a white man with whom he could relate, because he spoke French, and who could say, “C’est ton papa; c’est ta maman. Tu es à la maison avec la famille maintenant.” And “Be careful with the dogs!” Because he was a little southern boy in effect, the family were terrified that he would think the dogs were playthings and they would chew him up.

 And that child had a traumatic period of adjustment. He began to sense quite readily that he was surrounded by love and affection and joy, but it was a terrible adjustment that he had to go through. I stayed in that camp for some time to help him make the adjustment, interpreting in French and Eskimo for the little by and for the parents. Well, what would have happened if I hadn’t been there? What did happen in many comparable situations where children were brought back north after two or three or four years away, culturally completely southerized, and then dumped unceremoniously, without and preparation either of the child or of the parents, in either hunting camps or… shanty towns around the settlements?”


That was a question that haunted me during the six years I was writing