You might remember the ending to the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
“This is the West,” the crusty newspaperman tells Jimmy Stewart upon learning that Stewart’s character Ranse Stoddard did not – as everyone had long assumed − shoot bad guy Liberty Valance all those years ago. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
It’s one of Hollywood’s most famous lines, and a memorable way to end a movie about the taming of the Frontier. But it’s not how we should treat Canadian history. And it’s certainly no way to run a government.
The official version of Canada’s history, at least under the watch of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is that our country’s past was one endless series of mistakes and outrages that now require absolution through a combination of confession, self-criticism and ample monetary compensation. We’ve seen official apologies delivered for a dizzying array of historical events and policies covering everything from Indian residential schools to the gay community to immigration to individual court cases against Indigenous war chiefs. And all with a hefty bill for Canadian taxpayers.
So frequent have been the apologies emanating from Ottawa that it was regarded as significant that Trudeau chose not to say sorry for his behaviour in the SNC-Lavalin affair. “I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs,” he said in response to the damning Ethics Commissioner’s report. A dog that didn’t bark, so to speak.
This stout defence of government decision-making turned out not to be the signal of a new policy, however. The very day after the Ethics Commissioner’s August 14 bombshell report, Ottawa was back in the apology business as Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett was apologizing to the Inuit of Baffin Island for the Canadian government’s “killing of qimmiit (sled dogs)” between 1950 and 1975. This latest plea for forgiveness deserves closer attention. First, because it was largely overlooked amid the wall-to-wall SNC Lavalin coverage. And second, because the Trudeau government has reached a new low of grovelling – it’s now apologizing for things that never happened.
Canada’s Inuit have waged a lengthy campaign asserting the existence of a government-led conspiracy to massacre sled dogs in order to colonize the North. “To try to diminish our numbers as Inuit, our dogs were being killed,” native elder George Koneak told a House of Commons committee in 2005. “A decision from Ottawa was that our dogs had to be killed.” A report from the same time by the Makivik Corporation, representing Quebec Inuit, stated boldly that, “during the period 1955 to 1969, government representatives and police forces undertook a massive killing of qimmiit…[an] extermination program.”
Up to 20,000 sled dogs were allegedly wiped out by the federal government to bring the Inuit to heel and, it’s often whispered, to boost sales of snowmobiles by white store owners. There’s even an Inuktitut word for this purported canine pogrom: qimmijaqtauniq, or “the dog slaughter.”
So persuasive were these tales that the government ordered the RCMP to investigate. The Inuit, however, refused to participate since they claimed the police, as the alleged perpetrators of this slaughter nearly two generations earlier, could not be trusted to investigate their predecessors’ behaviour. Despite the Inuit’s lack of cooperation, in 2006 the Mounties reported they could find no evidence of any organized plan to kill sled dogs. While some dogs were certainly shot by police when running loose in northern towns and to help stop the spread of disease, these likely numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands.
Among many organizational aspects that would have left a documentary trail, the report noted that shooting 20,000 dogs would have required a large requisition of ammunition. There is no archival evidence to support any of this. In fact, reliable academic evidence puts the total population of sled dogs across the North during this time at no more than 10,000. There is, however, convincing evidence of substantial die-offs due to rabies and distemper. In the early 1960s, for example, nearly 80 percent of the sled dogs in Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island, died in a massive canine epidemic.
The Inuit elders’ horrific tales of a government-appointed slaughter of sled dogs are likely the result of the vagaries of oral history. Recollections of a few sled dogs being shot by Mounties as public nuisances have probably been fused over the years with other memories of a great many dogs succumbing to disease. In many ways, the sled dog massacre story is another instance of a collision between Indigenous and Western forms of knowledge. Emotion-laden oral recollections are set in conflict with evidence-based, archival history.
Inuit perceptions of this time are also likely influenced by the massive cultural changes then underway in the North. The Inuit basically went from the Stone Age to the Space Age in one generation − an enormous upheaval with profound social implications. As such, Inuit history must be viewed with a certain sympathy and understanding. But surely facts still matter. And no one should have to apologize for a crime they never committed.
Dissatisfied with the results of the exculpatory RCMP investigation, the Inuit launched their own inquiry: the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. Its report was released in 2010 and is an intriguing piece of work. It recognizes and supports much of the Mounties’ own report. It explains, for example, that “many qimmiit died as a result of disease outbreaks in spite of a major effort made by the RCMP to inoculate and replace animals.” It also details instances of Inuit hunters killing or abandoning their own dogs, either due to disease or “because they no longer had enough time to hunt or care for the dogs.”
But instead of highlighting evidence showing federal officials were engaged in saving rather than slaughtering the dogs – and even apparently in providing new ones – the inquiry chose to play up the Inuit’s fragile emotional state during this time and to rail against the public health ordinances that required some dogs to be put down because they were running loose or to control disease. And to soothe the hurt feelings created by these policies, it determined, the Inuit were still owed an apology from Ottawa. If the RCMP were guilty of investigating themselves, the Qikiqtani report appears to have decided on its conclusion that an apology was due long before it looked at any evidence.
Academics ever-eager to play up the victimization of Indigenous groups within a colonial narrative have since seized on the Qikiqtani Truth Commission’s conclusions as proof of a government-led campaign of dog annihilation. “A flash point in Inuit memories: Endangered knowledges in the Mountie Sled Dog Massacre,” reads the almost illiterate title of one 2013 journal article authored by a professor at the University of New England that draws heavily on the Qikiqtani report. Despite a total lack of evidence to support claims of any deliberate government policy to kill sled dogs, this period is now universally referred to as a “massacre”.
Regardless of the cultural significance of travel by dog sled, even those Inuit involved in the qimmijaqtauniq campaign have freely admitted that snowmobiles represented a significant upgrade in functionality and reliability. “I really wanted to get a snowmobile because I didn’t have to run beside it,” says one unnamed Inuit elder in the 2004 video “Echo of the Last Howl”, produced by the Makivik Corp. “The speed and ease of the snowmobile was the downfall of the dog sled.” Whether the dogs died or not, the sled team was doomed as the dominant form of transportation in the North.
It’s little wonder the Inuit so eagerly adopted the snowmobile, just as they had earlier adopted rifles to replace harpoons and spears, and as they continue to use other western technology they find useful. Today there are approximately 25,000 snowmobiles registered in Canada’s three Arctic territories – far more than the likely historical number of sled dogs – and for good reason. A dog team averages barely 20 km per hour over sustained distances, and just half that in difficult conditions. Sled dogs eat voraciously and keeping them fed, in turn, demands prodigious hunting.
Despite overwhelming evidence that there was no government campaign to slaughter sled dogs, as well as the obvious logic behind why the Inuit themselves shifted from sled teams to snowmobiles, the federal Liberals chose sentiment over substance. And so Bennett delivered her official federal apology for something Canada’s government never did. She also handed over $20 million in “sorry” money. This is not merely an outrage of principle but an enormous mistake that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. Apologizing for a myth that has been disproven makes a mockery of proper regret and of persons or groups who were actually wronged. And it reinforces the self-loathing (and wholly erroneous) narrative that the entirety of Canadian colonial history was an evil plot aimed at native genocide.
“Canada apologizes to Qikiqtani Inuit for sled dog killings,” read the headline in the Nunatsiaq News following Bennett’s announcement. Regardless of the truth, future generations will thereby assume the worst actually happened because our apology-obsessed federal government has said sorry – and paid up.
What was once legend has become fact.
Peter Shawn Taylor is an Associate Editor of the C2C Journal and a freelance writer based in Waterloo, Ontario.