Mutiny on the tundra

If René Lévesque can do it, so can Charlie Watt

David Thomas October 31 1977

Mutiny on the tundra

If René Lévesque can do it, so can Charlie Watt

David Thomas October 31 1977

Mutiny on the tundra



If René Lévesque can do it, so can Charlie Watt

David Thomas

“This,” declared Charlie Watt as he surveyed the Ungava tundra pressing in on the huddled settlement of Fort Chimo, “is no longer part of Quebec.” For Watt, the leader of Quebec’s 4,000 Inuit and the only adversary of the Parti Québécois government yet to score a direct hit, that was the conclusion to his display of defiance against the province’s new law that French be the language of its residents.

It had happened suddenly, at the summer’s end when such stern, old-line nationalists as Cultural Development Minister Camille Laurin were feting their own linguistic emancipation. But while the cocktail glasses were clinking in the secessionist salons of Quebec City and Montreal, the edges of Quebec’s northern frontier bubbled with the revolt of a native population most Quebeckers didn’t even know they had. Laurin’s morality play, advertised as the triumph of cultural purity over AngloSaxon domination, was heading to a surprise nemesis. The masks were slipping and reporters swooped into the unlikely amphitheatre of Fort Chimo to take up their places in the chorus. The colonizer, they intoned, was really Quebec.

And while down south. English Canada was enjoying the battering suffered by Quebec’s government, another message was spreading across the northland. The pacificdays of Inuit submission were over.

Though Watt’s declaration of independence would be hard to defend, either in court or at war, it rings with enough truth to make the Inuit, and the top third of the province they occupy, nagging preoccupations for a government bent on splitting away from Canada—without losing giant chunks of its own territory. There is no doubt that the Inuit would overwhelmingly choose to leave Quebec should Watt ever exercise his threat to call his own referendum. An adviser close to Premier René Lévesque confided: “Northern Quebec is a real danger zone for us.” The reasons are simple enough. If Parti Québécois logic suits Quebec, it applies with infinitely more justice to the province’s Inuit who, with their own language and culture, are the majority in a clearly defined territory they have occupied more than 10 times longer than the French have nestled in the valley of the St. Lawrence.

By cutting off water deliveries and keeping their children home, the Inuit forced Quebec’s northern schools to close. And by asking that Quebec pull out its adminis-

trators, they were rewarded with another of those remarkable blunders that have marked Quebec’s attempts to establish its Arctic authority. A squad of hulking riot troopers descended to defend the outpost of Fort Chimo against the mutinous natives. Only the pith helmets were missing. It was the first time an armed force of whites had been sent to quell the Inuit, although throughout the paramilitary occupation the natives themselves had halted the sale of beer, avoided any hint of violence and caused residents to remark that the dusty streets of Fort Chimo had never been quieter. Charlie Watt issued press releases and Quebec replied with a show of firepower.

Lost in what was rapidly degenerating to a comic opera on the last days of an empire was the reality that, at its core, the events had only marginally to do with the recently adopted language bill. Much more, they were the culmination of five years of battle over land that ended in a document called the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement which let Flydro-Quebec get on with the damming of northern rivers. The Inuit leadership argued that the language law, by leaving it to the government to set the rate at which the natives must convert from English to French, betrayed the land agreement signed by the old Liberal government. Under the agreement, the pace of French introduction would be left up to the Inuit themselves and they would decide the languages of instruction through control of a new regional school board. But now, here was Quebec’s new government saying the kids of friends and relatives moving to northern Quebec from the federally run islands off its coast would have to be taught in French.

The harsh wording of the law, particularly the use of “must” to define the Inuit obligation to use French, was meant, in the implacable mind of Faurin, as a slap at the greedy hands of the natives who had spent

the summer upping their demands for language exemptions and “special status.” Inuit agreement and the language law are disputable. But, for them, Laurin’s semantic severity was the ultimate confirmation the white man was not to be trusted, but rather expelled. Especially the French white man, the worst in a parade of outsiders who made Fort Chimo the focal point of racial confrontation.

Pyramids of black barrels are stacked in military order along the bluff protecting Fort Chimo’s beach from the northerly winds. Spared from rusting by the cold, the heavy drums could have been delivered

only days ago were it not for their stenciled markings—U.S. Engineers, asphalt; in fact they were shipped here 36 years ago to smooth the way for American warplanes. About 20 miles up the tidal Koksoak River from Ungava Bay, Fort Chimo is at the very edge of the tree line. It was once a meeting point for Indians and Inuit. Now the Indians have moved south and Fort Chimo has become the meeting ground of the Inuit and the whites, whose highstrung executive jets and obstreperous 737s need the long, hard surface left by the Americans.

Fort Chimo seems as fragile as some space colony where lost beings from alien

worlds coexist, but barely. Together the whites account for a quarter of the village’s 1,000 souls. When they draw their curtains, they could be on the twenty-fourth floor of a Toronto apartment tower. Inuit houses, separated by at least a roadway from those of the whites, rarely have bathtubs or flush toilets and often hold two or three families.

Fort Chimo is the only one of the 15 Inuit communities in Quebec where the sale of beer by the case is permitted by the local native council. Most Friday evenings, Inuit men and women line up at their coop store to trade $ 16 for a case of 24 cans. Before the settlement sleeps, several fights and accidents will have busied the Quebec nurses and doctors, and the two regular Quebec police constables will have done what they could to restore peace. Usually, the aggression is turned inward, against wives, children and neighbors. The sudden end to 40 centuries of nomadic subsistence, the switch from snowhouses to heated bungalow and the instant imposition of a welfare economy-all within less than a generation—have struck the Inuit with the force of a meteorite. The older Inuit watch helplessly as their offspring grow incapable of surviving off the land.

Throughout, the white was treated with smiling deference by a people locked into a time warp whisking them from the changeless age of stone to a future nobody knows. Only now is a new generation recovering enough equilibrium to dream of a return, not to the awesomely trying ways of the past but to Inuit self-sufficiency and domain over the land. The crisis that forced Quebec Inuit to leap ahead of their brothers in the federally administered Arctic was the negotiation of the James Bay agreement. In return for certain lands, local powers and cash, the agreement extinguishes the aboriginal rights of Quebec natives. Negotiation of that exchange, which must be proclaimed law by both the federal and provincial governments by November 11, was for many Inuit the first realization that they did not have full, irrevocable title to the territory their ancestors had neither signed away nor lost in battle. And it confirmed their subjection to Quebec and the French.

A racist distaste for French-speaking whites can be traced back to the 1920s bankruptcy of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s rival trading firm, Revillon Frères. Before that, relations between the French and the Inuit were, according to some accounts, better than they were with the English-speaking whites. But the disappearance of Revillon Frères meant instant economic and social disaster: without the French competition, the Hudson’s Bay Company drastically reduced the prices paid for pelts. Natives dependent on Revillon Frères for food and clothing simply starved to death. The memory remains vivid, nourished over the years by English-speaking traders, missionaries and teachers who earnestly worked to maintain their exclusive presence

among the Inuit people of Quebec.

It was in the early 1960s that Quebec decided to assert its jurisdiction over the northern territory transferred to the province in 1912 and known as Nouveau Québec. Responsibility for the administration of the northland and its people was delegated to the Ministry of Natural Resources, led at the time by a Liberal dynamo named René Lévesque. With all the delicacy of an icebreaker, Quebec charged in to cleanse the map of its English placenames and Frenchify some that the English hadn’t even touched. The Inuit snubbed the name changes, but they couldn’t ignore the replacement of RCMP by Quebec police, the transfer of welfare administration to the province and the establishment of Quebec schools operating in competition with federal classrooms. Waves of trauma reverberated through the native communities. “When the Quebec government came in, people were really scared,” remembers Roda Grey, now one of the first Inuit nurse trainees at the provincially funded hospital. “Myself, I was scared. The Anglican minister’s wife was head of Girl Guides and she told us the French people would make us starve. Even the principal of the school said French people were like Germans or Russians and would kill us.”

Quebec made some laudable attempts to win Inuit loyalty, notably by teaching all subjects in Inuktituk during the first three

years, unlike federal schools where English is the language of instruction. But the province’s efforts to establish its presence came when native distrust of all whites was ripening. Within two decades, Fort Chimo had been successively occupied by Ameri-

can soldiers, Canadian airmen, federal police and now Quebec’s. In the words of a former Quebec administrator: “It was a classic colonial phenomenon. The moment one colonizer was getting ready to leave, another was moving in.”

It was during this changing of the guard, without consultation of the Inuit, that a young mechanic decided his people

needed political leadership of their own. When Charlie Watt decided to become a leader, first he had to create a political structure to lead. The closest thing to it, at the time, was a community council in Fort Chimo which had no power and was a tame source of native information for federal officials. Twenty-two years old, Charlie Watt won election as president of the community council in 1966 and his wrestle began for Inuit and personal power.

Fine-boned and fair-skinned. Watt’s white blood is more obvious than his Inuit ancestry. In a crowded bus down south, nobody would single out Charlie Watt as anything but a white. His mother, Daisy, herself half white, cooked for the Hudson’s Bay post when an American military doctordelivered her son, Charlie. 33 years ago. His father, a Hudson’s Bay factor, left before his birth and the two met only recently. It’s a matter the handsome, stylish Watt dismisses quickly: “I never experienced growing up with a father and 1 never missed it.” His dark eyes tend to stay shyly averted but, alerted, they can con-

centrate with the acuity of a lens focusing the sun’s rays to point.

Watt lives in both worlds: in the north with his wife and kids and in the south where he keeps offices and an apartment. His ability to survive in the south, and live in white style, sets him apart from most other Inuit for whom schooling was quickly abandoned as irrelevant. “I had to learn about Dick and Jane and about flowers I had never seen,” Watt remembers. “You try your best to understand, but in your little mind you wonder: ‘What am I doing here?’ ” After seven years study in Fort Chimo and one in Yellowknife, Watt was sent to Kingston where' the federal government intended to train northern natives to operate the machinery essential to their survival. But there was a problem. Most of the students couldn’t understand English and none of the instructors could speak Inuktituk. “I didn’t have much time to learn,” Watt recalls. “I was too busy interpreting for the other Inuit. My English

wasn’t too good, but no one else could translate.” A series of jobs followed : first as a clerk in Ottawa, then keeping track of goods unloaded at a Baffin Island DEW Line station, then another supervising Inuit children in a Churchill hostel. Everywhere, Watt became the key to communication between Inuit and white.

“I felt the council could do more than just give information to the government.” he says. “It could make our people aware of changes and represent them.” An Inuit was raising his voice. His complaint was the cession of northern jurisdiction to Quebec without native accord. Unaccustomed to such petulance, the federal department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development summoned the vexatious Watt to Ottawa for a talking to by a now-retired assistant deputy minister. “He told me he didn’t like me mouthing off,” recalls Watt. “He said only the Anglican bishop had any rights to speak on behalf of the Inuit.” The government man tried another angle: he offered Watt a better job. “I refused. I said I would find my own formula to deal with the problem.” The department retaliated by transferring him 200 kilometres up the Ungava Bay coast, forcing Watt to resign from Fort Chimo’s community council. Out of sight in George River, Watt plotted his revenge, countering in 1972 with the incorporation of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association. The Inuit had a leader, and Charlie Watt had power.

The accoutrements of power are evident. His office is furnished in executive chrome, occupying the upstairs corner of one of the four, cedar-paneled duplexes built by the Inuit association to house its bureaucracy and staff members. In a row along Fort Chimo’s highest ridge, they outclass even the government housing for whites and would look more in place somewhere along the Côte d’Azur, niched in the face of a Mediterranean cliff. The sharpest reproof is saved for the Inuit group’s purchase of a million-dollar corporate aircraft, a turboprop Beechcraft too fast to land at any of the outlying settlements. It ferries Watt and his employees between Fort Chimo and Montreal. The Northern Quebec Inuit Association is no struggling citizens’ committee. A hefty expense account bolsters Watt’s salary as president which itself is well over $30,000. But as one of his critics concedes: “Charlie is the only person capable of doing what he is doing. And what he is doing needs to be done.”

But, while he has the confidence of most settlements, Watt’s authority is contested by three communities of Inuit who challenge his right to cede aboriginal rights for money. It was by signing away the rights of Quebec’s Inuit that Watt and his association became the trustees for about $90 million to be paid out in compensation over the next 20 years. Native people across Canada are worried the James Bay agreement will set a meagre precedent for the settlement of their land claims since

Ottawa is a signatory to the deal between Quebec and its natives.

What Watt and Cree Indian negotiators gave up for that money and title to scattered bits of land is expressed with brutal clarity by the first paragraph of the agreement. It reads less like a contract than a military capitulation: “The James Bay Crees and the Inuit of Quebec hereby cede, release, surrender and convey all their native claims, rights, titles and interests, whatever they may be, in and to the land in the territory.” Amere 3,250square miles of land are reserved for the exclusive use of the Inuit who are increasing at a faster rate than any other people in Canada, doubling their number every 30 years. Even on those reserved lands, Quebec retains all mineral rights and the liberty to dam any rivers with hydroelectric potential. The resources that could have made the North self-sufficient were handed over, and the Inuit of the three dissident settlements refuse to recognize the agreement’s legality. Though they sided with Quebec in the language dispute, some government officials consider the dissidents to be the secondgeneration revolutionaries, the ones who will ultimately convince the masses that Watt is in bed with the whites.

Watt defends the agreement, saying no other native negotiators would have done better and pointing to the overwhelming ratification vote of the Inuit as proof of their satisfaction. It is, however, far from certain that the majority of the natives understood the agreement and its implications. Watt’s power to lead without his followers having a clear notion of the issues was shown during the language dispute when in one settlement confused leaders refused federal unemployment insurance cheques but allowed the distribution of provincial welfare benefits they were supposed to boycott.

The influence of the white advisers hired by Watt is now waning. Now they are excluded from strategy conclaves before essential Inuit decisions. And Inuit independence can only grow from one element of the land agreement, the part Charlie Watt says is the best. The whole expanse of boreal forest, tundra and rushing water above Quebec’s 55th parallel will be given over to local government. Residency requirements will exclude transient whites from voting, leaving Inuit politicians firmly in charge. Similar on paper to any municipal administration, the Kativik regional government is not likely to busy itself only with public works. “To survive, the Inuit had to grab everything that moved,” says a white involved in the land negotiations. “They know no limit to consumption: that’s why they drink until the last bottle is gone. When they get a taste of political power, they will be just as insatiable.”

That exuberance, which so riled Camille Laurin, may in the end be a bigger threat to Quebec’s dominion in the north than antagonisms of language or race.