Caroline speaks about the Dene culture in the region. Kim Clune photo.
Caroline Bjorklund was a Dene Elder and inspirational cultural speaker living in Churchill. She survived the Dene government relocation of the 1950’s and lived a life trying to keep the Dene culture and history alive through cultural presentations to tour groups and local institutions. Natural Habitat Adventures client/traveler and photographer Kim Clune captured this wonderful perspective of Caroline last fall in Churchill. Caroline passed away last week and will be remembered in all of our hearts for eternity.
One night, after scouting polar bears on the tundra, our group huddled around a table filled with items from native cultural history. Caroline Bjorklund opened her talk with a profound statement slid in-between some caribou facts.
“I finally started learning who I am. It’s hard. Especially when you’ve lost your language, your culture and your elders.”
Caroline’s story was like listening to two intertwined narratives, one a hunting documentary and the other a memoir of personal trauma. Both were woven into a found poetry that took some reflection to decipher.
Caroline and her two young brothers were ripped from their parents at a tender age. Terrified and screaming, she was forced into a helicopter and then a school where she was separated from her brothers and punished for speaking her own language. She never saw her family and was never taught the Dene (said Den-neh) culture, Dene being the tribe from which she came.
I had read about such things before, but here was a survivor, clearly marred by such horrific events, telling me her personal account.
Caroline’s parents, like many Dene, were likely moved to uninhabitable land after being told to abandon their means for survival, including canoes, tools, dogs and sleds. Many native tribes were told that these items would be later returned. They never were.
“Then alcohol was introduced and the people forgot who they were,” she said.
After burying so much of her own painful disconnect in alcohol for years, Caroline embraced sobriety and finally began to heal her heart and recapture her identity by learning tribal ways.
She told us about the Caribou once used by her family for food, clothing, sinewy fishing nets, and how no portion of the animal was wasted. She even learned to make a child’s game from boiling a caribou foot and stringing together the knuckles.These acts are not second nature and the ingredients not readily available, as they were for her parents. It took investigative work to unearth a way of Dene life that has been intentionally stripped from her and decimated.
Caroline’s mother and sister persuaded her to learn traditional beading, which she resisted taking up until recently. You’d never know it. To see her first work on a pair of mitts shows the attention she pays to detail and the care with which she makes each stitch. It’s as if she’s making up for lost time with precise intent.
Beadwork and leatherwork of Caroline’s coveted mitts. Kim Clune photo.
She has also learned about tribal medicine, spruce tree gum for disinfection and dwarf Labrador tea for flu-like symptoms. Her brother tricked her into drinking it once. It tasted terrible. The expression on her face as she told the story led to a genuine chuckle at this prank. Sibling shenanigans must be cherished after so much disconnect. But who am I to guess? I can’t even comprehend how lonely her life must have been.
One on one, after her talk, I asked Caroline when she was reunited with her brother, the one who convinced her to drink the tea.
She and her young brother were never reunited. Nor was she with her biological mother. She speaks of other tribe members as sister and brother. Elders are mother and granny. She calls them all teachers and family and cherishes each one, but none are the people she was born to.
Nat Hab guide Kurt Johnson and Caroline presiding over another amazing Dene cultural talk.Kim Clune photo.
What Caroline made so evident to me, somebody who knows only the textbook history is that this history is still very much alive and the story continues. Caroline is my sister, my mother, my granny, showing me that we can and must do better as human beings.
Sharing her most precious vulnerability, Caroline’s story is riddled with tangents. Speaking of these torments, again and again, causes her pain. Some talks are quite emotional, others more detached due to the fatigue of reliving her history. Regardless of the personal cost, she continues to educate on the very personal impact of inhumane policy and practice so that such atrocities never happen again.
Caroline is a true hero, spinning her suffering into harsh but necessary education. THIS is what I celebrated last Thanksgiving, as our own Native Americans continue to fight for their land and rights.
When one thinks Arctic landscape, one usually visualizes serene endless tundra or boreal forest with snow covered trees! There’s a section of that austere boreal forest in Inuvik that has five dormant satellite receivers that look alien to the habitat and have been ready for use since 2016.
The satellite receivers were built by Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services and American satellite company Planet Lab. Over 18 months ago the application process for federal licensing commenced and since has been caught up in government red tape. The anticipated turnaround was six months.
Going into the application process, both companies expected a turnaround of about 180 days. Word surfaced last week that the licenses were finally approved though no formal announcement has been made. Global Affairs Canada, needs to approve an auxiliary license under Canada’s Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. Until this happens the dishes cannot be activated. Since these installations are integral to a remote sensing space system they need approval from the two agencies.
Inoperable Invuk Satellite receivers constructed two years ago are unused due to one federal license still needing approval. Rolf Skatteboe photo.
President and CEO of Kongsberg Satellite Services, Rolf Skatteboe, stated the license delays are costing his business money since he is unable to fulfill a contract with the European Space Agency.
“I’ve got the message … hey you’ve gotten the approvals now you can get started, which unfortunately isn’t true,” he said.
Global Affairs Canada apparently has cleared the department to “proceed in evaluating our application” according to Skatteboe.
“We still don’t know … when we will potentially get a license or not,” Skatteboe said. “That’s the most frustrating part.”
Planet Lab and Kongsberg have spent millions to build the installations at Inuvik Skatteboe values the single large antenna installation at around $6 million, and four of the smaller Planet Lab installations at roughly $8 million. The sixth antenna has received the licensing it needs since its use under the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act did not require review.
Kongsberg constructed its satellite installations in Inuvik prior to being issued a license since the building season in the North is so short and doesn’t allow for flexibility. The company didn’t anticipate delays of the magnitude that has occurred.
Skatteboe added Kongsberg contracted with the European Space Agency to utilize the Inuvik ground station in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA) environmental Earth monitoring project named the Copernicus program.
A Kongsberg Satellite Services satellite station in Svalbard, Norway is one of 21 stations around the world and had very little resistance for permitting unlike what he has encountered in Canada according to company president and CEO Rolf Skatteboe. Rolf Skatteboe photo.
“[Kongsberg Satellite] has 21 ground stations around the world and they have all been licensed without any problems,” he said.
“So [Kongsberg] did not expect any problems related to approval to receive … data from an ESA satellite, an organization where Canada also is an associated member.”
“[Kongsberg Satellite] applied more than a year before the system was planned to be operational,” said Skatteboe.
The uncertainty surrounding when, or if, Kongsberg’s installations will ever be approved for use is the main concern.
“If Canada decided what we’re doing is a threat to national security, fine, I accept that,” he said.
“The frustrating part is that we haven’t gotten any feedback on the timescale for them to rule on this one.”
Global Affairs Canada, department spokesperson Brittany Venhola-Fletcher said in an email statement that, “Global Affairs Canada continues to work closely” with Kongsberg and Planet Labs to finalize and hopefully approve their licensing application.
The HBRC will be solely responsible for any damages and costs to repair the rail line. Omnitrax photo.
The parent company of Hudson Bay Railway Company (HBRC), US-based Omnitrax, is off the hook for any damages lost in a pending lawsuit. HBRC will be solely responsible to the federal government if they are found liable for not repairing the washed out rail-line that links Churchill with the south of Manitoba. In May 2017 the tracks were washed away in nearly 20 locations rendering the stretch of tracks useless until millions of dollars are allocated for repair.
Omnitrax’s claim that HBRC is a separate entity has been upheld and thus the Federal Government of Canada has removed its name from the lawsuit.
Soon after two late spring blizzards began to melt, the tracks suffered severe damage in multiple locations. Omnitrax, based in Denver, Colorado, refused to spend an assessed $60 million for repairs. The company claimed economic hardship with regards to the project and was faced with the federal government threatening to sue after the 30-day start deadline elapsed.
The government filed a lawsuit this past November naming Omnitrax and HBRC as defendants. Under a 2008 agreement, Transport Canada indicated that Omnitrax was responsible for keeping the railway running through 2029. As a result, the lawsuit is seeking to recoup $18 million that was an original part of the terms to operate the port and rail line. However, the company has claimed the damages resulted from unforeseeable circumstances or “act of God” thus releasing them from their obligation to repair under their contract with the government.
Omnitrax counsel Jamie Kagan acknowledged that the Attorney General of Canada and Omnitrax have agreed to remove the parent company’s name from the lawsuit and relieve them from any judgment for damages. Any fault and levy of damages will now only be filed against HBRC.
“Our view has always been that this is a political action mainly brought for the purposes of PR and not for a legal remedy, and it appears that the Government of Canada, when pushed, ultimately agreed and has withdrawn the allegations against Omnitrax Inc.,” Kagan said in an interview after the hearing.
“As the private owner of the line, Hudson Bay Railway Company -which also conducts business under the name OmniTRAX Canada- had the obligation to repair the rail line when it was damaged,” a spokesperson for Transport Canada said in an emailed statement.
Churchill residents and business people have been faced with increasing costs for everyday supplies as most now are transported by air. Government subsidies have deferred costs to some extent though some residents have been forced to relocate to Winnipeg or other locations as a result.
Omnitrax is still trying to work out a purchase and sale agreement with a group comprised of northern Manitoba First Nations. Those talks have stalled since the disaster last spring.
The deMeulles Auto Gas Bar in Churchill reflects the price of gas prior to the rail line washout. Dale deMeulles photo.
Churchill’s gas prices have been reduced by fifty cents a litre thanks to the federal government accessing the economic stimulus fund once again. With petrol prices nearing the $10/gallon mark, this latest reprieve will keep the cost at about $8/gallon. And we complain about gas prices when they reach $3/gallon or more? Kind of puts things in perspective a little, eh?
With federal findings of a probe of Omnitrax, owner of the Port of Churchill facility and the defunct Hudson Bay Line, due to be released soon, residents are enduring rising prices and increased isolation leading to economic strife.
Last week, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr confirmed that the Ottawa government would allocate $132,870 for Exchange Petroleum to lower gasoline prices to prior levels before the Hudson Bay Rail Line was devastated by flooding last May. Shipping on the railway was the only way to keep costs for supplies and fuel low. Now, ten months later, the pressure is causing long-time residents to move south in search of a more affordable lifestyle.
In September 2016, Ottawa approved the Churchill and Region Economic Development Fund, intended for the diversification of northern Manitoba’s economy following Omnitrax laying off most of the port’s workforce that summer. Businesses have benefitted from the money by offsetting rising shipping costs of materials shipped by barge or airplane.
Last December Carr visited Churchill and announced the government would add $2.7 million to the existing $4.6 million relief fund. After seemingly turning a blind eye to the issue the federal government now is coming to the rescue.
The new windfall of cash will be transferred to Exchange Petroleum, owner of the Calm Air fuel-storage tanks located at the Churchill airport. These tanks are being used due to issues with the port’s storage tanks related to the viability of winter storage of the fuel.
Churchill Port tank farm is unable to store fuel for the town through the winter. Churchill Tank Farm photo.
“This project is a great example of how collaboration and partnerships can help lessen Churchill’s acute economic hardships, restore a quality of life, and keep its entrepreneurs in business,” Exchange CEO Gary Bell wrote in a statement.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence expressed thanks to Ottawa for its leadership and funding while conveying optimistic thoughts that rail line repairs would commence in the spring.
“This announcement means real savings for residents and businesses of Churchill during these difficult economic times,” Spence wrote. “It’s important to also give a great deal of credit to Exchange Petroleum who stepped in last fall.”
Veronica Puskas’ quilt Pillars of Strength. Canadian Quilters’ Association photo.
Veronica Puskas, a former resident of Nunavut’s Kivalliq region, recently won an award for Excellence in Work by a first-time exhibitor Quilt in St. Catharines, Ont. at Canada’s national juried show.
Pillars of Strength, is based on a 1950 photograph of her grandmother and mother near the Meliadine River by Rankin Inlet.
The quilt honors her grandmother, Puskas says, though making it also helped her to deal with some heavy emotions.
Veronica Puskas uses Nunavut and the north as inspiration for her quilts and art. Veronica Puskas photo.
“I hope to encourage people that are going through difficult times that through doing some artwork or doing something to make something beautiful is very cathartic,” she says. “It helps you deal with the emotions and the hurt while doing it.”
Puskas says the project, which she began years ago and selected from over 80 entries, was truly a labor of love and family tribute.
“Mom used to tell us you can do better than that and that’s all I kept hearing.”
Chair of the event, Marilyn Michelin,says Puskas’ skill is outstanding.
“To do people in a picture is just unbelievable,” she says. “The talent that people have for that.”
Puskas, who now lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, will continue to use the north and particularly Nunavut as her inspiration for future quilting projects.
Rankin Inlet in a deep freeze of -60C a couple of days ago. Susan Enuaraq photo.
Rankin Inlet, Nunavut gets cold in the winter. Located on the northwestern shore of the Hudson Bay at 62 degrees and between Chesterfield Inlet and Arviat, the town is definitely in a remote yet exposed region. Weather is just a part of life and recently the weather has been colder than cold.
Schools in the south get “snow days” though when you get to the 60-degree latitudes school closures are “cold days”…usually accompanied by some snow as well. When temperatures fall to -60C with the windchill or more than just about everyone will stay home and not risk going outside and expose skin. For the past few days, schools have cautiously remained closed.
“I don’t remember the last time we actually closed due to weather. This is a bit of an extreme,” said Mike Osmond, chair of the Rankin Inlet District Education Authority.
Temperatures are getting to –40 C before the windchill and when the winds are factored in, it feels colder than –60 C.
“You’ve got blustery winds with some of the coldest temperatures that people have ever experienced,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, adding that his charts say skin freezes in two minutes at –55 C.
Windchill was expected to reach above -65C in the past couple of days and we are watching the area closely to see how the community fairs with the dangerous cold. Blame for the almost 15 degrees colder than normal temperatures is being placed on the polar vortex, a combination of an aggressive weather system and frigid air temperatures.
Elders in the Arviat and Rankin region are advising native hunters to remain home until the chill breaks. Living on the land in the past didn’t have this luxury as they had to scavenge for food in even the most dangerous conditions. Grocery stores in these communities of nearly 2,500 people now allow for a community to survive the winter and feel secure in the far north. These towns in the remote northern region do pay high prices for this luxury but there is no other way to survive as a flourishing community.
However, now that people can go to the grocery store, they don’t have to risk their lives hunting in extreme temperatures. Replacing cultural traditions, however, can sometimes be hard for natives to the region used to living off the land and some have gotten themselves into risky situations.
December through February is the coldest time of the year in Rankin Inlet and the urge to get outdoors is always there. However, for many just relaxing inside until the treacherous temperatures rise is sometimes a matter of life or death!