Background to researching a larger story – Noah and Boss

An essay by Jim Taylor

 It was an honour to be tasked with the library and archival research supporting the film, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk. The film and Isuma’s exhibition at the 2019 Venice Biennale is an opportunity for Inuit in Canada to give testimony of their forced relocations to a world audience. In doing this research and seeing the film, it’s clear that this is a needed story long waiting to be told. Though I was thrilled to be asked, I did have some misgivings about taking this on. Regardless of best intentions, how would my inevitable biases and ignorance play into this work? Would vital questions be neglected? I voiced these concerns and was told that Isuma needed someone living in the south experienced in historical research, able to access libraries in Toronto and the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. My task was a modest one in a very large group work, and its focus was sharply prescribed; finding primary and secondary historical sources related to the relocation of Inuit in Canada during the 1950s and 60s, specifically in the eastern Arctic where the story takes place.

Meeting with Isuma people, I learned about the film that depicted the meeting between group elder Noah Piugattuk and a representative of the Canadian government who suddenly appeared out on the land in the spring of 1961. Noah and his group had been living and surviving as the Inuit always had, as nomadic hunters adapted to one of the harshest regions of the planet. Later, sometime after this meeting with “Boss”, Noah moved his band into permanent settlement, in the new and growing town of Igloolik. It’s not hard to see the tragic element in this tale, but then I am looking at this through the lens of the 21st century with some awareness of the worst consequences of Britain’s and Canada’s policies towards Indigenous peoples – they are Canada’s central tragedy.

Isuma asked me to concentrate on two questions:
• What happened in Igloolik during the 1950s & 1960s?
• Who made the decisions?

Both seem simple questions. But, starting from this encounter between two men on Baffin Island in 1961, the search for answers radiates widely both in time and place. “What happened and who decided...?” ¬– this can’t put it down to one person. The answer is colonization and the collective force of Canada’s reach into the Arctic in the decades before and after “Boss” and Noah had met. It brings to question southern Canada’s perceptions of the Inuit, of sovereignty and conquest, of the Inuit’s success in survival as nomadic hunters, of war and geopolitics, of harmful good intentions, of the shape of permanent settlement and the state of affairs in Igloolik that awaited Noah Piugattuk and his people in the early 1960s.

First, I looked into the holdings of the Toronto Public Library. Taking into account all branches with inter-library loans, the Toronto Reference Library, and the access to online periodicals, these were sufficiently vast for the time given. Most all of the secondary sources would come from this system over the following months and would provide the larger overview of Canada’s Arctic policy.

The first stop was the Spadina Road branch of the TPL which specializes in this land’s indigenous history. Besides comprehensive histories, what was needed were good recent bibliographies to set out some leads. I found them in Arctic Migrants, Arctic Villagers by David Damas and the remarkable Community Histories and Special Studies of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission – a must-read for anyone interested in the legacy of forced relocations of the Inuit. A wealth of initial leads came from these works. Answers about Igloolik though lay in Ottawa.

The bibliographies also gave an idea of what awaited at Library and Archives Canada. I had never worked there and was thrilled at the opportunity to do so. After registration, and a very helpful phone interview with an Archivist who guided me on procedures and search strategies, I was off to Ottawa the week following with absolutely no idea if I would find anything of value pertaining to the relocations and Igloolik settlement.

I got into Ottawa and to LAC, surprised to find that files requested before leaving Toronto were waiting and ready for viewing. Unpacking them and leafing through the first pages showed instant rewards; early-1960s reports from Igloolik, correspondence between local administration and government regarding the settlement, and more. For anyone passionate about focused research of Canadian history, working at LAC is a thrill. Pouring through archival material though is its own research challenge. These are not books cued with helpful chapters, indexes, and titles to guide the hunt and narrow the search. Instead, these primary sources are basically just big stacks of loose paper in worn old brown folders. LAC staff wheels you a trolley of banker’s boxes of files inches thick, and sitting at a huge table next to a massive window overlooking the Ottawa River and across to Hull, you go through it all carefully and delicately page by page, making a value judgment on each and every one of them. The vast majority of it is just chaff – mundane administration, waybills, manifests, requisitions, irrelevant reports and letters. But then suddenly, every now and then, some truly choice bits are revealed.

During the afternoon of that first day at LAC, one document stood out that presaged the film’s story. It was a letter from the film’s antagonist, “Boss”, in reality Northern Service Officer and newly-arrived Area Administrator for Igloolik, – Mr. A.P. Wight. This letter, from December of 1960, outlined his intention to make patrols to outlying camps during the following spring. Clearly this was the journey on which he would meet Noah Piugattuk. Nowhere does Wight mention any designs on relocating the Inuit into permanent settlement.

During those first hours and days at LAC, a picture formed of the state of the settlement that Noah and his people were going to move into. The Igloolik settlement was, in the early 1960s, a place ill-prepared in construction and services. A.P. Wight and others working there, were clearly overwhelmed by the scale of the work and the logistical nightmare of constructing and maintaining a fledgling modern town in the Arctic. They lived in almost complete isolation too, the nearest radio many miles away at Hall Beach. As well, the promises made to the Inuit of health care and medical services were hollow. It turns out that they didn’t get a nurse posted there for years after Wight and Noah met. Basic medical care and first aid were provided by the priest, Father Fournier, until he decided he could do it no longer. They simply couldn’t find anyone prepared to take the post. These were the first documents. More would appear.

Some archival searches revealed the existence of documents absolutely central to our research. But a LAC staff member told me not to bother requesting them because they were classified as Code 32 – Restricted Access. Apparently, there weren’t for my eyes. I’m still not sure what prompted this advice, but I was fortunate on my second day there to get a one-hour appointment with an Archivist – Catherine Butler. Her advice was much better. She listened carefully, responded with real enthusiasm (she clearly loves her work), offered a number of ideas and strategies, put in some file requests, and most importantly told me that I should absolutely go after Code 32 Access to Information Protocol files. If the files have already been opened by someone else, which is often the case, they’re available.

In the following days, and in later visits to LAC, the most compelling and relevant material was Code 32 – Restricted Access. These included reports from R.C.M.P. of the Pond Inlet Detachment telling of Inuit camp visits throughout Fox Basin during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and describing isolated Inuit bands living in all manner of health and survival – some were thriving, while others tell of cases of near starvation (often widows); of emergency food aid given in the form of flour, oats and sugar.

As well, reports from Igloolik settlement in the mid-1960s, the town that Noah moved to, telling of alcohol making its way into the community thanks in good part to Defence staff at the DEW line station at Hall Beach; of Inuit boys and girls returning from residential schools fractured from traditional culture and knowledge, unskilled at surviving on the land; of families divided; of the corrosive effects of settlement life and, at the same time, of the bands still living and hunting outside of town who were thriving; of the religious division between Catholic and Protestant Inuit, made worse by misinformation, rumours, and unequal economic development.
Another Code 32 find was the essay by Dr. John S. Willis of the Indian and Northern Health Service – Northern Housing and Health written in 1960, the same year A.P. Wight took up his post in Igloolik.

This was the closest indicator as to why the government representative – A.P. Wight (Boss) - came out on to the land in the spring of 1961 and talked Noah Piugattuk into moving into a permanent settlement. Much of Dr. Willis’s essay is keyed on his enthusiasm for the publication Eskimo Mortality and Housing from the same year. This latter document is a deeply biased argument for permanent settlement keyed largely on two points.
Its first argument centres on poor hybrid housing, the result of local Inuit scrounging materials from dump sites of DEW line stations and taking whatever was apparently useful for shelter. The other was infant mortality rates. The arguments are compelling, but clearly this was not a rigorous study or the findings of a disinterested third party. The inclusion of pictures of long-abandoned camps and archaeological remains as examples of “Eskimo housing” bears this out. The strident and paternalistic voice of Canada, of the south, in the post-war period sounds loudly and clearly through these works. But given that, the supporting facts and infant mortality statistics are sobering.

It makes for troublesome reading. Though my job was one of simple retrieval of relevant material, this task moved inevitably into judgment, new questions, and being confronted ethically with a real grey area. This is not a bad thing., as it’s in the so-called grey areas where we find the most hard-fought and valuable answers in history. In the end all we can do is offer all evidence to better judgment, hoping that people can parse out the motivations, concern and good intentions from the chauvinism and biases as existed in those decades.

I also have to examine my own biases, as two of my family worked in the Arctic decades apart and were transformed by it. My father spent two months in the summer of 1968 performing surgery in Frobisher Bay (Iqaluit). My sister, studying archaeology at McGill, worked on a dig, of a thousand-year old Thule camp on Somerset Island in the summer of 1990. Both of them fell in love with the Arctic and had a deep regard for the Inuit. I remember years ago my father discussing the Inuit tuberculosis patients, saying how badly handled their transport and care was. I always held my father’s work up there in high regard, my sister’s too. I can only speculate, but I wonder what he, who held his work in medicine to the highest standard, would have thought surveying the health and hybrid housing situation in the late 1950s.

It’s fortunate we were able to find primary sources so laden with inference and inviting interpretation. For example, read the file of the Northern Service Officers Conference from 1957. This was a week-long conference in Ottawa for the dozen or so point men for Canada in the Arctic discussing the integration and future of the Inuit as Canadian citizens living in an evolving Arctic. This was Wight’s job. It was also James Houston’s. The conference had an ambitious, and one hopes, comprehensive agenda. As evidenced from all documents not one Inuit person was invited to contribute at this conference. I wonder if any were even invited.

Speaking of omissions, sadly, because of proprietary issues some of the documents we received from LAC were not cleared for copyright and inclusion in this project: publications from the Anglican Church of Canada, snazzy publicity from construction and heating companies, letters written in the mid-60s to Ottawa from Inuit elders describing their lives in permanent settlement, and more.
As for the documents we did find, I hope they lend meaning and perspective to this beautiful, sad, at times funny, and vitally important film. Every Canadian should see it.

Again, it was an honour to contribute, however modestly, to this project.

Jim Taylor, Toronto 2019


Was an honour to do the archival and library research into all that surrounded that day in the life of Noah Piugattuk. Questions of why this happened, the guiding forces, the politics, and the future that awaited Noah and his band are unending.

A big debt of gratitude goes out to the staff at Library and Archives Canada for helping me in accessing and recording a wealth of primary sources from Canada’s historical treasury. At LAC I found administration reports from Igloolik settlement from the early 60s including letters to and from ‘Boss’; RCMP reports from the region (some very troubling) detailing life on the land in the decades prior to the 1960s and the effects of settlement; the impacts of the Cold War and DEW line; Inuit entreaties to the Canadian government regarding settlement; evidence of the Protestant and Catholic divide; and documents illustrating the reasoning behind Canadian Government policy of Inuit settlement the year before ‘Boss’ and Noah met. In particular I’d like to thank Archivist Catherine Butler of LAC who listened, advised and helped me with tremendous enthusiasm, patience and generosity.

Most all of the secondary source material was obtained through that vast marvel which is the Toronto Public Library, the most heavily subscribed library system in North America. Thanks go out to the Spadina Road Branch with its indigenous collection (this is where my research started), the inter-library loans system, and to the staff at the Toronto Reference Library who assisted me in finding long-shelved periodicals, professional and government publications, and the rewards of online databases.

I’m blessed to have Tanja Jacobs and Nina Taylor for love and support. I’m also thankful to my supervisor, collaborator and friend Gillian Robinson who coordinated this book and gave me free reign, guidance and encouragement. Lastly, big thanks to my parents Joan and the late Dr. Earle Taylor (who loved the Arctic) for instilling and nurturing my fascination with history from a very young age.


Jim Taylor (Picton, Ontario 1962) is a Toronto-based visual artist, bassist, and teacher. Fascinated by history, encouraged by his parents, and devoted to the study of it from a very young age, his curiosity has led him to studies in Spain for language and literature and various travels abroad. He’s a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design specializing in drawing and painting, holds a BA from the University of Guelph and a Bachelor of Education (Primary / Junior) from York University. His professional experience includes work in public education, community building, volunteering with newcomers to Canada, and front-line social work. Besides maintaining an on-going art practice, he works as a scenic artist in the Toronto film industry.