Waterloo Region Record

Sorry for that thing I never did

Apology for sled dog killings mistakes myth for history


We shall begin, as is the apparent custom for all opinion columns these days, with the SNC-Lavalin affair.

In particular, much has been made of the prime minister’s lack of an apology in this matter.

“I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs,” Justin Trudeau told reporters when asked for his response to the Ethics Commission­er’s report.

Such a refusal seems beyond curious, given the eagerness with which the Trudeau government has apologized for so many other things from Canada’s past.

We’ve seen official apologies delivered for a dizzying array of historical events and policies covering everything from residentia­l schools to the gay community to immigratio­n to individual court cases against Indigenous war chiefs.

The day after the Ethics Commission­er’s bombshell report dropped, in fact, Ottawa was back in the apology business again as Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett was saying sorry 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 SNC-Lavalin coverage. Second, because in its latest bit of grovelling, the Trudeau government has reached a new low — it’s now apologizin­g for things that never happened.

There has indeed been a long-standing campaign on the part of Canada’s Inuit to assert 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.”

It’s been frequently argued that up to 20,000 sled dogs were wiped out by the federal government to bring the Inuit to heel and, it’s often whispered, to boost sales of snowmobile­s by white-owned stores. There’s even an Inuktitut word for this canine genocide: qimmijaqta­uniq, or “the dog slaughter.”

So persuasive were these tales that the government demanded the RCMP investigat­e the matter.

In 2006, the Mounties reported they could find no evidence of any organized plan to kill sled dogs. While some dogs were shot by police when running lose in northern towns, and as a preventive measure to stop the spread of disease, these likely numbered in the hundreds, rather than thousands.

To shoot 20,000 dogs, the report noted, would have required a massive requisitio­n of ammunition. There is no archival evidence to support any of this. In fact, reliable academic opinions put the total population of sled dogs 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 per cent of the sled dogs in Pangnirtun­g, on Baffin Island, died in a massive canine epidemic.

Those horrific tales of a government­appointed slaughter of sled dogs told by Inuit elders 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 together over the years with other images of a great many dogs succumbing to disease.

And these feelings have no doubt been influenced by the massive cultural changes ongoing at this time in the North. The Inuit went from a semi-nomadic lifestyle to living in permanent settlement­s within a decade. It was an enormous upheaval with profound social implicatio­ns. As such, Inuit history deserves our sympathy and understand­ing. But surely facts still matter.

Dissatisfi­ed with the results of the exculpator­y RCMP investigat­ion, the Inuit launched their own inquiry. This report actually discovered that “many qimmit died as a result of disease outbreaks in spite of a major effort made by the RCMP to inoculate and replace animals.”

Rather than focusing on the fact federal officials were trying to save, rather than slaughter, the dogs, however, the inquiry emphasized the fragile emotional state of the Inuit during this time and played up a few sad cases of dogs being put down for public health reasons.

While it is now clear there was never any sinister plan to massacre sled dogs, the apology demand has persisted as a way to validate Inuit oral history. And in keeping with federal Liberal policy that favours sentiment over substance, Bennett dutifully delivered an official apology for something Canada’s government never did. She also handed over $20 million in “sorry” money.

This is a mistake. Apologizin­g for an unproven myth makes a mockery of proper regret. 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 (Baffin Island) Inuit for sled dog killings,” reads the headline in the Nunatsiaq News following Bennett’s announceme­nt. Regardless of what really happened, future generation­s will assume the worst simply because our apology-obsessed federal government said sorry.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says the newspaper man at the end of the classic western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” It’s a clever way to end a movie. But no way to run a government.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a contributi­ng editor at Maclean’s magazine. He lives in Waterloo.

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