I’ll be the first to admit that, occasionally, I cry at books. But I have never cried before when telling someone else about something I have read in a book. This is exactly what happened while I was reading The Long Exile: A true story of deception and survival in the Canadian Arctic by Melanie McGrath. Even without the admission of shedding tears into its binding, you would know that this book made an impact on me just to look at it. I have developed a (bad?) habit of folding over the corners of pages in books that say something particularly profound on them, something that has surprised me, which I can’t get out of my mind, or I never want to slip from it. My copy of The Long Exile has 42 folded corners. Bits of it look like a strange piece of non-fiction-origami.
That is not to say that this book is without faults. I found it strange and grating that McGrath often refers to people as ‘half-breeds’ if their father is white while their mother is indigenous. This is a phrase which was in general usage until shamefully recently, but even without an understanding of indigenous issues and the importance of words and naming, it is fairly easy to spot that this might not be wholly respectful. I find it strange therefore, that McGrath chooses to use it. Yes, perhaps, if you want to outline the thinking of the time (sadly the vast majority of this book takes place in the 20th century, and not the half that’s further away…) then mention of the words used is important. But McGrath does very little recording of verbatim text and doesn’t explain the power-plays that surround this word. It seems like a wilful, and somewhat perplexing, choice of her own which is at odds with the messages she otherwise wishes to convey.
Strange choices of words aside, the topic matter of this book is absolutely gripping. It splits into two major areas, the first following Robert Flaherty, director of the infinitely well-known film Nanook of the North through the process of filming, his pitching up on the Ungava peninsular in what is now part of Nunavut in northern Canada, and his life after his most well-known film. The second follows the life of Joseph Flaherty, the son of Robert Flaherty, who never knew his father and as far as can be told, never even heard from him. Joseph grew up in and around his maternal ancestral home of Inukjuak on the Ungava peninsular. He and his family were eventually resettled by the Canadian government on the utterly inhospitable Ellesmere Island in the Canadian High Arctic. The distance from Inukjuak to Grise Fiord, the camp on the island to which they were moved, is about the same distance as it is from New York City to Miami. Grise Fiord was almost completely uninhabitable.
McGrath uncovers the reasons for this resettlement of families by the Canadian government, examining the ethically and morally dubious ways in which they were ‘encouraged’ to partake in their removal from their homelands. She describes the woeful lack of preparation which greeted them upon arrival. She explains the complete misunderstanding of their way of life which made their enforced relocation possible. She also indicates the vast differences between the island that they were now to inhabit and their own – though by no means mild, at least relatively more forgiving – homelands.
McGrath speaks about a longing for home, family and familiarity, as well as about illness and starvation. She tracks the story through to the 1990s, when some of those who were moved and their descendants fought for recognition in the Canadian courts. They were led by Martha Flaherty who, at the age of 6 and in order to provide food for her family, was forced to accompany her father Joseph on hunting expeditions into the polar night. Temperatures dropped so low that it cramped the muscles in her throat and ice crystals tore at her lungs. Sometimes she endured this on no more than a drink of water.
This book is unimaginably shocking for anyone who has never heard of this programme – which from my own time spent in Canada, I worry is very few. It is necessary reading. It is unjust. It is painfully sad. It cannot be allowed to happen again. Anywhere.
I hope you find a copy and turn down every corner.