The Disposition of the Hebronimiut
In April of 1959, the 58 families of Hebron, on Labrador’s north coast, gathered at the Moravian church for their most important holiday, the Easter Monday Lovefeast.
Hebron was then the most northerly settlement in Labrador, located 200 km north of Nain.
After the Inuit had finished singing hymns and sharing tea and biscuits with their neighbours, the head of the Moravian church in Labrador announced the missionary would be leaving in August and the mission established in 1831 would then be closed.
Since the missionaries acted as teachers, and at times as nurses, it was hard to imagine the community without them.
An official from the province said the store would be closed the following year, leaving the people without a ready source of supplies and a place to sell the dark-pink char the area was known for.
The Hebron Inuit hadn’t been consulted about the move, but when they heard rumors the mission would be closed, they asked the government to give them two year’s notice. That didn’t happen.
The announcement of the closure that Easter Monday came as a surprise, but it’s the memory of how the announcement was made that even now moved John Jararuse to tears.
He was eleven years old when his family sat in church that day.
"Why didn’t they gather them in the community hall? Maybe they thought if they’re allowed in the church the people won’t say anything because they’re not allowed to say anything in the church," he said. "I think it was planned that way so people wouldn’t be against the move".
After the meeting, the visitors signed the mission’s guest book. The entries showed that even after years of discussion among themselves, no one wanted to take responsibility for the move.
Peacock wrote, "on the occasion of the government’s decision to close Hebron". Walter Rockwood, the senior civil servant for Labrador, wrote "on the occasion of the Mission confirmation of closing Hebron station." Dr. Anthony Paddon, the director of northern medical services for the International Grenfell Association, wrote he was an "innocent bystander".
But Paddon was anything but a passive bystander, Paddon helped precipitate the decision to relocate the Hebronimiut. He wrote to the provincial government about cramped and unsanitary living conditions after a visit in 1955, expressing concern about the incidence of tuberculosis and the shortage of wood for heating.
Officials thought hunting was dead
Paddon believed that Inuit needed to be integrated into the wage economy, because the practice of living off the land was "irretrievably lost".
That was a view shared by Reverend Bill Peacock, superintendent of the Moravian mission in Labrador, and be senior provincial government officials. Concerned about the expense of the Labrador missions, Peacock sent a questionnaire to his colleagues asking for ides to save money.
The missionary at Hebron, Reverend Siegfried Hettasch, replied, "I see no other way than to suggest the Mission withdraw from Hebron this summer". So in 1958, the Moravian church decided to close its mission in Hebron. At that point, only Walter Rockwood, the province’s Director of Northern Labrador Services thought Hebron should remain open. He believed the people could continue to support themselves with the char and seal fisheries.
Unlike the others, he thought the Hebron Inuit would have trouble finding steady wage jobs at the new air base in Goose Bay or at the radar station in Hopedale. Only a few Inuit got jobs at the Saglek radar site, just north of Hebron.
Rockwood didn’t take a stand on the closure of Hebron, but he warned about the need to plan carefully if people were going to be relocated so that they would have houses to move into.
This was a problem Rockwood had already faced when the government closed its store at Natuk in 1956, and the 158 Inuit who lived there were moved south. Rumors about the relocation of Hebron started the same year.
Fearing their community would be closed, the elders at Hebron sent a letter to the provincial government confirming their desire to stay where they were.
"We would be very thankful if we were not moved from our community, and we would appreciate it if you could consider our interests in not moving", said the letter, signed by the chief elder on behalf of the families in Hebron.
"We would be very thankful if someone would let us know what is going to happen to us in the future," says the letter’s last line.
No notice, no discussion
Even though the Hebronimiut weren’t given notice or an opportunity to discuss the move, about a dozen families took their houses apart and made them into packing crates.
John Jararuse’s family was one of the first to leave. "They had no choice but to move, they had no choice at all", he said. "They survived here for so many years, even before the missionaries came here", he explained.
"This was their homeland and I think what they done was wrong to move people away from here", Jararuse said.
By fall, half of the families had left Hebron on their own. Other families, hearing there were no houses to move to, decided to stay.
But when the International Grenfell Association suddenly withdrew its nurse, the Newfoundland government decided they couldn’t make the store manager responsible for all the services the community needed, so the store was closed in the fall of 1959.
Some people, like Mark Nochosack’s family, had just a few days to get ready for the last boat of the season. "My father had an organ in there and he used to play it almost every evening. He left that," said Nochosak. "It was dark when we got aboard the boat and there wasn’t much room. There were six of us in the family and we moved into a cabin with two bunks," he said.
Things weren’t a lot better for the Nochosack’s when they arrived in Hopedale. Jararuse’s sister, Bertha Holeiter, believes the decision to separate families was deliberate.
"I think, looking at it now, the reason they were so divided is so they wouldn’t speak against anybody," she said.
Jararuse, Holeiter, and their parents spent the winter in a tent on the beach at Nain because the house they’d been promised hadn’t been built. "If I had been grown up enough, I would have been humiliated and embarrassed that I brought my family to live here with me with nothing and expecting these people in the community to help us", she said.
Carol Brice-Bennett wrote a report about the relocation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
It’s called "Dispossessed: The Eviction of Inuit from Hebron, Labrador."
She says the Hebronimiut were never given a full explanation of the reasons for a move that she describes as devastating.
Her research shows the most immediate impact of the move was an unprecedented degree of poverty for the Hebronimiut.
"They were put in places where they weren’t familiar with the local environment so they didn’t know where to hunt, fish or trap and aside from that, all of the best places were already claimed by people who originally lived in these communities," she said.
Unable to feed themselves, they became dependent on social welfare. "It was very demoralizing for people who were accustomed to having plenty of food and taking care of themselves", Brice-Bennett said.
And when houses were finally built, they were clustered on the edges of the existing villages, reinforcing the isolation many Hebronimiut already felt.
"They were called northerners and their children were called derogatory names by kids in the community," she said.
Their unique Inuktitut dialect and unfamiliarity with English set them apart as well.
"I was really surprised that the teacher was speaking in English, I said to myself, how will I ever get through the day. I don’t understand a word of English," said Holeiter, who started school in Nain in 1959.
Her family spent only a year there before moving north to resume living off the land. But many Hebronimiut lived too far south to return to the rich hunting and fishing areas north of Nain.
While Jararuse remembers his sister’s husbands trying to make the best of the game available at Hopedale and Makkovik, he says they always missed Hebron.
Brice-Bennett blames these losses for a greater incidence of alcohol abuse and accidental death among the Hebronimiut than among other residents of Hopedale and Makkovik.
"They lost their spirit, their confidence and their will to live," she said.
And, in all the years since the relocation, none of the agencies involved in the decision to close Hebron have offered compensation or an apology.