Hebron, Labrador

1959 – The Inuit of Hebron – Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples


Administrative Relocation

To Make Things Easier for Government

Racism is discrimination. Racism is assimilation. Racism is centralization. Racism is telling the person where to live, what language you have to speak, and this is how you’re going to live.

Blair Paul
Eskasoni, Nova Scotia, 6 May 1992

The Inuit of Hebron, Labrador

The Inuit of Hebron and Nutak, Labrador, were relocated in the 1950s for reasons similar to those that led to the attempted centralization of the Mi’kmaq. In Labrador this process of centralization was viewed by officials as a form of good administration in order to rationalize the provision of services to remote groups of people. When governments realized the social and political necessity of providing housing, schools, health care, and other services to aboriginal peoples, the most cost-effective solution was to gather people together and concentrate their populations, either in new communities in the north, or by resettling them to established southern towns.

Hebron was founded as a Moravian mission station in 1830. By the early 1920s, most of the Inuit families in the region from Napaktok Bay to the Torngat Mountains, north of Hebron, continued to live in seasonal camps but made frequent trips to Hebron to trade and to celebrate Christian events and holidays such as Easter and Christmas. As well, Inuit congregated near the Hebron mission because it provided education and medical services. Nutak, however, did not develop as a small village until the Spanish flu epidemic of late 1918 had decimated the community of Okak. The Inuit families remaining in the Okak region after the epidemic congregated around Nutak, where a store was established by 1919-1920, and they were visited by missionaries from either Hebron or Nain. These communities gave the Inuit a base from which to hunt, trap and fish:

We had lots of meat, seal meat. They used to go caribou hunting on dog team. Like if they’re coming in at night, you could hear a shot; that means they got caribou. They fire a shot. And my grandmother would say "nekiksitavogut" – we got food.

I remember that I had a good family. The kids were happy and my father and mother. We used to have seal meat, deer meat, birds, fish and trout – whatever they had there.

Hebron relocatees remember life in their community with fondness, as a time when it was less complicated, less painful.

And when we were in Hebron, we held community dances at our house. We weren’t rich moneywise but we were rich in other ways. We had a really big house there and because it was a big house the whole community used to come to have their dances in our house. Everyone was happy.

The former manager of the Newfoundland government store in the community supports the Inuit assessment of the quality of life in the community. "They were as good [seal hunters] as there was in northern Labrador. There was a sense of community and self-reliance."

There was considerable discussion during the 1950s about the viability of northern Labrador communities. These discussions were between the provincial government’s department of public welfare, division of northern Labrador affairs (dnla), the Moravian mission, and the International Grenfell Association, which provided medical services in the region. Very little of the discussion about the viability of Nutak and Hebron involved the Inuit.

During this time, major changes were taking place in the coastal economy. Construction at Goose Bay and radar stations along the coast were drawing people away from trapping and fishing into better paying wage labour jobs. This trend led to major shifts in population from "isolated homesteads into Goose Bay and into Hopedale and Makkovik". However, most of the Inuit of Hebron continued to rely on hunting and fishing for their income.

The availability of employment and the relative ease with which families of Inuit and mixed Inuit-European ancestry were adapting to steady jobs in growing communities presented a dilemma to officials familiar with the Labrador region. The question they pondered was whether the traditional harvesting economy based on fishing, sealing, hunting and trapping should be promoted or whether community amenities should be developed to improve health and educational standards so that people would have a better opportunity to gain employment. Implied in this proposition was that a harvesting economy was incompatible with the functions of a stable community because resource activities were conducted at remote seasonal camps.

The assumption that the subsistence lifestyle of Inuit was untenable was common and was part of the outlook of administrators of the era, as the following quotation illustrates:

Civilization is on the northward march, and for the Eskimo and Indian there is no escape. The last bridges of isolation were destroyed with the coming of the airplane and the radio. The only course now open, for there can be no turning back, is to fit him as soon as may be to take his full place as a citizen in our society. There is no time to lose. No effort must be spared in the fields of Health, Education, Welfare and Economics. If industrial development comes first to South and Central Labrador, the North will provide some shelter to the people concerned, but if it should break in full fury into their immediate environment effective steps will have to be taken to protect them during the next two or three decades of the transition period.

The fact that their lifestyle was devalued by administrators had particular relevance for the future of the Hebronimiut ("people of Hebron"), whose dependence on hunting and fishing had produced a highly dispersed population. It was felt that the way to ensure Aboriginal people’s survival was to incorporate them into industrial society. Gathering their dispersed members together in one or a few places was key to this plan.

The government, the Moravians and the International Grenfell Association had their own interests to pursue. The Moravian church, for example, had long proposed amalgamating the entire northern population at Okak Bay. The Grenfell Association attributed the region’s high rate of tuberculosis infection to poor housing standards in Nutak and Hebron. "Thus health, housing and community structure offset the advantages of the local resource economy" and led to the relocations of the Inuit of Nutak in 1956 and Hebron in 1959.

In the mid-1950s the people of Newfoundland were going through throes of resettlement, abandoning a way of life, as they were led to believe, for a better life with easier access to education, health services and employment opportunities. It was about this time that the call came down to move a small number of Inuit, no more than a couple of hundred, scattered along the coast of Labrador from the most northerly settlements and outlying areas of Hebron and Nutak.

They were told that the government store would be pulling out within the year and that the church would follow. They were promised, like others, better things, including housing, which was very late in the end in coming. They were given the choice of three settlements to which they could move, actually four. All of this was done with no consultation, with no preplanning whatsoever, neither for the movers nor the receiving settlements. - Beatrice Watts, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, 16 June 1992

Relocating the Inuit fit in well with the Newfoundland government’s resettlement policy. After joining Confederation in 1949, the province encouraged modernization based on large-scale industrial development and population centralization. In 1953 it introduced a program to encourage outport residents to move to larger centres:

The program was administered by the Provincial Department of Public Welfare and the amount of money given under it was small. The maximum allowance available was $600 per family and in most cases the assistance given was under $300. To obtain this money the whole community had to certify its willingness to move, though no restriction was placed on where the people might move.

Between 1953 and 1965, 115 communities were closed under the provincial program and 7,500 people were relocated. While not part of the outport resettlement program, the closure of Nutak and Hebron took place during a time when relocation was seen as part of the solution to a series of problems, including the perceived need to industrialize a resource-based economy.

As we have seen, Inuit of the region considered their land rich in game and their life good. Others saw it differently, however. Carol Brice-Bennett describes the views of officials who recommended relocation of the community:

Dr. Paddon [of the International Grenfell Association] had the opinion that the traditional Inuit harvesting economy was not viable and the culture of living off the land was "irretrievably lost". The same view was expressed by Reverend Peacock, the Superintendent of the Moravian Mission, who considered that Inuit were hindered in their social and economic development by being dispersed and isolated due to their fishing and hunting activities. He advised integrating Inuit in a permanent community not only so that they could benefit from medical and educational services but also to introduce people to the economic alternative of employment.

Views contrary to these were dismissed as old-fashioned.

Following an exchange of letters among the International Grenfell Association, the Moravian church and the government, a decision was made in April 1955 to abandon the northern communities. In September of that year, the head of the Moravian church recommended that plans not be made public. He pointed out that many Inuit were moving north, not south, during the summer fishing season. He emphasized the importance of centralizing the Inuit in order to "civilize" them. The letter writer did not, however, refer to the fact that the church had long been looking for ways to cut the cost of operations in northern Labrador and that centralization fit this plan.

In an internal memorandum dated 29 September 1955, W Rockwood, a provincial official, warned that the department "is not at present organized, staffed or equipped to undertake a program of this magnitude [that is, the relocation of two communities]." Nevertheless, the following April, Nutak was ordered closed. Hebron received a short reprieve.

Records show there were immediate concerns about whether proper planning could be done for the Nutak relocation before the fall freeze-up. Despite misgivings, Mr. Rockwood later reported that enough houses had been built for the Nutak people in Nain, Northwest River and Makkovik and that "[t]he people who were transferred from the Nutak district were, by the end of the season, better housed than they had ever been in their lives before."

When they heard that the closure of Hebron would follow after Nutak, the community elders responded with a handwritten letter (in Inuktitut) to the provincial minister of public welfare. The letter stated clearly that they did not want to leave their homeland, but also suggested that people would comply if they were assured "steady work with good wages" and "good houses". The elders requested that they be better informed about their future and emphasized the desire of the Inuit of Hebron to remain in their community. In the Moravian minister’s English translation of the letter, however, the content was altered to emphasize an Inuit willingness to exchange their community for jobs, high wages and new houses in the south. The people were assured that there were no plans to move them and that they would be given advance notice of any change in policy.

In 1958, the Moravian church decided to close its mission at Hebron the following year to save money. Then the provincial government ordered its supply depot at Hebron closed in August 1959. It was determined that the relocation would take place between July 1959 and the following August to allow sufficient time to construct homes in Makkovik and other, more southern, communities.

Government officials and representatives of the International Grenfell Association and other agencies flew to Hebron to inform people of the decision. Although "consultation" took place during a church meeting, the gathering was more to inform the people of the demise of the community than to discuss or negotiate a relocation. The Hebronimiut responded to the news with silence, which the non-Inuit assumed was assent to the plan. During later interviews, however, Hebronimiut explained their silence by stating that this meeting should never have taken place in the church:

We were told that the meeting will be held in the church and nothing about the relocation beforehand. Not one person said "you are going to be relocated" until we were in the church. When it was said, no one said anything because to us the church is not the place for anything controversial. We were really shocked.

Brice-Bennett suggests that the reluctance to speak related not only to respect for the sanctity of the church but also to the fact that the announcement was made by a group of officials who represented institutions on which Hebronimiut depended for services to maintain the community. Their leaders and methods of dealing with serious subjects through discussion in the elders council were ignored.

To this day, the relocatees express different views about the reasons they were given for the move. Sabina Nochasak of Hopedale says they were told that the "mountains were too high for planes and it was too far for the ships." Another reason is cited by Raymond Semigak of Hopedale: "They told us that we wouldn’t be able to go to the hospital if we got sick." Lizzie Semigak and Mark Nochasak of Nain say they heard that government officials felt there were too many people in the houses in Hebron.

Following this meeting, Hebronimiut were told they would be dispersed among three communities. Five families would be moved to Nain, 10 families would go to Hopedale, and 43 families would go to Makkovik. Their only choice in the matter was to decide how relatives and families would be separated according to these quotas. This separation of family members – some of whom did not see each other again for long periods of time – caused considerable grief among Hebronimiut after the relocation.

Housing construction in the receiving communities got off to a slow start, and there was some discussion of delaying the move. However, things had gone too far to turn back. Everybody was very confused about whether in fact they were going to move or not. Word had filtered down that in fact the government would not have the houses done in time and that maybe they would delay the move. But what was quite obvious already by then was that many of the people had cannibalized their houses, literally used them for fuel and were living in tents in expectation of moving. So, it became more and more obvious to the government that they really had burnt their bridges and that they couldn’t delay it for a year.

At one point the move was postponed but the Inuit said they did not want to wait until the following year. Just as quickly, the move was on again, and the people boarded a boat at the beginning of October for the trip south. Andrew Piercey of Hopedale remembers the scene: "I was the very last one to leave Hebron [along] with Benjamin Jararuse and Ted Baird. We were the last ones to leave our home. The Trepassey was there waiting for us while we were shooting at the dogs in the evening. That same night we left for Nain. What dogs were left were put aboard the Trepassey the last time".

Beatrice Watts describes the nature of the transition that had to be made: "The Inuit from Hebron and Nutak had been accustomed to living in small family hunting camps, living a more or less seasonal nomadic lifestyle. They were transplanted into settlements of 100 to 300 people who barely had enough housing for themselves and who were already accustomed to being ruled by a combination of church elders, missionaries, store manager, welfare officer and some form of law enforcement. - Beatrice Watts, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador and Newfoundland, 16 June 1992

Many of the Inuit went initially to Hopedale because it was the only community that came close to being able to accommodate a rapid increase in population. Besides the five houses constructed by the government that summer for relocatees, ten temporary structures were erected and two empty houses rented. Thirty-seven families – 148 people – were jammed in for the winter.

When they arrived, the Hebron Inuit discovered they were to be segregated into little "Hebron" villages away from the core of the southern towns. Being strangers in these new towns, and having no knowledge of the lands surrounding them, intensified the difficult adjustment period. Nor did the host communities have any choice in this relocation process; they were simply expected to accommodate the influx of new people.

Sufficient houses to accommodate the Hebron population were not completed until 1962. At this time, 30 Hebron families were moved again, this time from Hopedale to the new houses built in Makkovik, a town populated predominantly by people of European or European-Inuit ancestry who spoke mainly English. This meant that, within a period of three years, Hebronimiut had to reorient themselves a second time to a strange social, cultural and geographic environment.

Although Inuit from Hebron were given new houses at Makkovik, a house was not sufficient compensation for the economic and social losses that families experienced in the alien environment. Hebronimiut grieved not only for their former community but also for summer camps along the northern Labrador coast, accessible from Hebron. Insult was added to injury as Hebronimiut watched non-Inuit using their homeland for recreational purposes.

The officials who planned the move assumed that the transition to new locations would be "effortless, because they believed that Inuit hunters and fishers could transfer their activities to any environment so long as they had wild game." This mistake was also made by the proponents of the High Arctic and other Inuit relocations. Those implementing the relocation also operated on the erroneous assumption that all Inuit were alike and that they would be able to get along when thrown together in southern communities. This ignored the cultural differences between the people of Hebron, Nain, Makkovik and Hopedale.

As newcomers at Hopedale and Makkovik, Hebronimiut were interjected in communities with established social and economic patterns, leadership and norms of behaviour. Each community had its own particular features, just as had existed at Hebron, and Labrador coastal inhabitants recognized and respected the privileges that were rooted in being members of a community. Hopedale and Makkovik residents had already arranged a system of land use regarding harvests of resources which had commercial value and they had vested claims to the best fishing, sealing and trapping areas.

As in the case of the High Arctic relocation, officials failed to consider the vital link between Inuit and their land. "It’s not the same, not even near the same," Hebron relocatee Sem Kajuatsiak said in describing the difference between his former home and Nain, where he now lives. Paulus Nochasak put it simply: "We had to move to a place that’s not our land."

Relocation affected all aspects of the relocatees’ lives. In Hebron, they had a distinct identity; they lived off the land, and their society was held together by close bonds of kinship, marriage and friendship. These bonds were severed as families and friends were separated and moved. In the new communities, they had no claim on resources and they lacked the knowledge needed to live off the land in a new region. Population increase put a strain on resources along the southern coast. Since fewer hunters could hunt, dependence on welfare increased. Even the very young became conscious of their newly acquired low status.

Their poverty, unfamiliarity with the English language, particular dialect of Inuktitut, unusual family names, inexperience with the landscape, cultural preference for seal and other customs – combined with their residence in isolated enclaves – set them definitely apart from other community members.

With the focus gone from their lives, many Hebronimiut turned to alcohol. Social problems increased, as did rates of illness and death.

During the 1960s and 1970s, individuals and families left Makkovik for Nain, where they had better access to northern fishing and hunting areas. They also moved to reconnect with close relatives, to marry local residents or to live in a place where Inuit formed the majority of the population and shared a common language and way of life.

The 1974 Royal Commission on Labrador concluded that the northern resettlement program was an ill-advised and futile operation that had caused injustice and hardship, both to northern Inuit and to residents of host communities. It concluded that government-sponsored relocation schemes in Labrador have been looked upon by Government as an end in themselves, and not as a part of a developmental process. Other basic flaws have been created by ignoring or not ascertaining the wishes and aspirations of all those who would be affected by resettlement, and by extremely poor planning.

Over time, most Inuit from Hebron and their descendants have become resigned to the communities where they now live. The children and grandchildren of people who were moved from Hebron now identify themselves with the place of their birth. While many Hebronimiut still mourn for their lost homes and lives, they do not wish to inflict the experience of relocation on their children.