Inuk elder honoured for helping the home front during Second World War | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Inuk elder honoured for helping the home front during Second World War

99-year-old Inuk Elder Qapik Attagutsiak, who participated in salvage efforts by picking up bones and carcasses that could be made into ingredients for munitions, aircraft glue and fertilizer during the Second World War, is shown in Ottawa, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Attagutsiak is being recognized by the government as part of the Hometown Heroes initiative that celebrates people who contributed to Canada's war efforts during the World Wars. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
January 24, 2020 - 2:33 PM

OTTAWA - For the war effort in the 1940s, Qapik Attagutsiak remembers the local Catholic priest urging her and her family to collect walrus and seal bones from their island near Igloolik, and even the bodies of dogs that had died from disease.

In the Second World War, Canadians across the country were encouraged to salvage whatever waste materials they could, including metal, rubber, paper and rags.

The call for raw materials extended into the High Arctic, where Inuit communities were encouraged to collect bones and carcasses to be transported south, to be rendered and processed into glues and chemicals used in ammunition and aircraft, as well as for fertilizer to grow food.

Attagutsiak's family was among those that helped. Eighty years later, Attagutsiak is the last known survivor of those Inuit efforts and will be recognized at a ceremony organized by Parks Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Attagutsiak recalled how her family was living in 1940 the island off the mainland of what's now Nunavut, popular hunting ground for walrus and seal. It was around that time the family and many others were hit hard by the loss of most of their dogs.

"All of a sudden the dogs started biting their paws off and they had mucus coming out of their bodies and they started dying," she said, speaking in Inuktitut translated by her daughter, Kataisee Attagutsiak. "And it wasn't just a few dogs, it was many, many dogs that were dying."

Around the same time, word of a world war started to spread, driven in large part by telegraphs relayed to the only non-Inuk resident in the area: the priest. It was also the priest who told the Inuit of the need to collect bones for the war effort.

Attagutsiak, who knew little of the world outside her immediate surroundings, recalled the fear she felt upon hearing of the war, saying she and the others "thought it was very, very close.

"The scariest part during that war was they were informed there might be airplanes coming to their area and the parachutes would come down and they might kill your people. So all the hunters were ordered that as soon as you see a parachute coming down, you have to shoot and kill because they run as fast as the caribou and they might kill everybody in sight."

Faced with such a threat, Attagutsiak said she and many other Inuit felt compelled to help however they could. That meant collecting the dead dogs and other bones and carcasses, putting them into burlap bags and handing them over.

The Hudson's Bay Company at the time had a network for delivering supplies and other material to northern communities. The bags went the other way, loaded onto small boats and, according to Parks Canada, eventually put on a large steamship named RMS Nascopie, bound for Montreal or Halifax.

Attagutsiak didn't really understand at the time why bones were needed for the war, except that they would be made into "clouds of bones" that would keep the enemy away from their homes.

Monday's ceremony will include younger members of Attagutsiak's family and feature more than 150 students from local schools, Inuit performers, video presentations, a special display on Inuit and women in the war effort, and the unveiling of a story panel on the bone-collecting contributions.

Attagutsiak said she is proud to have "contributed to what was part of our society as Canadians. So it's very important to know that Inuit actually did contribute to the Second World War."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2020.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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