This is a story told by a much respected elder in Kuujjuaq. It will give you a good idea of how Inuit life was up until the 1960’s and 1970’s. She is the mother of Charlie Watt, who is a Canadian senator representing Nunavik.
Daisy Watt Remembers
Daisy Watt is a resident of Kuudjuaq (Fort Chimo). Here is her recollection of her younger days.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was already here when I was born, my mother went to live in Old Chimo from Wakeham Bay. I really started remembering when I was about six years old.
My grandparents used to come from Wakeham Bay by dog team to trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). They used to get one needle for one fox fur, the tobacco was also worth one fox pelt. My grandmother, Lily, went to visit friends and was offered tea and bannock, she accepted but didn’t know what to do with them. She had to watch what they were doing and followed their actions. Her main diet was meat and gravy and water in Wakeham Bay.
I don’t really remember my grandfather, David, but I remember my grandmother. She died when I was eighteen.
When the RCMP started using the disc-numbers, we were given the name Watt. Our father was from Scotland and worked from the Hudson’s Bay Co. His name Billy Watt.
There weren’t too many people in Old Chimo except for women who didn’t have husbands. The families that were there were Cordons, Saunders, Whites and Shipaluks. They stayed there because most of them were employed by the HBC.
Most of the people used to leave to go to camps and hunt for foxes. Families like the Suppas and the Angnatuks would leave and would come back every month, once the rivers were frozen.
In the fall they would move out and come back for Christmas and then move out again. They would come back and trade with the HBC.
My mother was employed by the HBC as a cook. We were living in the place where she worked. Johnny was about three years old at that time. My mother would always work hard.
I started to work when I was ten years old. I was so small that I would stand on an old ammunition container to reach up to the sink to wash dishes. My salary was about $2.00 a week. In those days, they used tokens and I used to get ten of those which were worth about $2.00.
My mother used to get six cups of flour to last for a week, tea and sugar were put in tobacco cans and from one pound of lard, she would get one quarter from it and had to last for a week. I don’t know if we ever got salt.
The assistant of the manager would travel to places like Leaf Bay, George River and get their orders for the next year. The orders would be sent to Fort McKenzie by dog team and from there, the Indian from Seven Islands would deliver it to the land of the White Man. The ship would bring the supplies to the North. Seven Islands is about 450 to 500 miles from Fort Mackenzie.
The HBC’s staff with the missionary were the only men for some time. There was the manager, his assistant, the bookkeeper and the clerk.
The missionary was Anglican and his name was Stewart, but the Inuit called him “Etok” (old man). The name fit him because he was old. He went blind and I think he was the first person to teach about the bible. He also baptized us.
There was another store called Revillion Frères competing with the HBC. It was managed by French. They left around 1930’s and moved to Leaf Bay.
The first RCMP officer came in 1942. We didn’t know that he was coming. We were glad that he came because he started helping the sick. There was a man who was carrying on in Port Burwell, the officer went and brought him back with his wife and made them live in the tent near him for one year.
We were scared the first time we saw airplanes. We didn’t know what they were, we had never seen or heard of them. I was washing the floor in the Hudson’s Bay house when I heard this rumbling noise, I ran out and just above the hill, there were two big planes, big dark ones. The manager also ran out with his binoculars. He wanted to see what kind they were or probably wanted to see some kind of sign. There were signs of stars under the wings and he said they were Americans. The planes landed on the water and the manager went down to meet them. We were really afraid but were told not to be and we relaxed after a while. The Americans informed us that they had come to look for a suitable place to build an airstrip and that they will be staying at the Hudson’s Bay house.
We heard all this through Tommy Gordon, who was the interpreter at that time. He was the grandfather of Charlie Gordon and his family.
After they had a meal, the Americans were taken on a tour by boat to look at the places, where the airstrip might be built. They were big and tall and made us aware how small and short we were. They were gone after three or four days. They have found the place, that’s where the airport is now.
That same year, three big ships came and one of them hit the shallow water which is still down the river, the wind was blowing and the water was really rough. Nobody was hurt because the other two ships were at hand to help the crew. The people from the camps were in Old Chimo and that was their first time seeing the airstrip.
They celebrated by having a big dance. We didn’t have seal skin drums, we had accordions. I don’t know who had the first accordion, probably one of the men from Scotland. The Indians used some kind of drum when they danced. They used to come from Fort Mackenzie for the summer. For a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to speak in English when I was interpreting. I would speak Eskimo to both persons whom I was interpreting for. In 1948, I was among the patients going to the hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We stopped at Goose Bay for a while. I was the only one who could understand English so I had no choice but to start speaking in English. That was when I stopped interpreting in Eskimo both ways. I have never been to school, so the English I speak now is self-learned. When they started building this place they were cutting trees with axes and tractors and just covered fallen trees with tractors. Our houses are built on top of the trees. The women were not allowed to mix with the men. The RCMP officer was always there to see that this didn’t happen. Perhaps two miles from here, there was a camp of working men and their families. The U.S. Forces would give Christmas parties for the families. They saved lots of people from starvation by giving them food, clothing and jobs. Inuit in Leaf Bay were dying from starvation, before that. The HBC was closed down. That was one of the reasons why they starved and that year they couldn’t locate any caribou. They killed ptarmigans and caught fish but that wasn’t enough.
I still wonder to this day why my grandparents could smoke tobacco but couldn’t eat bannock and didn’t know what tea was.