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When we think of Canada's North, certain images almost always come to mind: the aurora borealis, the Inuit , polar bears, the tundra, etc. Therefore, the presence of a dynamic Francophone community in Nunavut may seem surprising at first. But if we dig a little deeper, we find traces of Francophone presence in the territory. 1
Francophone presence in Canada's North dates back to a time when explorers such as Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseillers engaged in the fur trade at Hudson Bay in the 17th century. The first Francophones to set foot on Nunavut soil were crew members from whaling ships, in the 19th century. Paul Racine, the son of whaler Jean-Baptiste Racine and an Inuit woman, was no doubt one of the leading figures of the Nunavut Francophonie. He studied at the Collège de la Prairie and returned to the Arctic at the age of 16. He was most likely the first Inuk to speak French, Inuktitut and English.
Another key figure of the Nunavut Francophonie was Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, called Kapitaikallak (little big captain) by the Inuit. Born in 1852 at L'Islet-sur-Mer, Quebec, this great captain and explorer followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. During his career, he commanded over 109 ships and made 269 voyages around the world.
Toward the end of the 19th century, while serving as director of the Quebec prison, Bernier began dreaming of the Arctic. He wanted to organize expeditions to affirm Canadian sovereignty over this northern area. His dream came true, and in 1904 he set out aboard the CGS Arctic on behalf of the Dominion of Canada, under the leadership of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. His crew, made up mainly of Quebecers, had a major impact on the territory. Bernier led four expeditions between 1904 and 1911 for the Canadian government. A defining moment came when he took possession of the Arctic Archipelago for Canada at Winter Harbour on Melville Island on July 1, 1909. Afterwards, he carried out three private expeditions between 1912 and 1917 for his trading post in the Pond Inlet region. He returned to the Arctic on behalf of the Canadian government between 1922 and 1925, as captain of the first annual Eastern Arctic Patrols.
Other members of Bernier's crew also made their mark in the history of the Nunavut Francophonie. Wilfrid Caron, called Quvviunginnaq (teary eyes) by the Inuit, is another important Francophone figure in Nunavut. He was a member of Kapitaikallak's crew. During the First World War, Caron spent over three years in the territory and embraced the Inuit culture, taking part in all the daily activities—he spoke fluent Inuktitut, wore clothing made of caribou hides and sealskin, had his own traditional chant, played the drums and participated in Inuit games.
There was also Alfred Tremblay, who travelled from Pond Inlet to Igloolik, mapped his journey and wrote a book about his adventures, The Cruise of the Minnie Maud. Émile Lavoie, a civil engineer, oversaw the expedition's scientific matters. He published a novel on the Arctic titled Le grand sépulcre blanc. He was also a founding member of the Ordre de Jacques-Cartier, a French-Canadian secret society. He drew on his experience in the Arctic to create the society's initiation ritual.
Over time, many Francophone figures travelled to the territory that became Nunavut in 1999. In fact, members of various religious communities, such as the Grey Nuns and the Missionary Oblates, settled there. Guy-Marie Rousselière, whom the Inuit called Ataata (Father) Marie, chronicled the oral history of the North Baffin Island region and made contributions to toponymy and archaeology. In addition, the Révillon Frères company—the Hudson's Bay Company's main competitor—was administered by Francophones.
The Francophones who travelled to the Arctic shaped the collective memory of many Inuit. In fact, several Inuit elders remember these men. The memory of Wilfrid Caron, the man who lived like the Inuit, is still fresh in their minds.
Captain Bernier and his crew taught the Inuit how to use various tools, such as firearms and binoculars. In exchange, the Inuit acted as their guides within the territory, thus creating a relationship based on respect and equality. The stories of Kapitaikallak are still part of Inuit oral tradition: "Even after many years, traces still exist. The Inuit never forgot Kapitaikallak. We still know him. We have heard about him. We have not forgotten him." (Nutaraq Cornelius, Pond Inlet)
Francophone heritage was even passed on from generation to generation in some cases. For example, the song Il était un petit navire became Ilititaa for a number of Wilfrid Caron's descendants. Moreover, some Inuit thought that the song Alouette, gentille alouette was Canada's national anthem because Captain Bernier used to play it on his gramophone to impress visitors aboard his ship.
In short, with the Inuit communities they visited, Captain Bernier and his crew established a relationship marked by respect and cultural discovery. This exchange between the Francophone and Inuit cultures increased mutual understanding and helped both communities realize the richness of cultural diversity.
Cloutier, Stéphane. "Les explorateurs de l'Arctique."Le toit du Monde, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2001), pp. 16-27.
Musée maritime du Québec, in collaboration with the Association des francophones du Nunavut. Ilititaa… Bernier, His Men and the Inuits [sic].
St-Louis, Martine. "L'épopée de la francophonie nordique."Célébrons le 25e anniversaire de l'Association des francophones du Nunavut! Cahier souvenir (2006), pp. 4-5.