Friday, April 21, 2017

From the Tundra to the Trenches

From the Tundra to the Trenches

By Eddy Weetaltuk

Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016
$24.95 Canadian/ $27.95 US

Reviewed by Kenn Harper

To say that Eddy Weetaltuk lived an eventful life, unlike the lives of his fellow Inuit, is an understatement. He was born in 1932 on Strutton Island in James Bay, one of twelve children. His surname, he points out, means “innocent eyes” (and should really be spelled Uitaaluttuq). His grandfather, George Weetaltuk, was a guide for the film-maker Robert Flaherty in the making of his ground-breaking documentary, Nanook of the North. Eddy’s childhood was what one would expect for an Inuk boy growing up in the 1930s and 40s at the southern limit of traditional Inuit land, in James Bay and on the Quebec coast – periods of joy and hunger in the comfort of a large family.  He went to school in Fort George, and finished the eighth grade at boarding school. By the time he reached adulthood, he was multi-lingual, speaking English, Inuktitut, French and Cree.

Although he describes the loneliness he experienced at school in Fort George because of his absence from family, Eddy focuses on the inter-racial friendships he made there, and the camaraderie he had with the religious brothers who were his teachers.  It is perhaps worth noting that, at a time when Canadian media is obsessed with the subject of abuse encountered by indigenous students at residential schools, and indigenous authors are documenting their own experiences of abuse, this book is not of that genre.

Always curious about the world outside his small community, and encouraged by a Catholic priest, in 1951 Eddy made a fateful decision – to go south. His friend, Brother Martin, told him “Edward, my dear son, do not stay in the North. Do whatever it takes but go south. Your real place is there… you will be able to succeed there… Our laws are foolish; we should not be preventing Eskimos from going anywhere.” This seems to be the genesis of Eddy’s belief that Inuit were not allowed to leave the north; although technically mistaken – there was no such law - in practical terms few Inuit at the time had the language and other skills needed to make the transition to a southern life.

Fearing the discrimination he thought would confront him outside his comfort zone, Eddy changed his name – he would no longer be Eddy Weetaltuk E9-422, but rather Eddy Vital, and he would pass as a French-Canadian. He made up a cover story that his father was a French-Canadian from Winnipeg, with the surname Vital, and his mother an Inuk “which made me not Eskimo but Canadian.” (Those were the days when people of mixed race often denied their indigenous ancestry, rather than embracing it.)

Eddy joined the Army and was sent to Korea. He saw battle there, and sought his solace, like many young soldiers, in alcohol and in the brothels of Japan and Korea. Following his Korean service, he trained as a parachutist in Manitoba, then was stationed for many years in Germany before finally leaving the Army in 1967 and returning to northern Quebec.

The story of how Eddy’s life experiences finally made it into print is almost as interesting as his story itself. He first wrote down his tale in 1974. With the help of a friend, he sent the handwritten manuscript of about 200 pages, along with twenty drawings – for Eddy was an artist as well as a writer - to the National Museum of Man in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of History). And there it languished. In 2002 a curator came across the forgotten manuscript and drawings, and arranged for them to be transferred to the Canadian War Museum. Eddy agreed to the transfer, believing that the war museum might take more of an interest in his story and finally publish it.  But again it languished. Then, with the help of a lawyer, he recovered the manuscript from the war museum, and submitted it to a southern publisher. They considered it, but wanted major revisions. And so it went unpublished once more.

Then, by chance, the lawyer met an academic, Thibault Martin, at a conference and told him the story of Eddy’s manuscript. Martin had previously met Eddy while doing research for his doctorate, and the two began a collaborative editing process. Eddy died at his home in Umiujaq in 2005, when the editing was almost complete. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see his work published.

Eddy’s book was published first in French in 2009, in Paris, by a publisher which specialized in exceptional life stories. In 2015, a German language edition was produced. Finally, it has appeared in English, in the University of Manitoba series, First Voices, First Texts. 

Thibault Martin is not reticent to acknowledge the role he played in shaping the manuscript for a non-Inuit audience. Eddy had been “adamant in his refusal to write an academic text that would cater to an audience of anthropologists and ethnographers.” Yet the museums had treated his work as an archival document that would appeal to just those interests, and even when it reached a mainstream Canadian publisher for consideration, Eddy’s story did not make the grade – it didn’t satisfy what the publisher thought Canadian readers wanted in a book from an Inuit author, namely “traditional Inuit tales and children’s literature.”

Martin asked Eddy to expand on some aspects of his life story and to cut back his narration of other parts.  He felt that the early part of the story needed more childhood memories, and that the parts dealing with the author’s military service needed paring to avoid repetitive descriptions of inebriation, imprisonment, disgrace and discrimination.  Martin described the “revised life story” that resulted as “a compensatory autobiography “

Thibault Martin’s foreword is followed by an introduction by Isabelle St-Amand, a specialist in Canadian native literature, who places Eddy’s work in the context of other Inuit biographies. Inuit and First Nations authors have, in recent years, broken the boundaries of what was once considered “acceptable” indigenous literature. A thirty-five-page appendix by Martin, with the mind-numbing title, “The Experience of Eddy Weetaltuk in the Context of Aboriginal Participation in Canadian Wars,” is far too long and detailed and detracts from the book. It should have been condensed into a paragraph or two and imbedded in the editor’s foreword, or treated in footnotes.

Eddy’s narrative ends with his return to Great Whale River in 1967 and the very beginning of his re-integration into a much-changed north. “A new life was ahead of me,” he wrote in his final paragraph. “The life of an Inuk in his village.” And there it ends. But it shouldn’t have. This reader wants to know some details of that life, of how Eddy Weetaltuk reconciled his unique experiences in the south and abroad with his new-old life-of-an-Inuk in the years after 1974. How did he spend his time? What were his interests? How did his community accept him?  Eddy’s own narrative ends too soon and he never had the chance to write his own version of the epilogue that his story deserves. The book would have been greatly enhanced had someone done the research to include an appendix on Eddy’s life post-1974. Eddy deserved that, and we, the readers, deserve it too. As it stands very little other material has been written about Eddy’s life back home. Bob Mesher wrote an interesting article, “A Closer Look at Eddy Weetaltuk’s Painting” for the Winter 2006-2007 issue of Makivik Magazine, but those paintings too were done before 1974.

Eddy had made no bones about the fact that he wanted to write a best-seller. He wanted his work to serve as an encouragement to Inuit youth to achieve their potential. “I wish to tell them,” he wrote in the book’s last chapter, “your life belongs to you. You are the ultimate master of your destiny, so don’t let despair, alcohol, or drugs control you. Be yourself, be proud. Be proud of being Inuit and always remember that your ancestors had to fight every single day of their lives to survive. It is now your turn to be strong and courageous.” 

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