OTTAWA—On a tiny island in Canada’s Arctic, Qapik Attagutsiak was on the frontline of Canada’s home front war efforts.
It was the summer of 1940. Rumours of war, and with them fears of men dropping out of airplanes to attack, were running rife among members of the Inuit community as they gathered on an island near Igloolik, west of Baffin Island, for the annual hunt of walrus and seal.
Their efforts that year would do more than gather food to ensure their survival through the next winter.
They helped fuel Canada’s far-off war efforts.
In the south of the country, citizens rallied to an early form of recycling, setting aside fats, metals and rubber for use in wartime production.
In the north, Qapik, who goes by her first name, and other members of her Inuit community made a similar effort, salvaging walrus and seal bones, and, sadly, the carcasses of their prized dogs who were dying from an unknown disease. All was shipped south for processing to help make cordite, aircraft glue and fertilizer.
Her story is a window into the traditions of the Inuit and a reminder that The Second World War left few parts of Canada untouched.
Qapik, 99, is believed to be last known surviving person to have participated in this bone-collecting effort in the Canadian Arctic, according to Parks Canada.
She will be honoured for her efforts in a Monday ceremony at the Canadian Museum of History attended by Jonathan Wilkinson, the minister of environment and climate change; Nellie Kusugak, the commissioner of Nunavut; Inuit leaders; senior officers with the Canadian Armed Forces, and her own family.
Qapik remembers the rumours of war running through the community.
“They started getting scared that they might be impacted by the war. So they started getting very nervous,” Qapik said, speaking in Inuktitut, translated by her daughter, Kataisee Attagutsiak during an interview with the Star.
There were worries, she said, of killers dropping from the sky.
“The Inuit were told that as soon as they see an airplane and see parachutes coming down, they have to shoot and kill them right away, because they will kill you off,” Qapik said.
“When the men went out hunting, it was worrisome, because they would encounter these people …. They said they were as fast as caribou, so you have to shoot them right away,” she said.
Adding to the tensions that summer, an unexplained illness began claiming the dogs. So critical are the animals to the way of life, even after all these years, Qapik still seems shaken by the impact of losing almost all the creatures. “It was a vital part of survival,” she said.
“It was so tragic to lose so many dogs at the same time. Starvation was so close,” she said.
The local Catholic priest had the only link to the outside world, via telegraph, and he organized the drive to collect bones.
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They were told only that the material was to be used to make “cloud of bones, so the enemy could not see you and the allies could advance,” Qapik said. It would be decades later before she learned the true use of the bones.
She remembers the toil on those summer days, as they worked to fill with bones burlap bags, each weighing an estimated 57 kgs once filled.
She especially remembers the unpleasant task of collecting the remains of the dead dogs. The carcasses were usually placed on ice floes to drift away. But every piece of bone was considered valuable, so these too were collected, sometimes with bits of flesh still on them and crawling with maggots.
They were later told that the collection of bones had “contributed greatly … and they helped the allies win the war,” said Qapik, who worked as a midwife and now lives in Arctic Bay on the northwest coast of Baffin Island.
It brought “great relief,” she said, knowing both that they had made a difference, and that that was an end to the worries of intruders dropping from the sky.
Son Silas Attagutsiak, who himself lives in Igloolik, has done his own research into that wartime effort and said his mother said little about it over the years.
“I’m very proud of their effort. She hardly ever talked about it,” he said.
She is being honoured as part of Parks Canada’s Hometown Heroes program, which is meant to profile civilians and military members who made a “significant” contribution to wartime efforts during the two world wars.
Asked about Monday’s ceremony, Qapik laughs and smiles. She says she was mad when she first heard of the idea for the event. Such recognition is not part of her culture. But she said she recognized that it was important that such stories be shared.
“Now she understands that this will not only help preserve the culture of Inuit, but it will also preserve and educate our society of what was happening … in contribution for The Second World War,” Kataisee said.