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Was Ottawa’s forced relocation of the Ahiarmiut people more than cultural genocide?

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David Serkoak outside Parliament Hill (Barry Pottle)

David Serkoak couldn’t believe what he was witnessing. An apology. It was 2005 and the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador at the time, Danny Williams, was saying sorry to Inuit who had been relocated in the 1950s from two northern communities, Nutak and Hebron, triumphantly calling the day a “symbol of reconciliation.” Serkoak isn’t a member of either community—he was there to perform as a ceremonial drum dancer. But the occasion brought him to tears, and he came away with a sense of determination. “I was watching a leader apologize to Inuit in person,” he says.

When he arrived home in Iqaluit, he told himself: “I’m going to see a day like that”—the Ahiarmiut people in Nunavut, his people, would one day receive an apology from the federal government. It was the renewed sense of mission he needed. In 1988, Serkoak had founded an organization called the Ahiarmiut Relocation Society that sought an apology, a financial settlement and a plaque acknowledging the near extermination of his people resulting from repeated relocations across what is now southwest Nunavut. But his group was running low on money. He feared he might have to call off his quest.

Still, Serkoak pressed on, and last summer Ottawa agreed to a $5-million settlement (including $100,000 for each of the 21 survivors of the relocations and $3,000 each for the 164 children of the relocated). And in late January, Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, delivered a long-awaited apology in Arviat, Nunavut. It was a moment of healing and reconciliation—one Canadians could use more of when it comes to their history with Indigenous people. “I only regret that so many Ahiarmiut will not be around to see the conclusion of this struggle,” Serkoak said during the ceremony. “We forgive but we will not forget. The country needs to know about—and learn from—past mistakes.”

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau exonerates Tsilhqot’in chiefs: Watch the PM’s full apology

Up until the 1940s, the Ahiarmiut were a group of inland Inuit, some of whom inhabited an area near Ennadai Lake, about 150 km north of Manitoba’s northern boundary and near the current eastern limit of the Northwest Territories. Their culture depended on the caribou herds that travelled the land; before the relocations, they faced occasional periods of starvation because of the Arctic’s tough conditions and the caribou’s varying migration patterns.

After the construction of a military radio station near their homeland in 1949, the Ahiarmiut and the federal employees who manned the tower began to trade with each other. Ottawa took notice, raising concern that the Ahiarmiut were starving and increasingly reliant on the station’s resources. “The people at the station were saying, ‘Leave them alone, this is part of their life cycle,’ ” says Steve Cooper, the Ahiarmiut’s lawyer.

The federal officials of the day believed they could help, and in the summer of 1950—without notice, explanation or consent—ordered roughly 67 Ahiarmiut, representing about eight families, to be relocated by plane to Nueltin Lake, about 100 km from their home. The intention, Cooper says, was to turn the group into commercial fishermen “for the benefit of a fishing company that never got off the ground.” Before their abrupt departure, an order was given to bulldoze and bury their homes and belongings; they took little more with them than the clothes on their backs.

The cover of the February 27, 1956, issue of Life magazine. Mary Anowtalik with her husband and baby.

At Nueltin Lake, members of the group became so hungry that they resorted to eating their clothes and bark from trees, sucking on leather hides for traces of long-gone nutrients. “They were trying to breastfeed babies and blood was coming out of the nipple rather than milk because there just wasn’t anything available,” Cooper says, citing documented accounts from the time. Many of them didn’t make it. “The most powerful man in our group was the first to die,” says Serkoak.

Survivors, including Serkoak’s mother, who was pregnant with him at the time, walked back to their home in Ennadai after the lake froze. But the Ahiarmiut would be relocated four more times over the next 10 years: to Henik Lake, about 200 km away, in 1957; to Arviat in 1958; to Rankin Inlet in 1959 and to Whale Cove on Hudson Bay in 1960. By the following decade, most of the group had settled in Arviat for good.

Government records say Serkoak was born on Jan. 5, 1952, at Nueltin Lake. Now retired from a career as a school principal, he recalls from his home in Ottawa how his mother would tell him that wasn’t the day or place she gave birth to him—that he was born on an island somewhere near their homeland shortly after they made their way back. “You were born in the fall, when frost covered the surface,” she would say, likely in October.

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The whole saga, says Serkoak, was like a horrific dream. Memories of chewing on meatless bones overshadow happier recollections of holding his mother’s hand or being carried on her back on long walks. When he began his work with the Ahiarmiut Relocation Society, compiling recollections and creating “a paper trail,” as he puts it, he inherited the bad dreams of his elders. One took place a year after the Ahiarmiut were moved to Henik Lake, where Ottawa gave them “starvation boxes” containing barely enough food to survive. Many left the area, but a few stayed.

A man named Ootek went mad. He shot Hallauk, a hunter, in the back of the head while he was jigging for fish at a nearby lake. Then he went after Hallauk’s wife, Kikkik, who was also Ootek’s half-sister. Kikkik somehow fought him off and killed Ootek by stabbing him with a knife. With her five children, the traumatized Kikkik set out on a three-day trek to a Hudson’s Bay Company post in Padlei. But with her youngest daughter on her back and two more on a sled behind her (her two eldest children were on foot), she soon judged that she wouldn’t make it to Padlei alive. In desperation, she wrapped the two girls from the sled in caribou hide and buried them in the snow for insulation. She and her other three kids reached the post, and the RCMP found the snowbound girls a day later: only one had survived. Kikkik was charged with the murder of Ootek, as well as causing the death of one daughter and neglecting the other. A headline from the time of the murder in the Globe and Mail read: “Violence brings move for band of Eskimos.” But later that year, Kikkik was acquitted of all charges. Elisapee Karetak, now 62 and a documentary filmmaker, and her sister Margaret—the one who was found alive in the snow—were at the apology. Karetak was about 15 months old when she was on Kikkik’s back that day. Her mother didn’t like to talk about what happened; Karetak didn’t learn about her people’s history until she was a teenager. But, she says, “I remember my mother’s love.”

These days, it is commonplace to call Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people cultural genocide. But some believe the case of the Ahiarmiut represents something worse. “The UN convention on genocide doesn’t require it to be a big group,” observes Rhoda Howard-Hassmann, a professor emeritus at Wilfrid Laurier University. “It just struck me that this was really an actual, physical genocide.” The relocations could be considered “genocide by attrition,” she adds, a term coined by U.S. sociologist Helen Fein, which doesn’t mean “rounding people up and murdering them directly, but deporting them, letting them starve and die of disease.”

READ MORE: Opinion: You can’t drink an apology

Howard-Hassmann knows that proving intent on Ottawa’s part would be difficult. Still, she points to large-scale “deportations” like the ones involving minorities in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and ’40s, which scholars now recognize as genocide: “If you deport people and massive numbers of them starve to death, that is more than cultural genocide.”

In 2007, Cooper received a call from Serkoak asking for help. He knew of the Ahiarmiut from the works of author Farley Mowat—books like People of the Deer and The Desperate People. (Mowat would later be accused of exaggerating his involvement with the Ahiarmiut.) Cooper agreed to help and told Serkoak not to worry about the money for now: “Sometimes you take things on because it’s just a moral claim that needs to be pursued.”

Mary Anowtalik (Michelle Valberg)

A year later, the Ahiarmiut filed their litigation. The Conservative government under Stephen Harper resolutely fought the case, Cooper says, but three months after the Liberals formed government in 2015, Ottawa agreed to settle. The apology was held in a community hall in Arviat. Survivors and their families filled the room, many of them in tears when Bennett said: “We are sorry. Mamiapugut.” Mary Anowtalik, the oldest of the 21 remaining survivors, was among them. At 17, she had appeared on the cover of a 1956 issue of Life magazine. She now lives in Arviat, where she rides an ATV and speaks on a smartphone. She was, says Serkoak, delighted by the apology.

As was he. Serkoak’s mother died in the early 2000s, and he retired early so he could teach his grandchildren how to hunt, dance and drum. Over the course of the litigation, he quit drinking. He finally had vindication for his years-long quest—and a chance to put his own nightmarish memories behind him. “To hear those words from the minister,” he says, “was almost like waking up.”

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Future of Ottawa: Chefs with Kathryn Ferries

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This week in the Future of Ottawa series, we’re taking a deep dive into the bar and restaurant industry—what it’s like now and where it’s headed. Read on for a guest post from Kat Ferries on the future of chefs, or read posts from Quinn Taylor on bars or Justin Champagne on fine dining.

Kat Ferries is Sous-Chef at Stofa Restaurant and a 2020 San Pellegrino North American Young Chef Social Responsibility Award Winner.

Apt613: What is the current landscape for chefs in Ottawa?

Kat Ferries: There is such great talent in Ottawa with so many chefs either being from here originally or have returned after traveling and have since opened some incredible restaurants. Many chefs have focused menus that really highlight their strengths, their heritage, and their passion for food. Dominique Dufour of Gray Jay, Marc Doiron of Town/Citizen, Steve Wall of Supply & Demand, Daniela Manrique Lucca of The Soca Kitchen, and so many more are all cooking up beautiful and delicious food in this city.

If you care to make a prediction… Where is the food industry in Ottawa going for chefs in 2021?

The industry right now is, unfortunately, in a really tough spot. The pandemic has been so devastating on mental, physical and emotional levels for so many and I know that many of my friends in this industry are burning out. There are many discussions happening on work/life balance and what is healthy for everyone. Some may never return to the long, hard hours we are expected to put in day after day and instead opt for a more flexible schedule or hire more staff to lighten the load on everyone, with some even leaving the industry indefinitely. Some may throw themselves back into this industry 10x as hard and create some of the best restaurants and concepts we’ve yet to see. I think all that will happen after the pandemic though.

For this year, it’s mostly about survival and finding happiness in creating what we can in the spaces we have while following all the laws and guidelines from public health officials. I think we will see more chefs creating experiences for guests that we otherwise wouldn’t have: think pop-ups, virtual dinner clubs, cocktail seminars, collabs, etc.

Where in your wildest dreams could the Ottawa culinary community grow in your lifetime?

I would love to see the Ottawa community support more small, local restaurants so our streets are bustling late into the nights like they are in Montreal, New York, or Europe. Having a local restaurant to frequent should be so much more commonplace, where you can enjoy a night out more often than just Friday or Saturday night. I would also love to see many more of our local chefs highlighted for the amazing food they create!

What is the best innovation to take place in your industry since the pandemic started affecting Ottawa?

Turning all our restaurants into mini-markets for customers to enjoy the food and wine of their favourite places at home. We have bottle shops for all your wine, beer and cocktail needs as well as menus that reflect what each restaurant does best. Some have even pivoted to a point where they are 100% a store and have paused any type of “service-style” dining.

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Future of Ottawa: Fine Dining with Justin Champagne

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This week in the Future of Ottawa series, we’re taking a deep dive into the bar and restaurant industry—what it’s like now and where it’s headed. Read on for a guest post from Justin Champagne on the future of fine dining, or read posts from Kathryn Ferries on chefs or Quinn Taylor on bars.

Justin Champagne went to culinary school at Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver. He got his start in fine dining restaurants at C Restaurant under Chef Robert Clark, then at Hawksworth Restaurant under Chef Eligh. He staged at three-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn under Chef Dominque Crenn before moving to Ottawa and spending five years at Atelier, working his way up to Sous-Chef. He’s now the Head Chef of Bar Lupulus.

Apt613: What is the current landscape of fine dining restaurants in Ottawa?

Justin Champagne: Ottawa punches well above its weight class when it comes to quality restaurants in general. Fine dining is no exception to that—we have some amazing chefs here that are doing really great things. We also have some phenomenal sommeliers in town that are a huge factor when it comes to a guest’s experience in a fine dining restaurant. While there are some fantastic fine dining restaurants in town I do believe there’s room for more, and definitely room for more creativity and unique styles of cooking! I think we’ll see more small fine dining restaurants opening up, “micro-restaurants” where there’s maybe 20 seats. This will be over the next few weeks as the industry did take a big hit financially with COVID-19, but we still have a lot of great young chefs who have the fire inside of them to open their own location!

If you care to make a prediction… Where is fine dining going in Ottawa in 2021?

I’m not sure it’ll be 2021 or 2022 with the way the vaccine rollout and stay-at-home order is going, but I do expect there to be a wave of people looking to go out to fine dining restaurants. We’ve been cooped up cooking for ourselves or ordering takeout for over a year now. People are getting antsy and ready to go out and have fantastic meals again with exceptional wine and not have to worry about doing all the dishes afterwards!

Where in your wildest dreams could fine dining go in Ottawa in your lifetime?

That’s the fun part about “fine dining,” it can go anywhere and it can mean many things. Fine dining is about amazing service and well thought out, unique food that the kitchen spent hours fussing over, being meticulous in execution. Outside of that, you can have a lot of fun and be creative in different ways. My wildest dream I guess is that fine dinning restaurants begin to thrive and are able to charge without backlash the kind of prices that they need to charge in order to keep the lights on and pay their staff a proper living wage!!

What is the best innovation to take place in your industry since the pandemic started affecting Ottawa?

I’m not sure if I would really say there’s been a best “innovation” in my industry during the pandemic, but I will say that seeing the “adaptability” by all the restaurants in Ottawa has been incredibly inspiring. Ottawa’s food scene has always been a tight-knit community, “everyone helping everyone” kind of mentality. And this pandemic has really helped show that—restaurants helping restaurants through all of this!

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Ottawa’s Giant Tiger chain celebrating 60 years in business

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OTTAWA — An Ottawa staple, along with what might be the most famous cat in Canada, are celebrating a milestone Monday.

Giant Tiger is 60 years old.

“It all started with a very simple idea,” says Alison Scarlett, associate VP of communications at Giant Tiger. “Help Canadians save money every single day. Bring them products that they want and need. When you focus on those core principals, it really is quite simple to succeed.”

In 1961, Gordon Reid opened the first Giant Tiger in Ottawa’s ByWard Market. The company now has more than 260 locations across Canada and employs roughly 10,000 people.

“If you were at our store on opening day 60 years ago, the in store experience would be a little bit different from your local Giant Tiger store today. So that’s changed. A lot of our products and offerings have changed or expanded as Canadian consumers wants and needs have changed or expanded,” says Scarlett.

The homegrown department store continues to be a favourite for many shoppers looking to for the best deals on everyday products.

Helen Binda has been shopping here for decades.

“Many years. I can’t remember when. I’ve always loved Giant Tiger. It’s always been a good store for me.”

“I think its amazing and I think that we need more department stores,” says shopper Fay Ball. “And if it’s Canadian, all the better.”

The Canadian-owned family discount store carries everything from clothing to groceries, as well as everyday household needs. They’ve also expanded their online store and like most retailers provide curbside pickup during the pandemic.

“Doing what is right for our customers, associates, and communities. That has enabled us to be so successful for all of these years,” says Scarlett.

To celebrate, Giant Tiger is hosting a virtual birthday party at 7 p.m. Monday with live musical performances from some iconic Canadian artists.

You can visit their Facebook page to tune in. 

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