Arctic Defenders: My Documentary About the Creation of Nunavut


My father bought a carving of an Inuk embracing a polar bear and set it on the dining room table when I was eight. It sparked my imagination for years and I wanted to go north to meet "Eskimos." At 16, I boarded a ship in Montreal with my camera in hand. It was 1968 and we were heading into the fabled North West Passage to Resolute, the furthest northern port in Canada's High Arctic. I was learning how to document a journey and tell a story with pictures. My photographs were published when I returned and my lifelong work began. Soon enough I was making documentary films.

Arctic Defenders, my 20th film is about the creation of Nunavut. The film demonstrates that political engagement was necessary to protect Inuit rights. It is told from the point of view of the visionary Inuit leaders, Tagak Curley and John Amagoalik and others who dedicated their lives to protecting the language, culture and environment of their homeland -- the Canadian Arctic.

From childhood, the Arctic had penetrated my consciousness. The 1968 trip north changed me forever. It was astounding to me that people had been living there for thousands of years before Christ. Years later, I was to learn a dark truth about the "Eskimos" I had photographed. They hadn't lived in Resolute for thousands of years. They had been shipped from northern Quebec 2,000 km further north and dumped on a beach without supplies as human flagpoles in order to secure Canada's sovereignty in the High Arctic. In Arctic Defenders I set out to investigate this travesty and the roots of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

Tagak Curley, "the Nelson Mandela of the north" played a major role in my previous film Passage about the John Franklin expedition, and Lady Franklin's and Charles Dickens' unfair blame of Inuit for cannibalism of the dying crew. Tagak inspired me to follow this story of British imperialism in the 19th century with that of 20th century Canadian imperialism. Tired of patronizing and uninformed attitudes from the Canadian government, Inuit fought for decision making rights in their homeland. In Arctic Defenders Tagak describes Inuit politics of the 1970s -- an epic story that spanned decades and changed the rules of Arctic governance. Inuit achieved the largest land claim in Western civilization and the creation of Nunavut.

This year Canada chairs the Arctic Council -- including Russia, U.S., Greenland, Norway -- accompanied by rhetoric from the Canadian Prime Minister about threats to Canadian sovereignty. Inuit thoughts on environment and the meaning of sovereignty are overdue and necessary to decisions about oil and gas exploration and critical future decisions for the North.

We have turned away people at sold out screenings at film festivals in Halifax, Vancouver and Montreal. There is a tremendous interest in the Arctic, and for me the reactions of young students are especially encouraging. When viewers know that Inuit have been forced to sue the Canadian government for one-billion dollars because the government has not honoured the Nunavut land claim agreement, they want to know what they can do. It is heartening that Canadians want to help and take action against a complacent government that has little concern about the environment and people of Nunavut.

The Inuit I first touched in stone when I was eight has grown in my mind and heart. I have been privileged to be able to spend time with the leaders of the Inuit movement, to be back in the beauty of the North, to be able share a story that reframes the way I think about the North and how essential it is to learn from Inuit about how our Arctic should be governed.

The film will open the Planet in Focus -- 14th International Environmental Film Festival on November 21 at 5:30 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Cinema 1

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