Life Among the Qallunaat
By Mini Aodla Freeman
First Voices, First Texts, 2015
304 pages, $22.71
Reviewed by Michael Melgaard
In 1978, Mini Aodla Freeman’s memoir, Life Among the Qallunaat was released to positive reviews and award buzz in Canada. Coverage in major papers like the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star laid the groundwork for the book to become a major success. Soon after its release, however, a minor problem was discovered: the book was not readily available, especially in the north. It seems that the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development had become worried the book might contain information that would make them look bad. According to Aodla Freeman, half of the print run was bought up and stored in “basement [of] Northern affairs” so that it could be reviewed to be sure that the government’s treatment of the Inuit was not cast in too bad a light. Bureaucracy being what it is, the held-up books were not released until eight months later. By then, the buzz had passed and the book was forgotten, allowed to slowly dribble out into the public over the next decade.
The University of Manitoba has re-released the book as part of its excellent First Voices, First Texts series. The new edition restores the book to its original manuscript form; the first publisher of the book had deemed it too long, and cut many sections that were considered to be off topic or superfluous to the overall story. The original editors changed Aodla Freeman’s occasionally idiosyncratic writing into something more grammatically sound, but less true to her voice. The changes they made were not malicious (they’re the sort of thing any copyeditor would “clean up”), but the effect between the two editions is striking. In the restored edition, much more of Aodla Freeman’s voice is heard; there is a sense that she is personally telling you her story. The charm of her personality shines though.
One major contribution of the original publisher remains: the title. It is misleading, but the decision to go with it is understandable. Aodla Freeman had originally thought her book should be called “James Bay Inuit,” or something along those lines. But books need to be sold, and marketability comes first, so Life Among the Qallunaat was chosen to position the book as a reverse of the popular, anthological account of white folks heading north (i.e., My Life Among the Eskimos). It was a good marketing move, but one that gives too much weight to the opening section, where Aodla Freeman moves from the north to Ottawa to become a translator at the Department of Northern Affairs, which is only a small part of the book.
Told from the perspective of a wiser, older Aodla Freeman, she is not afraid to poke fun at herself. Newly arrived, twenty-year-old Mini, confused by an escalator, does not understand how one gets back down. She sees an elevator, which she has used before, and concludes that escalators are for going up and elevators for going down. She allows herself to be lead around by her roommate, and ends up in situations she would rather not be in— terrified on a Ferris wheel, a bicycle, and a city bus. In one of the funnier sequences of the book, she unwittingly lets herself be entered in a beauty contest, and, after placing second, becomes a spokes model for a ginger ale company.
Toward the end of the first part, the book takes a more serious turn when Mini’s job requires her to travel to various hospitals in the north. There, for the first time in over a year, she sees other Inuit. She sees children separated from parents, alone, like her, and not knowing when or if they will ever see their families again. And then, in Frobisher Bay, she sees the same events that she saw playing out in her childhood: the culture of the south meeting that of the north. In the “I am in the Middle” section, she tells of a typical series of events of Qallunaat coming to town and telling the Inuit how they should live. The southerners have the power of the rules they enforce, but can move on at a moment’s notice, often leaving behind a trail of turmoil. Aodla Freeman is not one to judge harshly, after laying out this typical scene she closes by remarking on humankind’s history of exploitation and unfairness: “It happens in the four corners of the world,” she says. So it goes. Same as it ever was.
Many years after her move south, she visits her dad in Great Whale River, the community her family was relocated to after her grandfather’s death. Her dad, who had always worked, hunted, and navigated boats for the Qallunaat, has nothing to do there. The government has made them move so that they can be kept track of, be near resources, and be a part of the bureaucracy of the south. When she tells the Qallunaat about what her dad can do, they are surprised. They had him working as a janitor. The fundamental lack of understanding between the government and the Inuit is a recurring theme throughout the book. The Inuit have lived up north for centuries, but a new people appear who think that they bring thing that can improve the north. Granted, the traditional ways were less possible as the 20th century progressed, overhunting led to reliance on supplies from the south, but the heavy handed “problem solving” that Mini’s people endured is as fine example of colonial arrogance combined with unbending bureaucracy. People in the south drew up plans unsuited to the environment, sent southerners north to institute them, and when they failed, blamed the locals, rather than themselves.
Mini spends her youth and teenage years being bounced around by officials. She blindly does what she is told to do and assumes that those in positions of power know what they are doing. She accepts the wisdom of those around her, keeping her thoughts and criticisms to herself. This often leads her into trouble, her natural disinclination to question things. When she is young, she accidentally has the nuns at her school thinking she has been sexually abused by her family when she asserts that she has been touched by men. Later, this same breakdown in communicate leads to her losing her job as a nanny, when she is suspected of having an affair with the father of the children in her charge. With the perspective of years, she can look back on these as funny, but at the time they must have been terrible experiences.
Aodla Freeman’s experiences serve as an example of two cultures coming into contact. One with great power, the other with barely any. One that has to learn to adapt, the other that doesn’t seem to care. But again, Aodla Freeman doesn’t dwell much on the bad. It’s there to be seen, but she takes more joy from life than not, especially with the advantage of looking back on it. Each of her short sections is filled with charm, keen observations, and bits of hidden humour. Though the original edition was cut by its editors, it did not seem to be for any reason other than that they thought the reading public preferred a shorter book. The best part of the restored edition is simply that there is more of it. Aodla Freeman is the sort of writer you always want to read more of. You want to know what she thinks of things, what she reacts to, and what sort of trouble she has let herself be led into. She is charming and funny and insightful. Even with the extra sections, you are still left wanting more. It’s been almost four decades since Aodla Freeman wrote this book, and I’m very curious to know what she’s thought about all those years.