The Long Exile

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McGrath, Melanie. The Long Exile: a True Story of Deception and Survival among the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic. London: Fourth Estate, 2006. Pp. 302.

Melanie McGrath’s book The Long Exile is a descriptive account of the hardships and challenges facing Canada’s Inuit as a whole, and of the specific examples of these hardships. The narrative weaves a poignant and emotive path starting with the background to the famous documentary, Nanook of the North, and ending with a relocation program of several families to substantiate Canada’s claim to its northern boundaries. As a historical work and its ability to contribute to a relevant discourse on Canada’s Cold War experience, The Long Exile is insignificant. However, if the goal of the book is to broaden Canadian awareness of the turbulent history of our Inuit peoples and the depth of Canadian history then this book is certainly worth noting. I will attempt to take contrasting views of The Long Exile; on the one hand analyzing its effectiveness to historical scholarship, looking at sources and methodology. On the other hand I will consider the major themes of the book, a larger historical context of Canada during the Cold War, and the books contribution to the history of Canada Inuit.

To take a very broad approach to The Long Exile’s contribution to historical scholarship one must define what is meant by historical scholarship, or even history. There are numerous opinions on what history is, how it is conducted, what it should accomplish, who is qualified, and why bother at all. In very basic terms history is to re-convey the past through some medium of communication. The next hurdle is to do so with as much veracity or legitimacy as possible (unless one is seeking to prove the impossibility of such an action). The conventional way of doing this is by using evidence, some of which is factual and some is deductive-analytical. Even facts become disputed however, as E.H. Carr discusses in What is History? The general questions Carr asks such as whether history is a bunch of compiled, objective facts, or an interpretation of past events by a historian,[1] are relevant to The Long Exile because of the large absence of facts.

The evidence used by McGrath is problematic from a scholarly standpoint. The way she presents her “facts” do not resemble an objective, scientific reflection of historical research. This is not to say that this is how history should be done, because a compilation of inert facts and statistics leaves many historical works in an inaccessible prison of their own numbers. McGrath has clearly gone another route, which is more storytelling and lively, designed to engage the audience intellectually and emotionally. It is a fitting course of action given the impression one receives of her main subjects: the Inuit. Their preference for storytelling as a means of history mirrors McGrath’s process. However, the essence of scholarly work is its engagement with the discipline, its members, and their work and opinion. A “scholarly” work is something that has been read, analyzed, chewed over, criticized and commented on, before it is even published. Then it goes through a much more vigorous and public debate all over again. Furthermore, such a work relies on other historians and their works which have undergone the same process.

It is unclear to what extent The Long Exile has engaged in such a process. Searches of her name and book title reveal no additional published works or articles in any scholarly journals. It does not appear that this book or any other published works have received any scholarly attention that I have found. This criticism is not an attack on her work, but an observation of McGrath’s contribution to a more traditional academic milieu. Whether or not one accepts this interpretation of what a historical work should accomplish, or has set out to accomplish, changes the argument completely. For example, if it was McGrath’s intention to reveal the abuse and misguided treatment of a group of Inuit on an emotive and personal level, then it is hard to find fault with her methods. In addition, the degree to which one agrees with “traditional” historical methodology also renders the above criticisms moot.

A significant issue in this book is the use of oral history, which may help account for the lack of supporting evidence. Before we look at the pros and cons of oral history, it should be noted that McGrath does not set the reader straight with regards to her use of evidence anywhere other than the “Acknowledgments” in the last two pages (p. 301-302). It is possible to deduce her use of oral interviews from the “High Arctic Exiles” as they are known, but she never explicitly says so. One of the ways of dealing with oral testimony in any form is by using corroborating evidence. This is done because of the subjective nature of memory, the form of questions being asked, and the perspectives of both interviewer and interviewee. The inherent problems multiply when dealing with controversial or intensely emotional subjects. However, McGrath raises an excellent point in the meticulous way the Inuit conduct oral history, ways which seem unfathomable to those of us who have just to tap our fingers a few times to obtain “objective” information. McGrath recounts the story of a British rescue voyage in the Arctic which recorded their conversations with the Inuit. When they asked them about the explorer Martin Frobisher’s expeditions in 1576, the Inuit responses where nearly verbatim what was recorded back in England (p. 271-272). This struck me as ironic because she does not present the reader with evidence of where this story came from. However, it does illustrate both the significance and sophistication of the Inuit oral tradition.

Another major source of evidence McGrath uses is the documentary. The most relevant is a famous film of life in Canada’s Arctic, Nanook of the North, directed by Robert Flaherty. As McGrath presents it the subject matter of the documentary is of secondary importance to its director and his illegitimate son Josephie Flaherty: the books main characters if you will. Nanook’s depiction of life in the Arctic has informed such a vast audience and has created long standing stereotypes which perhaps lead McGrath to disregard the particulars of the film. She may be using documentaries in this way in order to undercut a “popular” historical representation from her perspective. The other side to this interpretation is that both the book and documentary are very similar ways of representing the past. If one considers both sources as popular mediums which are largely designed to reach a wider audience, then they complement each other. Moreover, one can do away with many historical issues and theories. We may also get a glimpse into the motivations of the author by looking at the motivations of the documentarian. McGrath writes of Robert Flaherty: “in Nanook he had wanted to capture the struggle for survival, because, for him, it was at the heart of Inuit life. How he achieved this was of less concern. ‘Sometimes you have to lie,’ he said. ‘One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit’” (p. 198). McGrath could be looking at the Inuit from Flaherty’s perspective, a perspective which considers the Inuit way of life, its people and its history as something that has no need of embellishment, exaggeration, or glamorization. Similarly, she may have taken this same idea as justification for writing a historical account without conventional historical methods. One proposal of what McGrath is doing is an attempt to capture the essence of the Inuit and their struggles; an essence which might supersede a perceived need for methodology.

A very glaring problem with The Long Exile is its contribution to Canada’s Cold War experience. McGrath makes very few references to the issue and those references concern the need for military presence in the far north (p. 91). The reasons she gives for relocating Inuit further north is two-fold: firstly to establish Canadian authority to claim sovereignty on this territory (p. 91, 95, 297), and secondly for socio-economic reasons. It was felt (by bureaucrats in Ottawa) that the Inuit’s reliance on fur trading was at the heart of the social and economic downturn in their ways of life, and it was concluded that the Inuit needed to resume a traditional, self-sufficient lifestyle of hunting and living (p. 92-95). This is the rationale behind the relocation as it was conceived, and again in 1995 as reported by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, “the concern was with the ability of the fur trade to sustain the income levels to which Inukjuak Inuit hand become accustomed…Greater reliance on hunting would substitute for the income that fur trading would, in the long term, be unable to provide” (p. 295). It was not the Cold War which initiated the Inuit relocation, but as a way of dealing with the “Eskimo Problem” (p. 92).

Finally, The Long Exile is not a history of the Inuit in and of itself, although the emotive narrative lends itself to such an interpretation. When one asks oneself, what it the purpose of this book, one may always fall back on the larger context: Canada’s national consciousness. Perhaps this is not an explicit goal of the book, but it remains a significant factor for those Canadians who are unaware of the depth and multifaceted history of this nation. By focusing on the people, their desires, beliefs, attitudes and actions, McGrath makes them very real; perhaps more real than the existing evidence and a “traditional” historical work would lead us to believe. This book informs a Canadian identity in new or unthought-of ways and lends credence to some unorthodox ways of conveying history: oral tradition, documentary, landscape and monument.

In conclusion, The Long Exile presents and unconventional, but no less legitimate form of historical inquiry. As a form of popular history McGrath does an excellent job of describing the nuances of social life in an environment that is not suited for a more conventional historical process. This emotive description, while not the objective, unbiased perspective of, what British historian Lawrence Stone called, “number crunching idiot bastards,” allows the reader to connect in a meaningful way to a unique people. Furthermore the Inuit are an intrinsic part of what Canada is and what it means to be Canadian, an idea that is best served through a popular, engaging narrative such as the one Melanie McGrath has offered.

  1. E.H. Carr, What is History? (London: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 15.