Honouring Sarah Ekoomiak

June 10, 2008

“They called ME Stone Age!”

Photo of Inuk cultural interpretor Sarah Ekoomiak with the infant of a TB patient in her amaut taken aboard the C.D.Howe c.1964 where Sarah worked with DINA.

This is a revised version of:

Ekoomiak, Sarah and Maureen Flynn-Burhoe, 2005, Draft: Sarah Ekoomiak’s Life Story “They Called ME Stone Age”, Wakefield, Quebec. Copyrighted. Do not copy or print without permission of Sarah Ekoomiak and Maureen Flynn-Burhoe.

Ekoomiak, Sarah and Maureen Flynn-Burhoe, 2005, Draft: Sarah Ekoomiak’s Life Story “They Called ME Stone Age”, Wakefield, Quebec. First uploaded to http://inuitartwebliography.blogspot.com/2006/12/sarah-ekoomiaks-life-story-they-called.html. November 18, 2006. Accessed yyyy/mm/dd uploaded with permission of Flynn-Burhoe to yoursite.htm on yyyy/mm/dd. Creative Commons copyright 2.5 11:38 AM

See also Sarah’s Photo Album

Martin, Lucy. 2008-06. “Heard Up North—way Up North: the Ekoomiaks.” North Country Public Radio.

Introduction: The contents of this collaborative research are based on conversations between friends that continued over a number of years. They have not been verified. They are uploaded to this site to allow others to comment, question and/or correct.

For decades Wakefield resident Sarah Ekomiak has shared her language skills, gifts and stories enriching countless individuals particularly Inuit from outpost camps to Ottawa.This map dated 1949 shows Kuujjuarapik (Great Whale River ) where Scottish whaler Jimmy Fleming and his Inuk wife Rosie Fleming (1860s- 1930s) lived. Jimmy and Rosie had many children so Sarah has many close relatives in Kuujjuarapik today.

Sarah was born father north in the Umiujaq (Richmond Gulf) area in 1933. By 1943 when William Ekomiak was born, the family was already much farther south near Cape Jones on the coast across from the long island. By the 1950s the family was living near Chisasibi (Fort George). Grandfather Jimmy Ekoomiak Fleming wanted the children to get an education at the Anglican and Catholic schools in Chisasibi (Fort George) on James Bay.

When Sarah was in her late teens she was diagnosed with TB and sent to Moose Factory for four years.

Sarah Ekoomiak was born in 1933 in the area of Umiujaq (Richmond Gulf) on the stunning Hudson’s Bay coastline, north of Kuujjuarapik (Great Whale River). Richmond Gulf is just south of the tree line. The waters cut deeply into the land mass creating a large lake and a huge peninsula. The coast along Hudson’s Bay is fringed with a long chain of islands, the Nastapoka Islands. Sarah was only there in her early childhood but the mountain in Umiujaq was vaguely familiar to her.

Sarah’s great grandfather Jimmy Fleming was Scottish. He had bushy eyebrows like his son Jimmy Ekoomiak Fleming. He and his Inuk wife Rosie (1860s- 1930s) lived in Kuujjuarapik where their numerous descendants remain today. There are so many Flemings that the name Ekoomiak was added to prevent some confusion. Sarah has many close relatives in Kuujjuarapik and keeps in touch with her family there.

There is a powerful story told about Sarah’s great-grandmother Rosie Fleming who was a deeply spiritual woman. She learned about God from her husband but she felt alone in her beliefs since she did not feel she could talk about her conversion. Sarah was only a young child when great-grandmother Rosie died in the 1930s but she remembers the story of the strange phenomenon that appeared in the sky immediately after her great-grandmother’s death. Words written in the clouds appeared in a wide arch across the sky. Sarah and Willy explained the strange letters as Rosie’s message that she did not dare to speak while she was alive. In the early 1930s none of the Inuit there could read so only the Hudson’s Bay company man understood. He was so shaken by the words that converted from the Catholic to the Anglican religion . It was the only spiritual improvement he could think of! Towards the end of her life Great-grandmother Rosie lacked the strength and could no longer work as hard as she wanted. She couldn’t help others so she made a promise that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would help others.

Sarah was the oldest of six children who were born of Charlie Ekomiak and Lucy Menarick in the camp of paternal grandfather Jimmie Ekomiak (Fleming) and his wife Annie. Like Sarah and Maggie, their grandmother Annie was a small woman. Jimmie Ekomiak (Fleming) was not tall either. He loved children and played with Sarah like a child would play.

In Sarah Ekoomiak’s early childhood years her family lived on the land in a small group of hunters, fishers and trappers.

Sarah was particularly fond of her paternal grandfather Jimmie Ekomiak Fleming (c.1885-1950s) who was camp leader. He seemed to have combined the Christian and traditional spirituality and values. Sarah still speaks of lessons learned from her grandfather that continue to guide her today. She has never been able to swear since he forbade it. Sarah’s childhood unfolded in camp life where adults never spoke in anger to each other or to the children. In her seventies she still carries with her his teachings on patient listening to the frustrations of others and responding thoughtfully rather than reacting impulsively. She remembers those early years where they had so little contact with others she used to think they were the only inhabitants of this land.

Her grandfather was a skilled hunter which meant that he made all his own hunting and fishing equipment and he shared his knowledge with his sons. He used to make cord for the dogsleds from seal skin with a special knife with a curved blade. When they had a successful hunt where they caught the largest seal, the bearded seal Sarah’s grandfather would use the skin to make the strongest ropes. He hung the rope between the trees to let them freeze. When they were frozen he cut it in even strips. He would use this rope to make snares for rabbit and beaver. Indians taught them how to hunt with traps.

Her grandfather knew how to make fish nets. He worked at making and repairing nets. They fished using nets from canoes in rivers, lakes and the Bay all year round. It was a long net with buoys, a piece of a floating wood. They caught white fish and trout and cod, small fish called kanayuk (sculpin). They used to fish in spring when ice cracks would open. They caught cod by jigging with a little stick for a handle. They caught cod by jigging. Sarah could also remember her father and grandfather using wood to cure dried meat from fox, muskrat and other small mammals. They would carve wood to fit the animal skin.

Sarah remembered her father wearing skin clothing so she bought the work of an urban Inuk painter who depicts traditional hunting scenes for her living room in Wakefield, Quebec. Sarah can remember wearing a rabbit skin parka when she was little. It was made by the Cree who often gave them gifts of food and clothing. The Indians used to make rabbit skin into strands and knit blankets out of them.

While Sarah was still just a child Grandfather Ekoomiak Fleming’s camp left Richmond Gulf and moved hundreds of miles moving south following the coast of Hudson Bay traveling on foot and by canoe and kayak. These are Sarah’s closest relatives whose children were like siblings to her. The Inuit families included the Menarick’s and Isaac Fleming’s with their children. There was not enough room in the boats so people took turns walking. The canoes and kayak remained close by just off shore. Sarah thinks these long walks in her early life explain why she loves walking so much today. They’d stop at night and set up tents. Sometimes they stopped along the way if the hunting was good. At that time when they were moving south there were only Inuit families in their camp.

Sarah can remember when the family first arrived in Kuujjuarapik. She and her little sister Annie who was two years younger than Sarah, were in the canoe. The first time Sarah saw the houses of Kuujjuarapik they were approaching by canoe. Annie expressed her surprise and delight at the red colour of the roof of HBC residence. See wikipedia entry.

Sarah remembers the stairs cut into the steep escarpment where an elderly couple, the Nero’s lived. Mr. Nero was a white man who was married to an Inuk lady, Grandfather Ekomiak Fleming’s step-sister. Mrs. Fleming wore a long dress with a nice apron while making bread. The smell of bread was strange to Sarah.

Sarah and Maggie were baptized in the Church depicted in this drawing from 1949. The church is now a museum.

For awhile they lived in a camp outside Kuujjuarapik in semi-tents with tree branches with moss between and a canvas on top. Spruce branches provided a floor. Her mother would change the branches often. Each family had their own tent. In theirs they had six children and their parents. The grandparents had their own tent. Sarah remembers these as happy years. Inuit laughed all the time. Inuit are good at telling stories. Kuujjuarapik was a laughing place to them.

Sarah was born during the good years when prices for fur were high. Hunters could have large dog teams. In the years leading up to WWII the European market for furs collapsed and Inuit all over the north found their credit with the HBC was no longer available. This combined with the scarcity of game and poor hunting conditions brought in years of hunger and in some regions, even starvation. Animals were scarce and sharing of food became a necessity as each family depended on each other for survival (see Patrick 2003:78-9).

In the fall there was no food because the sea was rough. Every fall it was a hard time to hunt. Sometimes they would catch enough seal or birds just before the worst times. Sarah can remember the periods of hunger when the men were away hunting. She told me this story several times. Most of the time, she would laugh about it but once there were tears in her eyes.

The men used to go away for two weeks at a time. All the men would go. The six children would stay behind with my mother. The children didn’t eat as well when the men were gone. Sometimes my mother would catch a rabbit. Sometimes she would fish. One time when my mother was going fishing, she told me to take care of Sammie. He was just a baby. This was before Willie was born. They only had a ptarmigan with very little meat. I was told to chew the food before giving it to Sammie. Instead I swallowed it. I didn’t mean to but I swallowed it.

Even though Sarah was only seven or eight at the time, she felt so bad about this incident that she remembered it vividly sixty years later. As she reminisced about these early years on the land in the 1930s and 1940s, she wondered that she was the same person! She sits beside the fireplace in a comfortable living room in La Peche, Quebec in an Ikea chair and tells her stories. She pulls herself up in the chair and leans forward, feigning surprise, she points to herself and declares, “They called me Stone Age !” She remembers as a young adult in Ottawa thinking back to her days on the land and wondering how her father and grandfather could find the trading post without a map!

When the ship came Grandfather Ekomiak Fleming bought a plaid material like that made into kilts by the Scottish people and a copper kettle for Grandmother Rosie. Grandmother Rosie made shawls out of the plaid material. She hung her copper kettle above a seal oil kudlik (a lamp carved from stone) to keep her tea water warm. She used cloth as a wick. In the morning it would be so cold and her father would make a fire in the morning.

Grandmother Rosie taught her how to make good boots because she told her she would need to know how to sew them. Willie said their Grandmother Annie wanted Sarah to make them perfectly the first time. Grandmother Fleming was very strict. She kept all her sewing tools wrapped in a loon skin. Eight-year old Sarah and her grand Aunt Dinah wanted to look at the sewing tools but they knew they weren’t supposed to.

Sarah spent more time with Grandmother Annie Ekoomiak because Sarah loved her Aunt Dinah whom she thought of as a sister. She really wanted Aunt Dinah to be her sister. They slept together at her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother told them to go to bed early and get up early or they would be lazy.

Jimmie Ekomiak Fleming was a fiddler and he taught his sons Charlie and Thomas. Thomas bought the fiddle from Eaton’s catalogue for $15.

Charlie Ekomiak knew how to make harnesses for dogs. He decorated the harnesses with wool. Sarah would make little boots for dogs using a square with a hole and sew them for the dogs’ feet to protect the dogs’ feet in the rough ice. Her father Charlie Ekoomiak was a good carver and he carved a doll for Sarah. One of her fondest memories of those good years of living on the land was that of being tucked into the nose of her father’s kayak. The kayak was so well-made; the skin so pulled so taut that it was translucid. She could see jellyfish, rocks, and fish. She cherishes this memory.

As they walked they would sometimes come upon ancient abandoned sites where ancient objects spoke of the people who had passed through here before. They found bones, weapons, the tops of tobacco tin cans recycled for oil lamps and even a narwhal tusk… This was the archives, the museum.

Some items, such as Old Sail tobacco, tea and flour, could only be acquired through the traders. Old Sail tobacco was sold in hard blocks. Sarah used to cut off small pieces and hide them as a treasure. When everyone ran out, she would go to her cache and surprise everyone with a treat! She remembers one of the older women looking up at a plane flying overhead and laughingly shouting at it, “Throw us some tobacco!” She sued to cut a little bit with her ulu. It was hard to cut. She used to hide flour. She used to say “Surprise!” Maybe that’s why she likes to still do that today. She used to love to see their faces so happy. Sometimes Indians would bring them things. One day a canoe with Indians came and her mother could understand them.

Sarah’s mother Lucie Menarik Ekomiak died prematurely shortly after an incident in which she dropped her young baby Willie. The infant was badly hurt. His wrist was bleeding and Willie can remember her mother crying very hard after this accident. Sarah was already in school at the time. S. thinks her mother had high blood pressure; she suffered from severe migraines.

It is impossible to link Lucie Menarik Ekomiak’s premature death to the social and economic conditions that contributed to the poor health of Inuit in general. But by the 1930s many Inuit were dependent on trade goods including some hunting supplies , and the HBC was no longer providing them with credit. Sarah’s family was among the first wave of Inuit from hundreds of smaller camps scattered across the north had begun to congregate in and around hamlets which gradually became artificial communities transforming many aspects of Inuit traditional life (Mitchell 1996:118). Some families, like the Weetaluk family who were close friends of Sarah’s grandparents resisted settling in the hamlets. Annie Weetaluk knew the genealogical history of Sarah’s family going back to the arrival of Jimmy Fleming.

The federal government had no policy to assist Inuit through lean years. Poverty and hunger led to a rise in tuberculosis and other diseases (Patrick 2003:80). The leanest years for Inuit communities began in the late 1930s and continued into the 1950s . The more skilled and resourceful hunters like those in Sarah’s camp probably fared better than others.

By1943 the family had already traveled over 150 miles by dogsled from Sarah’s birthplace in Richmond Gulf to Willie’s in Cape Jones on the coast across from Long Island. By the time Willie was ready for school they were living in Fort George where there were only two schools in the region, an Anglican and Catholic school both in Fort George. Jimmy Ekomiak Fleming wanted the children to attend school so he moved the camp south. They used to move often.

Sarah was the oldest of Jimmy and Lucie’s six children and she can remember carrying her youngest sibling, Willie Ekomiak, in her amautik. Willie was born in. He was a chubby baby and Sarah was a tiny person like her Grandmother Annie. She became like a mother to him until he was adopted by Aunt Martha and Uncle Thomas Ekoomiak. There were three or four camps together. Aunt Martha wore a shawl like many women of the time. Sarah can remember Willie crying so hard when he was a baby that he would turn blue. His Aunt Martha had to put cold water on his face to make him breathe again!

Their sister Emilie (b.1941) was also adopted out but she was not well cared for so Charlie Ekomiak got her back from Kuujjuarapik (Great Whale River). Emilie became William’s favourite playmate.

Sarah’s family, under the guidance of camp leader Jimmie Ekomiak Fleming, was the first Inuit family to come to the island community of Fort George. Grandfather Ekoomiak Fleming wanted Samie, Sarah, Willie, Maggie and Jeannie Ekoomiak Fleming and the other children from other Inuit families in their camp included the Menarick’s and Isaac Fleming’s children, to attend the schools that had recently opened on the island of Fort George. In an unusual act of reconciliation between the two competitive religions in the region, he decided to enroll some children in the Anglican school and the others in the Catholic school. Willie and Sarah went to the Anglican school. Maggie was sent to the Catholic school.

Sarah remembers that they lived beside the river. When Sarah was still quite young she remembers standing by a river and watching the river currents rushing towards the Bay. She remembered wishing out loud that she would travel far. Her wish came true.

Since the James Bay negotiation relationships between some Inuit and Cree may have become tense but there is a very long history of good relations between the Inuit and Cree. When Sarah was growing up she remembered how the Ekomiaks got along well with the Cree. They spoke Inuktitut at home and Cree outside. Now in her old community they speak three languages, English too. Sarah’s mother, Lucie Menarik could speak Cree. The Cree and Charlie Ekomiak camp got along well like a big family. The first time she went to Chisasibi Indians still lived in tents. She remembers them. Some are still living. Claude Querdl, 50-year-old Cree-Montagnais cab driver now working in Iqaluit, used to live in Chisasibi and he warmly remembered the Ekomiaks for their generosity.

The Ekomiaks and the Cree shared flour and food with each other. The Cree used to pull toboggans with all their hunting equipment. Her father had a komatik which is a traditional Inuit sled on runners pulled by dog teams. They shared whatever they had. The Cree seemed to like to hunt with Sarah’s father and grandfather. Sarah’s grandfather was a good and generous hunter and he taught his family to always share food .

In 1945 Sarah and her Aunt Jeannie were twelve years old and Aunt Dinah was thirteen. They were the first of the Grandfather Ekomiak Fleming’s children to attend school in Fort George. They were probably the first Inuit students there. The families remained in Cape Jones and the girls went to the St. Phillip’s residential school run by the Anglican Church on Fort George Island. The girls went home in the holidays by dogsleds. One year Sarah and Aunt Jeannie waited but the family didn’t come for her. Perhaps that was the year her mother died. Sarah received a letter from her Auntie Carolyn telling her that her mother had died. Sarah attended school for only four years and remembered little of the English that she learned there. Children did not attend school after they turned sixteen. Other students were surprised when Sarah left. “You’re finished already?”

Sarah’s mother was buried outside Kuujjuarapik, near the Kujjuak river. The place where she is buried is Louisa Fleming’s camp. Louisa’s son drowned near there and she still goes there whenever she can.

Sarah remembered when she was in her early teen years she and Willie were playing a game with pebbles. Their uncle Elijah Menarik, her mother Lucie’s youngest brother who was not much older than Sarah approached them. They wanted to play with him but it was hard to communicate because he spoke only Cree. Shortly after that a white teacher Mrs. Heinz, had Elijah sent to Inukjuak when he was 18 or 19 years old so he could learn Inuktitut!

Sarah’s life was irreversibly transformed by the tuberculosis epidemic that devastated all northern and remote communities Canada. When Sarah was diagnosed with TB in 1950 she was sent to Moose Factory. She was one of many family members exiled to either Moose Factory or Hamilton. By 1953 when Sarah was in Moose Factory, the largest year-round Inuit community in Canada was in Hamilton at the Mountain Sanatorium where 332 Inuit patients were being treated. There were 1,578 Inuit being treated in Canadian hospitals in 1953. That meant that 1 out of every seven Inuit was in a southern sanatorium. And one-third of the Inuit population of the 1950s was infected with TB. In some communities everyone has had TB at some time or another.

It was in Moose Factory that Sarah learned that she was able to do anything the decided she wanted to do. Even today when she decides to learn something new she just opens her arms to the world and says, “OK. I’ll try!”

This is how she learned to read and write in syllabics when she was a homesick teenager confined to a hospital bed,

When I was in the hospital I really wanted to write to my Dad. I was so close to my Dad. I asked the next bed lady, Can you help teach me how to write Inuktitut? She would write two letters [syllabics] on a paper. She gave it to me. I tried to read it for her. Then she gave me two more letters, then three, four letters. She’d write to me and I’d answer back. Then I started to write letters to my Dad.

Picture this determined little teenager passing sheets of paper from her bed to the next-bed lady, back and forth over the weeks. By the end of her first year in Moose Factory hospital Sarah was able to send letters home and read the letters sent from home. This special skill would help Sarah after she left the hospital and moved to Ottawa.

While in Moose Factory recovering from TB, Sarah spent almost four years in a hospital bed. From the Cree and Inuit women there she learned how to bead, how to sew, to write syllabics and to speak different dialects of Inuktitut. She continued to develop these skills throughout her life. Some of the beading work she does today is based on designs and templates learned from the women she met in Moose Factory.

In this photo taken in Moose Factory in 1953 when Sarah was twenty, Sarah is dressed like a cowgirl and is holding a toy cowboy and horse. Her auntie Caroline sent her many hand embroidered clothes like this blouse.

By 1954 when Sarah briefly returned home to Fort George-Chisasibi, the federal government had already begun to recognize responsibility for the well-being of the Inuit. In 1953, an admonished Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent admitted, “Apparently we have administered the vast territories of the north in an almost continuing absence of mind. (Parker 1996:32).” The government began to establish about forty permanent administrative centres to provide education, health and economic development services for Inuit (Parker 1996:32).

These were difficult years for the family. Sarah’s father had remarried and his wife had many children. Sarah wanted to contribute so she asked her father for permission to go back to Moose Factory to work so she could send them money. Her father agreed if she promised to never drink alcohol as he had seen the damaging effect of alcohol on many Inuit. Sarah promised and she and Maggie returned to work in Moose Factory for a few years. In the winter they used to walk back and forth across the ice between Moosonnee and the island community of Moose Factory in the middle of Moose River.

Grandfather Jimmie Ekoomiak Fleming was also diagnosed with TB but he came to the hospital after Sarah and Maggie had already left for Ottawa. He died and was buried in Moose Factory cemetery in the 1958. Sarah has often wondered about his grave site. In 2003 when she was over seventy years old, she and her good friend, Ben, made the trip from Wakefield to Moose Factory by car and train. They camped out on Moose Factory island and she caught a very bad cold! But she was unable to find the grave in the St. Thomas Anglican cemetery. It was unmarked.

When camps lost skilled hunters like Jimmy Ekomiak Fleming Inuit were forced to live closer to hamlets and to find other sources of income. In Fort George young William Ekomiak, who could already speak English and Inuktitut and Cree because he was one of the first Inuit to go to school, was offered work. The Indian Affairs clerk was so impressed that William could speak English when he was only 17 years old in 1960 that he hired him as a stores keeper and interpreter. He earned $300 for his job! He also worked as interpreter at the hospital.

In 1954 when Sarah and Maggie moved back to Moose Factory they both found work immediately. Sarah worked as a Nurses’s Aid and Maggie worked with a dentist. One day Maggie overheard a conversation between two nurses. One of them had gone on vacation to Montreal and Ottawa. Maggie came to Sarah and announced, “I am going to Ottawa!” Sarah asked her, “Where’s Ottawa?” Maggie answered shrugging her shoulders, I don’t know!” So they bought their train tickets and headed south! Telling her story today, Sarah laughs in astonishment, “We’re going to Ottawa! We couldn’t speak English! The nerve!”

When twenty-five year old Sarah and her younger sister Maggie first arrived in Ottawa in 1958 they stayed with their uncle Elijah Menarick and his wife Grace for a few weeks. After several weeks Gracie found a social worker to work with Maggie and Sarah to help them find work and a place to stay. They both began working as au pair’s. Maggie worked with a doctor’s family taking care of the house and the children. Sarah first worked with a Jewish family but they found it too difficult because she couldn’t speak English. So Sarah began working with the Clark family who were Irish. The Clarks had two children, Gary and Mona and Sarah took care of them and did the housework. Sarah loved the name Gary so much that she named her own son Gary when he was born many years later. Sarah worked there for two years but in 1960 she was again offered the possibility of an adventure. Mr. and Mrs. Clark didn’t want Sarah to go. But once she had decided to do something nothing would hold her back.

One day Annie Weetaluk came to visit Sarah when she was working at the Clark’s. Annie announced to Sarah, “I am going to work this summer on the ship. Do you want to come with us?” Sarah thought to herself, “I don’t speak enough English!” Annie had her answer ready, “I know you and I know you can do it! You know Rhoda , don’t you?” Sarah knew Rhoda because they worked together in Moose Factory. Annie assured her, If Rhoda can do it you can!” So Sarah said, “OK, I’ll try!” In the same year Sarah began working on the C. D. Howe. She now admits, “My first trip I couldn’t make it very well. I couldn’t understand English. That was a good job I ever had.”

In the 1990s Sarah made the long trip home to Kuujjuarapik. She visited Annie Weetaluk’s grave and thanked her for convincing her to take the job on the C. D. Howe, the best job she’d ever had!

While working on the C. D. Howe Sarah lived in Ottawa in the fall and winter. But for six years her home from July to September was on the on board the ship that visited numerous Inuit outpost camps and hamlets. She worked both trips each year except for the year Gary was born.

Iqa Qamanirq who now works in Ottawa at the Family Services Centre could remember seeing Sarah in the early 1960s when her family lived on the land outside of Arctic Bay. Iqa was afraid of the helicopter but the whole medical trip was a big adventure. She remembered her mother making sets of clothing and kamiks especially for these yearly checkups. As soon as they heard the plane the children were called to come and wash their hair and get dressed as if they were going to a party or going to town!

Sarah has many memories of these trips. In one place a grateful Inuk wanted to give her a narwhale tusk as a gift. She didn’t think there was enough room on the helicopter so she had to decline. She laughs now since she knows it is worth about $5000! Sarah continued working every summer offering happily to work both tours until 1966 when Gary was born. Meeka was born in 1968?

When Sarah returned to Ottawa in September of 1960 after her first two tours on the C. D. Howe, she was given jobs at the Department of Northern Resources. Not long after she had come back to Ottawa Sarah was sent on an emergency trip to a Montreal hospital to act as interpreter for a patient evacuated from Nunavik for a medical emergency. She describes this harrowing experience of a young Inuk in her twenties newly arrived in the city. They told her she was the only one in the Ottawa-Montreal area who could interpret Inuktitut-English with the Nunavik Inuktitut!

There’s a doctor in Montreal who needs a translator who needs a translator. I could hardly speak English. I took a train from Ottawa to Montreal. Then I took the subway. I took the subway back and forth three times! I said,

“’Forget it!’ I took a taxi! O my God! Poor me! Gee Whiz!

She describes how she had to learn to type using one of the first type writers with syllabics! She learned how to translate from the Labrador script into syllabics and English!

She put it simply,

“They put me to type. They put me to translate.”

Her response as usual was, “OK. I’ll try!”

When Sarah first came to Ottawa she was part of a small handful of Inuit there. Sarah worked on some of the very first issues of this popular magazine which was published in Inuktitut syllabics as well as the alphabet and in English. Sarah learned to type with a specially designed typewriter , one of the first with syllabics. Mary Paneegoosilk began the first Inuktitut magazine, a publication put out by the Department intended for Inuit all across the north. It was a small magazine. Then Harriet Rustton, an Inuk from Kudjuaq started the Inuktitut magazine with the larger format which had room for Inuktitut syllabics, Labrador Inuktitut and English. Sarah did the translation for
Inuktitut magazine for a number of years. She continued to work as interpreter/translator for many years.

The 1960s was the decade many First Nations, Métis and Inuit would later infamously label “the sixties scoop.” Young women were encouraged to give their children for adoption to non-aboriginal families with the promise of a better life and a better future for their children. Maria Fleming, Sarah’s cousin was one of these young women. Sarah has a phenomenal memory and can remember chance encounters decades later at the appropriate moment! She could remember seeing Maria in Ottawa when she was pregnant. This was an image she could share forty years later when Sarah met Maria’s daughter who was actively seeking out her birth family. Sarah was the first Inuk relative Maria’s daughter met. This resulted in a long road trip together to Fort George where Sarah introduced her to the large family that was her family and walked with her along the trails her mother would have walked. Unfortunately Maria had died just the year before her daughter began her search. Sarah remains in close contact with Maria’s daughter today (see Inuktitut 2004). During the sixties Sarah had non-Inuit friends and co-workers who adopted Inuit children from the hamlets.

Through the 1960s and 1970s many Inuit came to join Elijah, Sarah, Anne, Maggie and the few Inuit who were among that first wave of urban Inuit. Their numbers began to increase as many Inuit, First Nations and Métis moved to urban areas in the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1960s twenty-one year old Willie Ekomiak, his step-brother Norman Ekomiak and their friend Johnny Weetaluk came to Ottawa to attend school . Willie and Norman began to attend dances, picnics and beach parties hosted by the International Club which the Baha’is of Ottawa had initiated since the nation’s capital attracted people from all over the world. When Willie decided to become a Baha’i he became the first Inuk worldwide to join creating much excitement in the national and even international Baha’i communities. The news of his adherence to the Baha’i Faith was not warmly accepted in his home community which was staunchly Christian . Willie’s father, Charlie Ekomiak seemed to be more accepting of his son’s choice. For many years Sarah as well was not sure exactly what Willie had joined. Today she has many friends in the Baha’i community who have won her trust and deep affection. Gradually she became somewhat reassured that her baby brother was not threatened by being a Baha’i.

By 1969 Sarah’s second baby Gary was just a toddler. This is when she met the love of her life with whom she shared her happiest years. Even today almost ten years after his death, Sarah’s face lights up when she speaks of Paul. Paul Hamelin was from Hull, Quebec. She was 36 years old and he was 50. He was divorced and had already raised a family. Sarah, Paul and Gary lived in a house just outside the village of Wakefield, Quebec where Sarah still lives today. They built their house together. Their relationship was always one of mutual respect where Sarah truly lived the principle of equality. She was used to working hard in camp life. Even though she was physically tiny, she enjoyed physical work and she could chop wood as easily as any man. Paul was a kind, good father to Gary. After his retirement they took numerous long-distance trips including visits to her Nunavik home which was connected to the south since the James Bay project was in place.

When Sarah stopped going on the northern tours on the C.D. Howe she didn’t stop traveling for the Department. She worked with a social worker and they drove to many different hospitals, to Parry Sound, Windsor, Stittsville . . The social worker had a car and they drove from hospital to hospital visiting unilingual Inuit, consulting with them and the medical staff to ensure they were getting the best hospital care in the most suitable hospital setting. One day decades later Sarah and Willie were performing at one of the Inuit Art Foundation’s Qaggit gatherings. Willie was playing the fiddle and Sarah was playing the spoons. A young man came up to Sarah and told her that he remembered her from the 1970s when she came to visit him when he was a patient in a hospital. Sarah came with a social worker and the man who was only a young child at the time remembered Sarah very well. Sarah meets people like this grateful young man all the time. They remember her even if she cannot remember them. Her language skills and calming presence gave them a brief sense of security in situations that were unsettling and isolating.

Sarah continued working at interpreter for the DIANR where her work was greatly appreciated. She has a collection of mementos which include letters from ministers and Deputy Minister’s (such as Arthur Kroeger ) congratulating her on the quality of her translations. She was invited frequently to attend events including a ball organized by the Governor General. She was asked to speak on Inuit art and culture.

By 1978 the Department moved to its headquarters in Hull on Laurier. The building had some kind of environmental toxins and Sarah knew women who worked there and miscarried. Sarah herself lost a baby through miscarriage while working in that building. Sarah is known for her accepting nature. She rarely complains although she uses laughter often to comment on situations that are ludicrous. However, in her relations with the Department in the 1970s, she knows that she was denied certain rights simply because she was Inuk. This is unusual for Sarah to mention this so it accentuates how strongly she feels about social justice. Other women who miscarried at the same time because of toxins in the Laurier complex were eventually compensated. She was not. When she left, her boss, Mr. M, a renowned scientist who still works for the government, refused to sign her papers so she could claim her unemployment insurance. She has never forgotten that missing $400! She explains it today,

“You know me. I don’t speak. I don’t bother. When I quit, I didn’t get my UI because I was Inuk.”

She does receive a small pension from the Department for her years of service.

When Sarah could no longer work for the Department Paul who had retired from his job at the Mint began to work again in 1979. For eight years Sarah and Paul worked for Canada Post delivering mail to rural area in Quebec. He and Sarah took the contract to deliver mail in rural Quebec Paul was working at the Mint. Paul didn’t work then. In 1979 they worked for post office for eight years. They were so much appreciated that when their contract was not renewed, people complained! They had a meeting to try to make them keep on working.

Before Paul became too sick to travel, he used to drive Sarah to hospitals where she knew she could unilingual Inuktitut-speakers. Sometimes they would drive to airports to see if there were any Inuit stranded there. On one of their trips they saw renowned Inuit artist Pitseolak Ashoona alone in a hospital outside of Montreal . Pitseolak was so depressed she told Sarah to take her ulu since she had no use for it anymore.

On another trip they saw an elderly Inuk who had been stranded for 48 hours at the airport. She had been sent out from her hamlet to attend a meeting but no one met her at the airport and there were no arrangements. She didn’t even know how to find the washroom. She grabbed Sarah’s hands in relief!

Paul was already starting to get sick.

“Doctor opened him. His lungs and heart were covered with tar. The doctor scraped it off. This gave him five more years. He wasn’t really sick but he was weak.”

Paul was a heavy smoker and nicotine is another of Sarah’s few enemies. Paul died in 1990. He spared Sarah the worry of his cancer and didn’t tell her even though she could see he was getting very weak.

“He was only sick for a few months. He had cancer and he didn’t tell me. He lost weight very fast.”

Sarah was younger than Paul and even though she was tiny she was and is very strong. Maybe it was from the healthy living on the land in her early years. Sarah proudly shows a photo of a huge pile of wood for their wood stove in the yard of their home just outside Wakefield. She admits that Paul’s sisters wondered at Sarah working so hard but Sarah explained,

“I used to enjoy splitting wood!”

When Paul died in 1990 Sarah became very ill with grief. A dear friend took Sarah on a trip to Venezuela for two weeks. She walked on the beaches and gathered so many sea shells that the Customs Officer raised his eyebrows in surprise. She still has these sea shells in the craft shed Paul built for her many years ago.

Shortly after Paul died Sarah underwent an operation for intestinal blockage. She was living alone in her little house on a wooded lane outside Wakefield. One day the phone rang. A young woman on the other end of the line said,

“Hello. My name is Catherine Louise.”

Sarah asked, “Who?”
And the young voice repeated,

“Catherine Louise.”

Sarah described,

“I started to scream Where are you? My soreness, my weakness were better very fast.”

Meeka said,

“J. and E. changed my name to Meeka when I was baptized.”

A social worker told me that they would name the baby Catherine Louise in case I was looking for her or she was looking for me. Meeka was in Grace Hospital. Meeka liked to tell the story about how her adoptive parents chose her. They were just about to take to little boy because they already had lots of toys and things for a little boy and then and they saw Meeka and they changed their mind. They are a very nice couple. Meeka said,

“Nobody could have a better mother than Jackie. I’m not sorry you gave me away.”

Meeka used to write her a lot of letters before she had her own baby Julien in 1999.

Sarah’s son Gary had two children. His first partner Jennifer had a baby boy, R. who is now 8. C. had a little girl, G. who will be two and a half on June 28th.

In more recent years Sarah continued to share her stories and language skills informally at the Inuit Family Services in Vanier, when her grandson Ryan attended the day care. Staff there truly enjoyed her visits.

She and Willie are often asked to perform together at celebratory events related to Inuit culture. Although she usually accompanies Willie’s old-time fiddle music by playing the spoons, she can still play the accordion! She has also come to Carleton University to present her beadwork.

Karen Needham’s ex-partner Ben became very fond of Sarah and his new Inuit family ever since he met her in the early 1990s. Since then he has taken Sarah on many trips including the lengthy journey to Kuujjuarapik. When they were there Sarah visited her mother’s grave site. They drove as far as they could then they took a small plane and finally a boat to reach the spot where her mother died over sixty years ago.

Among the indigenous people living today, Inuit probably stand alone in having peacefully achieved so many political, economic and social gains through negotiation with the government authorities they live under. But alongside these successes are the painful stories of governmental meddling and mistakes. In Sarah’s family there are countless stories of individuals who have made courageous choices which helped to bring about positive change. At the same time, Sarah is constantly hearing from home about stories of young people who have committed suicide, or even murder.

In the summer of 2004, in her seventies Sarah Ekoomiak went on a marathon trip with Ben the fireman, to Marathon near Thunder Bay, Moose Factory. She camped outside in Moose Factory and caught a very bad cold. She tried to find her grandfather’s grave but couldn’t.

Sarah continues to create beautiful dolls, kamiks, beading. Sarah began to learn to sew as a very young child with her Grandmother. But she greatly admired two women relatives who were renowned locally for their skills. Her second cousin Gracie and her cousin Dinah Fleming was known for their skills. Sarah used to watch them sewing. Her cousin Gracie told Sarah that she could copy her patterns because she liked the way Sarah worked. She gave her patterns. Gracie was so much appreciated by her family for her skill that her gravestone is decorated with engraved images of her sewing tools. In all her years working Sarah never stopped sewing and beading. She continues to work today while waiting for her operations to remove cataracts to improve her sight! Recently she surprised a friend with a pair of sealskin mittens. She had never made them before but when she saw her dear friend Ben attempt a pair she thought she could do better than that! She said to herself, “OK. I’ll try it!” She also made a beautiful pair of slippers using beaded tongues that were made in the 1950s! Sarah sells her tiny kamiks in stores like the Inuit Art Foundation. She had also made dolls in traditional clothing. Her hands are never idle.

1820 The Hudson’s Bay Company established their trading post at Kuujjuarapik and named it Great Whale River. Kuujjuarapik has a long history of contact with the whalers and missionaries. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Great Whale River was involved in the fur trade, commercial whaling and the processing of whale products. Today Great Whale River refers to the three sections of the region: Poste-de-la-Baleine, the predominately French settlement, Kuujjuarapik on the north shore of the Kuujuaq (big) river and Whapmagoostui, the Cree community, beside Kuujjuarapik inland from the Hudson Bay (see Patrick 2003:22).

1837 The HBC had a post in Fort George (Mailasikkut) since 1803 which was moved to Governor’s or Fort George Island. Chisasibi, where many of Sarah’s relatives live today, is Cree for “great river”, officially known as La Grande River through the infamous project (see Patrick 2003:84).

1856 Two Anglican Church Missionary Society members working in the Hudsons’ Bay region, John Horden, at Moose Factory, and E. A. Watkins at Fort George, were producing material in syllabics for Inuit. Watkins noted in his diary of June 19, 1856, that an Inuit youth from Little Whale River wanted to learn syllabics very much so he worked with Watkins. Horden in Moose Factory and Watkins collaborated on producing some Bible selections in Inuktitut.

1865 John Horden and Watkins met in London worked together to modify the Cree syllabic system to the Inuktitut language. The syllabic orthography was very easy to learn that and this enabled the Anglican Church to proselytize successfully over such a wide area of the Arctic. Inuit taught each other. With the assistance of well-traveled native assistants who worked with Peck, Bilby and Greenshield at Blacklead Island, and with Bilby and Fleming at Lake Harbour, a large number of Inuit who had never met a missionary nonetheless had access to the Bible and were able to read it in syllabics. Two of the best-known native assistants were Luke Kidlapik and Joseph Pudloo. As a boy Joseph Pudloo had learned syllabics in Reverend Fleming’ s senior class in Lake Harbour. Later he became Fleming’s sled driver, taking the missionary thousands of miles on visits to Inuit camps. After that he spent two years working with the Reverend B.P. Smith at Baker Lake, the first native assistant to work in a dialect markedly different from his own.

c.1860s Rosie Fleming (c.1860s- c.1930s), Sarah Ekoomiak’s great-great-grandmother was born. She married Scottish whaler Jimmy Fleming and they lived Kuujjuarapik where they had many children. Sarah has many close relatives in Kuujjuarapik. Sarah’s great grandfather Jimmy Fleming was Scottish. He had bushy eyebrows like his son Jimmy Ekoomiak Fleming.

1876 Reverend Peck established the first permanent Christian mission in Inuit territory at Little Whale River near Richmond Gulf.

1880 The Indian Affairs Department was established. “Since Confederation, the responsibility for Indian Affairs and Northern Development rested with various government departments between 1873 and 1966. The minister of the Interior also held the position of Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs after the Indian Affairs Department was established in 1880.” INAC WWW,

1882 An Anglican mission was established in Kujjuarapik in 1882 and a Catholic mission in 1890.

1884 Reverend Peck established a mission at Fort Chimo, Kuujuak, to help Reverend Sam Stewart who established the second mission in Inuit territory.

1885? Jimmie Ekomiak Fleming c.1885-1950s was born? He died when he was 65? He became a Christian. He was not tall. Jimmie Ekoomiak loved children. He played with Sarah like a child would play. Jimmie Ekomiak Fleming was a fiddler and he taught his sons Charlie and Thomas. Thomas bought the fiddle from Eaton’s catalogue for $15. His father, a traveller, Jimmy Fleming b. 1830s?1860s? was Scottish or English more likely Scottish perhaps with prominent eyebrows like Jimmie Ekomiak Fleming.,

1887-1905 Frederick Haultain, a Conservative, was premier of the Northwest Territories. Sir Wilfred Laurier was Prime Minister. Haultain was born in England and came to Canada when he was three. He discouraged party politics and believed in consensus. (Parker 1996:25).

1890s, early 1900s The catechist Reverend Fleming traveled thousands of miles with Joseph Pudloo visiting Inuit camps, teaching syllabics along with their missionary work for the Anglican Church Missionary Society.

1905 Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick White of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was named Commissioner of the Northwest Territories. He made decisions unilaterally. He never once called together the Territorial Council. (Parker 1996:26.)

1912a The boundaries of the Northwest Territories were set at the boundaries in existence in 1992. (Parker 1996:26).

1912b Quebec was expanded to include Arctic Quebec. (Parker 1996:26).

1914 Charlie Ekomiak 1914-1960s? was born. He was the father of Sarah Ekoomiak b.1933, Annie b.1935, Maggie b.1937, Sam b.1939, Emily b.1941, William Ekomiak b.1943 Charlie Ekomiak married Lucie Menarik when he was 18 years old c. 1932. After Lucie Menarik died in 1944 Charlie remarried. Jimmie Ekomiak Fleming was a fiddler and he taught his sons Charlie and Thomas. Thomas bought the fiddle from Eaton’s catalogue for $15.,

1920s early According to d’Anglure in the early 1920s there were eighty shamans in the greater Igloolik area which included North Baffin to Repulse Bay region. This included fourteen women. By the 1940s all had converted to Christianity. Thirty were still alive in the 1970s. Today their names are alive through their children (d’Anglure 2002:209).

1924 Amendment to Indian Act 14-15 Geo. V Chap. 47 bringing Eskimos under the responsibility of the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs.,

1926 Thirteen Inuit starved to death at an outpost camp in Admiralty Inlet. Tester 1993:21,

1930 Canadian Handicrafts Guild organized an exhibition of Eskimo Arts and Crafts at the McCord Museum in Montreal. The exhibition attracted the attention of the New York Times (Canadian Guild of Crafts Quebec 1980:11).

1930s Reverend Nelson was the minister in the area before the minister came who taught Jimmie Fleming.

1933 Sarah was born in the Umiujaq (Richmond Gulf) area. At the time it was an outpost camp. Umiujaq formed into a community in the 1960s when 150 Inuit moved away from Kuujjuarapik to attempt to maintain a more traditional lifestyle (see Patrick 2003). Sarah was the oldest Charlie Ekomiak and Lucy Menarick’s six children all in the camp of paternal grandfather Jimmie Ekoomiak (Fleming) and his wife Annie.

1930s There is a powerful story told about Sarah’s great-grandmother Rosie Fleming who was a deeply spiritual woman. She learned about God from her husband but she felt alone in her beliefs since she did not feel she could talk about her conversion. Sarah was only a young child when great-grandmother Rosie died in the 1930s but she remembers the story of the strange phenomenon that appeared in the sky immediately after her great-grandmother’s death. Words written in the clouds appeared in a wide arch across the sky. Sarah and Willy explained the strange letters as Rosie’s message that she did not dare to speak while she was alive. In the early 1930s none of the Inuit there could read so only the Hudson’s Bay company man understood. He was so shaken by the words that converted from the Catholic to the Anglican religion . It was the only spiritual improvement he could think of! Towards the end of her life Great-grandmother Rosie lacked the strength and could no longer work as hard as she wanted. She couldn’t help others so she made a promise that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would help others.

1933-43? In Sarah Ekoomiak’s early childhood years her family lived on the land in a small group of hunters, fishers and trappers.

1943 William Ekomiak was born. Grandfather Jimmy Ekoomiak Fleming moved the camp farther south near Cape Jones on the coast across from the long island.

c.1950? When Sarah was in her late teens she was diagnosed with TB and sent to Moose Factory for four years. Inuit from the west coast of James Bay used to go to Moose Factory trading post to pick up mail.

1950s Grandfather Jimmy Ekoomiak Fleming moved the camp near Chisasibi (Fort George). He wanted the children to get an education at the Anglican and Catholic schools in Chisasibi (Fort George) on James Bay.

1950s. Artificial communities formed. Inuit traditional way of life, ideology and economy was changed. Most lived in communities around the trading post and church. Economy: Trade: white fox, subsistence hunting now dependent on guns, etc. Religion: Church vigorously converted Inuit to Christianity. There was competition except in Labrador (Mitchell 1996). Eskimo Cooperative Movement: crucial transforming agency linked traditional practices with Western capitalism. The Eskimo cooperative was state initiated. Coops bridged the gap between the communal/cooperative ideal and the individual/competitive model. Inuit sculptors became simple-commodity producers with more talented carvers earning more. Carvers could earn more money but they became dependent on dollars. This created divisions among Inuit. Some Inuit became bosses, while others became employees. See Mitchell (1996). A Native Ruling Class: Inequalities in wealth and power exist (Mitchell 1996).

1952. William Ekoomiak (b.1943) started school in Fort George. Queen Elizabeth II crowned and William remembered finding it strange to sing to a woman not God Save the King! Sarah Ekoomiak was already in Moose Factory?

1953a. The Canadian government relocated Inuit families Inukjuak area of Quebec on Hudson Bay to the High Arctic islands to form communities: Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island, Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island and Craig Harbour. Tester and Kulchyski (1994) claim that the relocations took place partly to relieve the HBC of their obligation to continue extending credit to already heavily indebted Inuit (1994:64). (William Ekomiak’s sister Ida was adopted by Emily Ekomiak who married Walter Aoudla from south of Fort George. After Emily died Walter married a woman from Resolute Bay and he moved there with William’s sister Ida.) A couple of families from the Pond Inlet area of North Baffin Island were moved to these same places to help the southern relocatees adjust to eco-systems and conditions very different from those they had known in Quebec. James Houston accompanied Inuit families from Inukjuak when they sailed north to Ellesmere Island. Akiaktasuk, one of the earliest Inuit artists recognised for his skill as carver was among them. Akiaktasuk died out there in a walrus hunt. It is not surprising considering the difference in hunting environments between the High Arctic and Hudson Strait. Among the families sent to Resolute Bay was the family of Pitseolak Ashoona who had returned to Cape Dorset in ???? because Ashoona had just died in Natsilik Lake area to find that her family were gone!

1953b. The federal Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources was formed in Ottawa. An intergovernmental committee on Eskimo Affairs was reinstated (Crowe 1997:34).
1953c1954. There was mounting criticism of the Eastern Arctic Division and services for Inuit (Grygier 1994:190).

1954-1956-7(?). Sarah went back home to Nunavik for awhile in 1954. She asked her father Charlie Ekomiak if she could go back to Moose Factory to work. Her father said she could if she promised to never drink alcohol because alcohol hurt Inuit. Sarah promised and she Sarah and Maggie went back to work in Moose Factory for a few years. Inuit laughed all the time. Inuit are good at telling stories. Kuujjuarapik was a laughing place to them. Sarah and Maggie walked back and forth across the ice between Moosenee and Moose Factory. Sarah knew Lucille, Jimmy Small’s wife. Jimmy Small was Quebec Cree. His children Brenda and ? are very successful. His son was Chief of the Swampy Cree. I met Jimmy Small and his son in the summer of 2001when I was teaching with the Off-Campus Aboriginal program.

1956b. Life magazine did a story entitled “Stone Age Survivors: Eskimo Family” (1956) which was later published as a chapter in Epic of Man entitled “Stone Age Cultures of Today” (1961). Luke Anowtelik and Mary Akjar were featured in this story as Anowtelik and Iya. They had been relocated from the famine-ridden interior like others who had been relocated to Baker Lake, Rankin Inlet and Whale Cove. Anowtelik had become one of the most prolific and respected hunters of Arviat. Their lives had changed dramatically. They now had TV, fridge, motor boat, electric stove. Art-making and wage-earning have become the new way of life. Anowtelik’s antler swivel figures and the male toy heads are widely imitated. Artists there like to work in groups. He remembers carving a drum dancer when he lived at Ennadai Lake, Drum dancing was common then and it was natural to make up new songs to perform. Since leaving Ennadai Lake not one new song was written. He and his wife carved together. They share their ideas because they are husband and wife. He likes stone and antler. At one time antler was very popular. In one of her carvings Mary Akjar pronounced Iya represents the Inuit family. In talking about it she spoke of her earlier life at Ennadai Lake.

1956c. A wave of southern social workers, economic development staff, mechanics, construction workers joined missionaries, the RCMP and the HBC bringing about an onslaught of unwelcome changes along with a redistribution of power relationships changing roles and status in Inuit communities (Crowe 1997:35).

1956 (?). Grandfather Jimmy Ekomiak Fleming (1880s-1956) was diagnosed with TB, sent to Moose Factory where he died in 1956 (?). He is buried in the St. Thomas Anglican cemetery in an unmarked grave. Sarah Ekoomiak visited the graveyard in 2004 with her good friend Ben but could not find a marker. Jimmie Ekoomiak Fleming died when Sarah and Maggie were in Ottawa. Her maternal (?) grandmother died in 1947 (?). Aunt Carolyn wrote Sarah a letter when her grandmother died. She didn’t know how old she was.

1957. By the late 1950s most Inuit were still hunting, fishing and gathering. They earned money from casual work such as handymen, cooks or guides and were already dependent on southern manufactured items (Mitchell 1996:117).

1959. The first Inuit cooperative was founded at George River. They ran a small commercial fishing and lumbering operation with Canadian government support. Until that time the only access to trade had been the Hudson’s Bay Company who had enjoyed almost complete monopolistic control granted by a Royal Charter in 1670. Originally many of the Hudson’s Bay factors were of Scottish descent.

1960s-a. In the late 1960s the adult education staff of the NA & NR started regional newspapers edited by Tagak Curley, Zebedee Nungak and Joanisie Salomonie. These provided a forum for discussions of self-government and settlements claims (Crowe 1997 Inuktitut :38).
1960s-b. 1960s-70s. Migration of Aboriginal people to urban areas grew in 1960s and 1970s. (Jackson 1993:58);.

1963a. Annie Ekomiak (b.1935-1963) was sent to get water and she fell through the ice and drowned. Annie was challenged intellectually. Willie was upset that she was asked to do something that was too difficult and therefore dangerous for her.

1963b. William Ekomiak and Samuel studied electricity in Winnipeg and they both became electricians. William did not complete the certificate but Samuel did. William told the government he did not want to join the army.

1965a. “The Indian Art Centre of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) is a federal cultural program that supports and promotes the visual arts of First Nations in Canada. The Centre was created in 1965 to support the development of Aboriginal artists working in the traditional art forms, as well as those working in the contemporary fine arts including painting, drawing, print making, sculpture and photography. The Indian Art Centre includes the National Indian Art Collection, an exhibition and loan program, an artist-in-residence program, a Resource Library and the Indian and Inuit Art Gallery http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/art/auqs_e.html .”

1965b. Willie Ekoomiak (21) became a Baha’i in Ottawa when he came south to go to school through the Irwin’s. The Irwin’s took Willie and Norman to International Club where people from different backgrounds came together. This was unusual. The Baha’is initiated the International Club which held dances, swims, picnics. Ottawa was a stopping place for many people because it was the capital of Canada. Willie went to their homes and he saw the photo Abdul Baha he asked about him. Baha’i youth used to travel teach and they came to Irwin home and they talked about the return of Jesus Christ. Willie had not understood what Lillian Irwin before when she talked about Baha’i. He was 21 years old. He was the first Inuk to become a Baha’i. Johnny Weetaluktuk (b.1930s) also became a Baha’i at the Baha’i school at Beau Lac. Baha’i world was excited about two Inuit becoming Baha’is. National sent a cable gram to UHJ and the UHJ responded welcoming Willie and Johnny into the Faith. Johnny Weetaluktuk married a woman in Iqaluit, worked at a mining camp and became inactive.

1966a. During Prime Minister Pearson’s term of office (1963-8) the post of Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development was created. Arthur Laing was the first minister. The minister Arthur Laing and Commissioner Sivertz agreed the vote should be extended to the entire Northwest Territories not just the Mackenzie District. (Parker 1996:50)” There was a Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs in the Canadian cabinet from 1867 until 1936 when the Minister of Mines and Resources became responsible for native affairs. In 1950 the Indian Affairs branch was transferred to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, who had responsibility for “registered Indians” until the creation of the position of Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in 1966. Before 1966 the Northern Development portions of the portfolio were the responsibility of the Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources.” Wikipedia.

1966b. June 16, 1966 – Government Organization Act established the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development which was to be responsible for the development of National Parks, the administration of Indian and Eskimo affairs, and the management of Canada’s wildlife resources. Control and supervision of the Indian Affairs Branch, with associated powers and duties under the Indian Act, transferred to DIAND from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration (P.C. 19652285) . The five Branches created within DIAND were: Northern Administration; National and Historic Parks; Indian Affairs; Canadian Wildlife Service; and Resource and Economic Development Group. The Honourable Arthur Laing, P.C., M.P., was appointed Minister and Mr. E.A. Cote was appointed Deputy Minister. Nine Regional Offices existed at this time: Maritimes Office in Amherst, Nova Scotia; Quebec Office in Quebec City; South Ontario Office in Toronto; North Ontario Office in North Bay; Manitoba Office in Winnipeg; Saskatchewan Office in Regina; Alberta Office in Edmonton; District of Mackenzie Office in Fort Smith, North West Territories; British Columbia Office in Vancouver; and, Yukon Office in Whitehorse.

1967a. The Canadian Eskimo Arts Council which included as members Doris Shadbolt, took on the major task of organizing and executing the first major international exhibition of Inuit art, Sculpture of the Inuit: Masterworks of the Canadian Arctic (Staples 1992:27). In 1964 she became curator and in 1967 she was acting director. The Arts of the Raven, an exhibition of over 450 Northwest Coast Indian masterworks with a $70,000 budget, that attracted international attention opened on the same evening the new director Tony Emery arrived.

1967b. “DIAND physically reorganized with increased responsibility moved to regional offices as part of the Department’s decision to make the Indian Affairs Branch more accessible to native people and to hire more native people in the Regions, to assist in the development of self-government on Reserves. Reorganization of DIAND created the Social Affairs Program which consisted of the Education Branch (bringing together the Education Divisions of Indian Affairs and Northern Administration Branches), and the Operations Branch (former Administrative directorate of the IA Branch). Corps of Community Workers were created within the Indian Affairs Branch Community Development program and Indian Liaison Officers were recruited. The Assistant Deputy Minister of the Indian Affairs Branch was Mr. R.F. Battle with Mr J.W. Churchman serving as Director, Indian Affairs.” http://collections.ic.gc.ca/treaties/text/rec_e_tx.htm .

1967c. Minister of DIAND Arthur Laing announced the federal response to the Carruther’s Report in a meeting in Yellowknife. Yellowknife would be the new capital of the Northwest Territories.

1968-73. Jean Chretien was Minister of Northern Affairs.

1969b. Willie Ekomiak came south again. Re: Sarah Ekoomiak.

1970s-b. William Ekomiak helped build Baha’i House in Baker Lake. Re: Sarah Ekoomiak.

1970s-c. William Ekomiak was an electrician in Yellowknife. Re: Sarah Ekoomiak.

1971a. The Inuit Quebec Association was formed.

1971b. Inuit Tapirisat was formed.

1973a. “August 8 : as a result of a policy review, the Minister, Jean Chrétien, announced a new policy on comprehensive claims settlement in non-treaty areas of Canada entitled, “Statement on Claims of Indian and Inuit People”. With the policy, DIAND accepted comprehensive and specific claims and agreed to deal with both, preferably reaching negotiated settlements.” http://collections.ic.gc.ca/treaties/text/rec_e_tx.htm.

1973b. Burland (1973) described contact between caribou Inuit, “The Eskimos who were the most remote from the normal way of life were the Caribou Eskimos of Keewatin. These people lived like late Palaeolithic hunters of the last Ice Age. Fortunately for our understanding they were sought out in the early part of the twentieth century by Canadian ethnologists who have given us a very full series of studies of their way of life. It was fortunate also for the Caribou Eskimo because they were now known to the Canadian authorities, and visited occasionally (Burland 1973:68).

1973c. Sarah Ekoomiak and Harriet Ruston of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development provided the Eskimo text for the publication entitled Pitseolak: Pictures out of My Life.

1973-5. William Ekomiak was in Iqaluit working at the Baha’i House. He helped build it. He stayed in Frobisher Bay he worked as electrical engineer starting motors when they broke down.

1974. The Northern Quebec Inuit Association (NQIA), a voluntary citizens’ organization dedicated to the betterment of Northern Quebec published this trilingual compilation entitled The Northerners/Les Septentrionaux/Taqramiutwhich which provided Inuit perspectives on communications referring to the four ways people talk together: communications between communities, communications between the land and communities, communication within a community and communication from the South to the communities. Their publication illustrated by Alootook Ipellie, responded to their concerns that, “We the Inuit of Northern Quebec, have long believed that the white people don’t know very much about us. Even those people who live among us, don’t know us very well.” The Northern Quebec Inuit Association was concerned with the preservation of Inuit language, culture, dignity and pride, the unity of Inuit of Northern Quebec and the protection of the rights of hunters, fishers and trappers. Tr. I. b. A. Ipellie. La Macaza, QC: Northern Quebec Inuit Association.

1975-9. The first fully elected Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories was formed. Nine of the fifteen members were aboriginal. This Council pushed for provincial status. Two Dene members, George Barnaby and James Wah-Shee resigned from the Legislature in protest. They argued that the government was not theirs since it was not aboriginal. Peter Ernerk from Rankin Inlet and Arnold McCallum were elected by the full caucus to be Executive Committee. (Parker 1996:67).

1976. Warren Allmand was the Minister of Northern Affairs.

1977. In Barrow Alaska on June 15, Inuit formed an international non-governmental organization, known as the Inuit Circumpolar Conference dedicated to protect and advance Inuit rights and interest on the international level. They represented 150, 000 Inuit in territories governed by Denmark, Canada, the United States and the Russian Federation.

1978. . “March 21 : Indian and Eskimo Affairs Program changed its name to Indian and Inuit Affairs Program. March: Tripartite Branch formed within Policy, Research and Evaluation Group with primary responsibility at Headquarters for discussions with provincial governments and Indian associations on priority topics of mutual concern to all parties. The Branch was formed in response to pressure from provincial governments and Indian associations wanting to enter into tripartite discussions on a variety of issues. April 1: Cultural Development Unit transferred from the Education and Cultural Support Branch to the Communications and Parliamentary Relations Branch.” http://collections.ic.gc.ca/treaties/text/rec_e_tx.htm .

1979a. Northern cooperatives expanded their line of merchandise and began catering to a growing tourist market in order to compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company. They earned $ 9 million dollars (Myers 1981:17).

1979b. Peter Ittinuar became the first Inuk in the Canadian House of Commons. Tom Suluk and Jack Anawak were elected in subsequent elections (Crowe 1997 Inuktitut).

1980. October 1980 Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) passed a resolution calling for the creation of Nunavut, at the annual general meeting.

1980s. Willie Ekomiak was a police office in Kuujjuak for one year but it was too difficult. All the problems were in centre town where he worked. Re: Sarah Ekoomiak.

1984b. The Inuit vividly remember September 30, 1984, when 10, 000 caribou were drowned on the Caniapiscau River, near Kuujjuaq because of the James Bay project.

1990-3. Tom Siddon was demoted to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development position after the crisis in the fisheries while he was Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. “Only months after his swearing in the Oka Crisis broke out, and Siddon was attacked for his inactivity and refusal to negotiate until the Mohawks dropped their arms and removed the barricades. Soon after the exclusion of the First Nations from the constitutional process was one of the deciding factors in the death of the Meech Lake Accord. His greatest legacy and success was also achieved as Minister of Indian Affairs when with the agreement to create the new territory of Nunavut in 1992.” wikipedia.

200? Sarah contacted her daughter Meeka who is in the United States. Her daughter was adopted into a good family. She received an excellent education and is now teaching Spanish SFL in the United States. She has a young son.

1994. Sarah Ekoomiak accompanied Ben and Karen Needham to James Bay in October, 1994 so that Karen could meet her relatives for the first time. Karen’s biological mother Maria Fleming wanted Karen to have a better life in the south than she could provide in the north. Karen was adopted into a loving family but wanted to meet her biological family. Sarah Ekoomiak is her great-aunt. Sarah had last seen Maria Fleming in Ottawa in 1960 when she was pregnant for Karen. Sarah introduced Karen and Ben to her many relatives in Kujjuarapik. Maria Fleming had died in Toronto in 2003. See Inuktitut 2004.

1994. Nunavut Day celebrations in Ottawa were kicked off with fiddle music by Bill and Sarah Ekoomiak. Elder Mary Peter then lit the ceremonial qulliq. …Nunatsiaq News, July 11, 1997

1999. “Among the indigenous people living today, Inuit probably stand alone in having peacefully achieved so many political, economic and social gains through negotiation with the government authorities they live under. The most important political gains have been the acquisition of Home Rule from the Danish parliament by Greenlanders in 1979 and the recognition of the territory of Nunavut (1999) as a self-governing political entity within the Canadian nation. In both cases the territorial structures where all residents have the right to vote. But since Inuit form the majority, they are guaranteed a de facto self-governing status (d’Anglure 2002:205).”

2004a. Charlie Ekomiak who was recently stabbed to death by his girlfriend in Montreal was from the second wife of Charlie Ekomiak (1914-1960s?). The artist-author Normand Ekomiak was his older brother.

Sarah Ekoomiak went on a marathon trip with Ben the fireman, to Marathon near Thunder Bay, Moose Factory. She camped outside in Moose Factory and caught a very bad cold. She tried to find her grandfather’s grave but couldn’t.

2004c. Sarah Ekoomiak’s son Garry moved to New Brunswick to be with his two-year-old daughter and his partner Chastity.

2005 In recognition of International Woman’s Day, the Bahá’í Community of La Pêche, Quebec, is holding a special evening on March 19th to recognize and honour Sarah Ekoomiak, a long-time resident of Wakefield. The following article appeared in the Tungasuvvingat Inuit’s Spring newsletter:

“On the evening of Saturday, March 19th Sarah Ekoomiak was the guest of honour at an International Women’s Day event organized by the Baha’i Community of La Peche. The Wakefield Community Centre was packed full of supporters, friends and family who came to celebrate with her. Upon entering the hall guests had the opportunity to view examples of Sarah’s beautiful needle and bead work and read some of the newspaper articles written about the work she has done over the years. The evening started with lighting the qulliq followed by drumming and singing and a presentation on Sarah’s life story. There was also a visual presentation of photographs which included pictures of herself on the C.D. Howe ship where she had served as an interpreter. Following this, Sarah was awarded an engraved plaque as a tribute to her remarkable life. The evening ended with music that included fiddle playing by her brother, Billy Ekoomiak and a wonderful feast of caribou, char and bannock. Congratulations Sarah on this deserved recognition of your life’s work and of the wonderful person that you are!” Akiurvik TI’s Spring Newsletter 2005 (Akiurvik:TI’s Spring 2005 Newsletter

2006 Sarah continued to be in close contact with family members and friends in the North by telephone. She was increasingly worried that conditions in Chisasibi and Sanikualaq Islands were deteriorating in terms of vulnerabilities to violence mainly because of the quantities of harder drugs. Family members received compensation as survivors of residential schools. Sarah did not because there was no evidence she had been at the residential school.

2006 In October, 2006 Sarah’s friend Ben who struggled with depression for decades finally took his own life. Before their divorce Ben and his wife K. took Sarah on a lengthy road trip from Ottawa to Chisasibi so that K. could meet her biological family, Sarah’s extended family. Ben, who was not aboriginal but had shared many experiences of Canada’s First Nations and Inuit through his unfortunate years in residential school, adopted the Inuit community and considered Sarah to be a second mother. He initiated countless trips for Sarah including a return to Moose Factory to try to find the grave of her relatives who had died there of TB. Although they were not able to find the grave the journey was tremendously important to her. Ben tried to learn Inuktitut. Sarah’s Inuit family nicknamed him ‘safety pin’ in Inuktitut because of a mistake he made in pronunciation.

2008-06 Lucy Martin featured Sarah Ekoomiak playing the spoons and William Ekomiak on the fiddle on her North Country Public Radio show entitled Heard Up North — way Up North: the Ekoomiaks.” Sarah and Willie were playing at the annual Qaggit in Ottawa. This story was linked to a feature on Harper’s apology.


Chisasibi was the community most directly affected by James Bay Hydro Electric Corporation project. Hunting and trapping territories were flooded; the community itself forcibly relocated. Like at Kuujjarapik there was a long history of trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The HBC had a post in Fort George (Mailasikkut) since 1803 which was moved to Governor’s or Fort George Island in 1837. Chisasibi, where many of Sarah’s relatives live today, is Cree for “great river”, officially known as La Grande River through the infamous project (see Patrick 2003:84). Initially the hydro project was planned unilaterally by Quebec without consulting the Inuit and Cree who used the watershed from time immemorial. The plan entailed a 50-year scheme in northern Quebec which would have altered or reversed the flow of 19 major rivers on Inuit and Cree land to create one of North America’s largest hydro-electric dam systems. The flooding resulted in major ecological imbalances not to mention invasion and destruction of Inuit and Cree land (see 1997:269). The Fort George that Sarah and Willie knew in their childhood was relocated to the present site of Chisasibi which is marks the first kilometers of the James Bay autoroute connecting isolated communities in the north to the south. This is the highway that brought Sarah and her Gatineau husband Paul Hamelin back north for visits in the 1980s. Sarah returned again in 200? with her cousin Karin Needham to reintroduce her to her Inuit relatives. Karin had been adopted into a southern non-Inuit family in the 1960s during the infamous period called the sixties scoop.

Umiujaq is the starting point of a popular long-distance dog sled race. It was an artificially created community in which

Bibliography and Webliography

Martin, Lucy. 2008-06. “Heard Up North — way Up North: the Ekoomiaks.” North Country Public Radio.

Patrick, Donna. 2003. Language, Politics, and Social Interaction in an Inuit Community. Berlin/New York. Mouton de Gruyter.

3 Responses to “Honouring Sarah Ekoomiak”

  1. Toni Demers Says:


    I was enquiring if you knew how I might get in touch with Billy Ekoomiak. I met a young man by that name while I was working in Frobisher Bay one summer.

    Thank you,


  2. Jen Says:

    Bill (Willy to family) who spells his last name “Ekomiak” is fiddling with a group of Indian musicians at the Maniwaki reserve. They have a CD out. He does come to Ottawa to see his sisters sometimes, Sarah plays the spoons while he fiddles at some events.

  3. Thanks Jen,

    The first time we went to Maniwaki with Bill years ago we somehow met a fiddler who invited us into his home and played for us. I am so happy he has found this community.

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