ᐊᐅᓚᑦᑎᔨᐅᑎᑕᐅᓂᕐᒧᑦ ᑲᒪᒋᔭᔅᓴᖏᑦ
ᐃᓕᖅᑯᓯᖃᖃᑎᒌᙱᑦᑐᓂᒃ ᑐᓴᐅᒪᖃᑦᑕᐅᑎᖃᑎᖃᖃᑦᑕᕐᓂᖅ

Inuit Sled Dogs in the Baffin Region, 1950 to 1975


Inuit dogs (known in Inuktitut as qimmit) were an integral part of Inuit life and survival in the Baffin Region. Dogs played important practical roles in transportation, hunting and, as a last resort, nutrition, but they were also fully integrated into Inuit cultural life (family structures, hunting, spiritual life, storytelling, boy-to-man transition, etc.). Between 1950 and 1975, however, the number of Inuit dogs in the Baffin Region declined dramatically. Five types of events, overlapping in time and place, are discussed in this report. The report explains changes in the role and number of Inuit dogs in the Baffin Region. It also highlights events that clarify why Inuit feel compelled to examine the history of their relationship with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and other government agencies in this period.

The first type of event concerns a dramatic decline in the number of dogs in specific communities at specific times due to contagious diseases. Distemper, hepatitis and rabies affected dog populations in the Baffin Region regularly, so Inuit were accustomed to killing sick dogs to stop the spread of contagious diseases within a population. Through breeding or exchange with other Inuit, dogs were quickly replaced. Between 1957 and 1966, however, a dog disease, thought to be canine distemper, spread across the entire Baffin Region, possibly due to the increased level of contact between Inuit and Qallunaat. The RCMP (acting under the authority of the Animal Diseases Act) attempted to halt the disease through inoculations and by the pre-emptive slaughter (a term used here to describe the purpose killings of one or more animals to stop disease) of dogs that might be infected. In cases where camps were faced with starvation because dogs had died, the government provided rations directly to Inuit. In the case of the very severe epidemic in Cumberland Sound in 1962, the government evacuated Inuit to the settlement of Pangnirtung. The dog populations always recovered within a few years after being struck by disease. The exception to this was the areas where the disease appeared in the late 1960s and the number of dogs was already declining due to fewer full-time hunters and the introduction of snowmobiles. Although these communities still maintained dog teams, the number of dogs was significantly less than before the arrival of disease.

A second type of event is the expected decline in the number of Inuit dogs due to changes in cultural practices. When Inuit moved into settlements in the 1950s and 1960s, even before snowmobiles were in widespread use, many or most Inuit were often unable to successfully combine settlement living with regular hunting for food for themselves and their dogs. Fewer full-time hunters meant fewer dog teams. With greater access to snowmobiles in the late 1960s, many remaining part- and full-time hunters, especially those living in the permanent settlements, quickly replaced dog teams with snow machines.

The third type of event concerns the disappearance or killing of Inuit dog teams owned by Inuit sent south for healthcare, usually tuberculosis treatment. Some teams were given to the family members responsible for caring for their dependents; other teams were killed or unharnessed with the dogs left to fend for themselves. When an Inuk returned from treatment, he was often unable to re-establish his dog team and hunt again.

A fourth type of event that led to reducing the number of Inuit dogs was killing dogs perceived (primarily by non-Inuit) to be a nuisance or danger to people in settlements. These killings were consistent with the intentions of the Ordinance Respecting Dogs, but the requirements set out in the Ordinance were rarely followed. The Ordinance was adopted in the Northwest Territories (NWT) in 1928 as a set of rules designed to dictate dog ownership and respect the rights of dog owners and farmers in agricultural areas. It was amended and replaced several times to directly address loose dogs in NWT settlements. The NWT Ordinance amendments included the addition of the RMCP as ex officio dog officers in 1950. The Ordinance instituted standards for dog ownership in settlements and made it possible for officers to fine owners and to seize and destroy dogs for offenses under the Ordinance. Before shooting a loose dog or dogs in harness that were not muzzled or under the control of an adult, an officer was required to capture the dog, impound it, notify the owner, provide for the return of the dog if a fine was paid or for the sale of the dog by auction if the owner failed to claim the dog within a set number of days. Originally dogs could only be shot immediately if the officer could not catch the dog. Few communities within the Baffin Region had adequate dog pounds in the 1950s or early 1960s. There is no evidence that public auctions were ever held. For dog officers, shooting dogs was simply easier than chasing and capturing them. Numerous incidents concerning killing Inuit dogs have been documented.

To date, QTC researchers have found documents that demonstrate at least 1,200 dogs were killed in the Baffin Region during the period under investigation. This number was arrived at by consulting the archival records. Inuit testimony about specific incidents of dog killings was not included in this number. It should be noted that more than 500 of these deaths occurred in Iqaluit and Pangnirtung between 1966 and 1967.

The fifth type of event concerns threats and actions to kill Inuit dogs as individual acts of intimidation by RCMP officers. The RCMP had a limited number of options available to control Inuit or punish individuals breaking laws or Qallunaat cultural expectations. Police detachments were few and small and Inuit traveled in family groups. Threatening to kill dogs was a particularly easy method to get Inuit to comply with orders, whether the orders were reasonable or not. Inuit valued their dogs more than any other possession; Inuit knew RCMP could and did kill dogs; the RCMP could always use the broad language of the Ordinance to justify their actions if necessary; and Inuit in the transition period were faced with a “closed” justice system that provided no independent method of complaint or appeal against unreasonable police tactics.

Almost every Inuk witness who testified before the Commission spoke about the importance of sled dogs to Inuit identity, culture and survival. They shared memories of using dogs for hunting and travel between settlements or camps. Many people also testified about the sudden replacement of dogs by snowmobiles in the 1960s as a primary means of winter travel. Others said that they believed and accepted that some dogs needed to be shot because the dogs were ill or dangerous. Inuit also spoke about the connections between the loss of dog teams and increasing reliance on government services and employment. In sum, Inuit believe that the government was aware of the impact of the loss of dogs on Inuit culture, health and well-being, but that it did nothing to ease the situation. They also blamed many of the killings on the level of ignorance on the part of officials concerning the care and handling of dogs. Inuit were particularly critical of Qallunaat who had no knowledge of the impact of chaining dogs on the behaviour of working animals. Inuit also expressed both frustration and remorse – frustration that they could not understand why many dogs, especially those in harness, hiding under homes or those that in their opinion did not pose a real safety or disease threat were shot; and remorse that they did not do more to stop the killings.

The documentary records and oral accounts of government officials, RCMP officers and individuals working and living in the Baffin Region provide extensive evidence concerning the role of Inuit dogs in all aspects of Inuit culture and the changing role of dogs and hunting in the economic structure of the Baffin Region. In the 1950s and most of the 1960s, everyone – Inuit, RCMP, medical staff, Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) staff, teachers and missionaries – relied on dogs to travel between settlements. During this same period, however, the importance of hunting for food and trading was declining and the government was quickly shifting its assumptions about the future of the region and its people.

RCMP records, NWT Debates, newspaper articles and memoires directly document many incidents concerning killing of dogs perceived to be either a nuisance or a threat and some incidents concerning dogs killed as a warning to Inuit to leave settlements in favour of traditional life on the land. Many specific incidents are included in the RCMP’s own report, The RCMP and the Inuit Sled Dogs (Nunavut and Northern Quebec: 1950-1970). The records also show that dog officers rarely followed the rules of the Ordinance, but also that it was very difficult for them to follow a set of rules designed for a southern rural, rather than Arctic, environment.

Government records, police patrol reports, scholarly research, newspaper and magazines articles from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s show that dogs were killed in the Baffin Region often without due regard for the safety of and consequences on Inuit families and because Qallunaat were scared of dogs. Dog officers rarely followed the rules of the Ordinance. The details of these shootings in historical documentary evidence – dogs being shot near houses, at the dump or while tied – consistently support the testimony given by Inuit to the Commission. In 1958, for example, an anthropologist hired by the federal government conducted interviews with Inuit in what was then Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) about housing, nutrition, marriage, etc. He included a question about killing dogs. One of the people interviewed in 1959 said that RCMP officers were killing dogs under and between homes and expressed concern that children might get hurt. Perhaps in a moment of dark humour, he also wondered if Inuit might be the next targets.

Every type of event considered in this report is well-documented in either government records or in memoirs and oral histories of RCMP officers, Inuit and individuals who lived in the Baffin Region or studied its conditions. The records document the decline in the population of dogs and in the dramatic change in hunting practices that coincided with the move to settlements, the importance of snowmobiles and the growth in wage-based employment.

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