A tale of the Nunavik in the late 1970s
When the big Pratt and Whitney engine had warmed up, pilot Aaron Pilurtuut headed his bright orange De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver into the wind and started to cruise the seaplane carefully away from the dock where it had been tethered for the night. He set the flaps on take-off position and his mixture lever on auto rich. After a last check at his instrument panel, with his feet firmly glued on the rudder pedals, Aaron opened the throttle smoothly, and the engine responded with a satisfying roar. The seaplane increased its speed slowly as it tried to fight gravity and the strong pull of the waters of the lake. Winning its struggle, the aircraft whipped above the surface of the lake in a cloud of vaporized water. One of the floats lifted, then the other, and suddenly the airplane freed itself from its aqueous grip and graciously flew into the cool morning sky. The young pilot reduced the power of the engine and started its long climb to a cruising altitude of 5,000 feet. Aaron then set the mixture lever to auto lean and banked his aircraft westward towards Inukjuak.
On the previous afternoon, Aaron had returned home to Fort Chimo from a long flying trip that started in Kenora in north-western Ontario. He had finally taken possession of his first aircraft, a second-hand but beautiful amphibious Beaver, a seaplane that featured a wheel system installed on the floats.
For as long as he could remember, Aaron had dreamed of flying an airplane. As a child, he would sit in near the runway at Fort Chimo watching numerous Douglas DC-3s, four-engined DC-4s, funny-shaped De Havilland Caribous, and of course dozens of bush-planes land and take off from the old military airport. Bush pilots and mechanics got used to seeing the small and curious Inuk boy constantly around them, learning to speak English and asking thousands of questions. Eventually he offered to do odd jobs around the hangar and made himself indispensable. At thirteen, while his friends in Fort Chimo were starting to look at girls, he was able to start the engines of a DC-3 in winter to warm up the plane before the pilot would take over. Then one day when he was about fourteen, old Fitzmaurice, who had married an Inuk woman from Greenland, taught him to fly a Piper Cub. He practically lived at the airport. Gaining experience, he earned his coveted commercial flying licence, and was hired as a bush pilot for several companies. He worked his way across northern Canada, gradually being certified for heavier and multi-engine aircrafts. But he was homesick and he decided one day to come back home to start his own business flying the Qallunaat (which generally means the white people), who came up north to fish and hunt. He had saved enough money for a down payment on an aircraft, and now the machine was his. His father Samuel helped him build a small hangar on the shore of Lake Stewart from which he would manage his business.
Although not yet 30, he was considered one of the best pilots in the north. Recently he landed a big Hawker Siddeley 748 in a snowstorm at Yellowknife airport with one engine shut off. People were starting to call him ‘the Man of Steel’ for his fearlessness. They knew nothing of his past, for he never talked about himself. If some knew that he actually went to high school for a few months, nobody knew why he had left. His only love in life were airplanes.
On the afternoon he flew in from Kenora, he went to see his mother Mary, who worked as a janitor at the local clinic. She was so happy to see him that she asked for a day off to enjoy her son’s rare visit, although she knew that he had come home to stay for good. When they arrived at her place, a small wooden house in the colourful ‘old quarter’ of Fort Chimo, she gave him a letter that she had kept for him behind the radio.
It was addressed to Aaron, and he instantly knew who had sent it from the handwriting on the envelope. Red-faced with emotion, he opened it and read that Ulayo Arnaituq had invited him to her wedding. His mother, who read the letter over of his shoulder (she was always so nosy when it came to her son’s affairs), was proud that her son had been invited to the wedding of an Inuk celebrity.
‘I’ll prepare clean clothes for you’ she said in Inuktitut as she looked as his oil-stained flying suit. ‘You cannot go over there the way you are. You will be received by your uncle Asa. I’ll go to the clinic to phone him so that he will prepare you a bed. Meanwhile come to the table. I’ve made a rice and duck soup.’
His mother having decided for him, he resigned himself to attending the marriage ceremony. From the information contained in the letter, the wedding was to be celebrated the next afternoon in Inukjuak, about four hours flying time due west from Fort Chimo. But he was hoping the weather would keep him grounded here. He feared meeting Ulayo again and certainly did not want to meet her husband-to-be.
Twelve years ago, Aaron Pilurtuut fell in love with Ulayo while attending high school in Ottawa. She was the most beautiful girl he had ever met. She was from Inukjuak situated on the eastern shore of the Hudson’s Bay. She was a bit taller than him, her dark eyes shone with intelligence and humour, and her delicate face framed by long black hair suggested strength of character. Always vivacious, she wanted to be an artist. Although she appreciated his self-assuredness, open-mindedness and his absolute lack of guile, as well as the fact that he wasn’t into alcohol, she only liked Aaron as a special friend. She found him too serious and somewhat naïve. Ulayo was very popular and went out quite a bit, but never with him. One afternoon in springtime he thought he might have a chance when she accepted the rare favour of walking with him alongside the Rideau Canal, admiring the colours of the tulips. She even held his hand, which electrified him. Although she tried not to be bored with his airplane stories, she mostly talked about her own ideas of the theatre, television and cinema. She dreamt of producing films about her people, the Inuit, and the history of the North. There was apparently no place for Aaron in her future. Not long after, he received a note from her informing him that she had met another man and that she’d rather not see him anymore. He was so devastated that he left school and dedicated his life to flying.
But travelling all over northern Canada, Aaron couldn’t escape hearing about Ulayo. She was now a famous filmmaker as she said she would be. Recently she had won an award for her powerful documentary on the 1953 forced relocation of Inuit families from Port Harrison and Pond Inlet to the High Arctic. She was now busy preparing another documentary on the French trading firm of Révillon Frères, a commercial empire that rivalled the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early 20th century. From Frobisher Bay to Yellowknife and Whitehorse, she was the talk of every community in the Arctic. Her picture was in all the local newspapers and on television. She was invited to give conferences and interviews at universities down south, and was a lead speaker at Aboriginal meetings across North America. Not only an artist; she tirelessly defended and promoted the cause of the Inuit of northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland. There was even talk that she might be interested in attempting to get elected as a federal Member of Parliament in the next general election. People said that the Prime Minister might appoint her to head a department as a Minister, or name her Senator. Every time Aaron heard about her, or saw her picture on the cover of a magazine, he felt a deep sadness in his heart.
The next day, unfortunately for him, was perfect for flying to Inukjuak. The familiar scenery of sparkling turquoise lakes surrounded by small black pines and fields of grey rocks flowed slowly below him. He was going not only to please his mother, who thought he was invited because he was himself a famous person of the north although he never acknowledged or accepted his fame, but because he was curious to meet Ulayo for one last time. He vowed that after that, he would never cross her path again because of the pain he still felt, in spite of the passage of time. His mother wanted her son to bring news as to the identity of the bridegroom, because no one had ever seen, or even heard of this mystery man. The notification of her wedding had come as a surprise to all in the north, and every person of note had jostled to be invited.
Was it Kumakuluk Ningiurlut, the idealistic but complex sculptor from Cape Dorset whose magnificent pieces in steatite and serpentine were sold to collectors in Toronto, New York and Paris? Aaron knew him well because he used to fly the artist from one community to another. Kumakuluk was trying to convince the Inuit to abandon the corrupt ways of the Qallunaat whom he despised. It was said that he was desperately in love with Ulayo. Others said he wanted to take her to the western shores of Baffin Island, the refuge of the last true Inuit. Uncle Asa had once told Aaron that the artist offered Ulayo a series of priceless sculptures representing the stories surrounding Agloolik, the spirit living beneath the crust of ice. But Asa, who lived the hard life of a traditional hunter off the barrens to the north east of Inukjuak, said that Kumakuluk lived in contradiction to his own beliefs. Although he dreamed of a life without the Qallunaat, he listened constantly to their horrible music, liked to walk around in his black leather jacket and his cowboy boots, and looked vaguely sinister with the dark glasses he wore day and night. He also made a nuisance of himself when he was drunk, which was often. He was merely tolerated by the people because he never stayed very long in any one community. Asa found this sad because the raffish Kumakuluk, although such a fine artist, was feared by his own people. On the other hand he was famous down south, and the Qallunaat, especially the rich ladies who sat on the boards of directors of museums and cultural centres, just loved him as they thought he was so darkly handsome and represented the essence of the Inuit. He was even offered an honorary doctorate from some American university, and vainly expected people to address him as Doctor Ningiurlut, which was how he put it on his cards. Had Kumakuluk, the eternally errant Inuk, managed without anybody’s knowledge, to capture the heart of the beautiful Ulayo?
Was it Sammy Harris, the Inuk grandson of an American military pilot who had been assigned for awhile to the old US Air Force base at Fort Chimo? He was one of those Inuit who had politically organized his people at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, and who was recently appointed a Senator by the Canadian government despite his young age. He was the most powerful and influential Inuk of Nunavik. All knew that he lived lavishly in an apartment on De Maisonneuve Boulevard in Westmount and that he leased private jets to fly between Fort Chimo, Montreal and Ottawa. Once Aaron saw a photograph in a national newspaper. It showed the Prime Minister congratulating the young Inuk politician for his nomination to the Senate. He could see that Harris was as proud as a walrus on an ice shelf. In the background he had recognized one of the smiling figures as Ulayo, and her eyes were shining with pride. What was she doing with him?
Was it Agutinguaq, the hockey player who had recently been drafted by the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League? Or was it some other guy he didn’t know about. Aaron immediately felt guilty. All of this was no business of his. Why did Ulayo invite him? Suddenly he felt sorry for himself and realized that he hadn’t even brought a wedding gift with him. What a dummy he was! Feeling that his presence there would be totally useless, he wished he could turn back to Fort Chimo. But then, looking at his instrument panel, he realized that he had passed the no-return point. He didn’t have enough fuel for that and was now condemned to fly on to Port Harrison, whether he liked it or not.
Aaron was fast approaching the community because he was now seeing the immense blue waters of Hudson Bay on the horizon. He located the single landing strip, situated near a meteorological station not far from a group of white houses near the mouth of the Inukjuak River. He could see the falls a few miles upriver. A dozen pick-up and panel trucks were waiting near the station. There was something very ordinary about the community. He was surprised to see from the air that there appeared to be no more than the usual number of people in the village: he had been expecting a large turnout. On this wedding day, Inukjuak had the air of an undisturbed community. Had the wedding been cancelled?
There was no time for idle speculation. The landing process commanded his entire attention. A strong wind from the bay was sweeping the landing strip from west to east, making the whole procedure tricky. Despite the wind the amphibious Beaver touched down gracefully and Aaron reduced the power of the engine as he taxied his plane slowly towards the waiting trucks. He easily recognized Ulayo within the group of people, all wrapped up in a white Ammautiq, the summer version of the traditional coat of the womenfolk of the north. On her left was the Inuk Anglican priest, Sam Kudluk from Ivujivik, a distant relative of Ulayo.
The heart of the pilot was beating strongly. For once, he didn’t feel sure about himself. Aaron carefully parked his aircraft between two 45-gallon gasoline barrels filled with cement. He came out of the cabin and jumped to the ground from the elevated floats. His legs were shaking and to mask his emotions he took his time tying down the wings to the barrels. Ulayo, he noticed, was more beautiful than ever!
She stood back while Aaron shook hands with most members of the group. In the north, people know each other. Shaking hands is an airport tradition. Meanwhile, Aaron was trying to identify the bridegroom. Tall and muscular Agutinguaq was standing nervously near Ulayo in his elegant suit of green velvet with black lapels. Near the athlete stood handsome Kumakuluk without his dark glasses for once. He was eyeing Ulayo all the time, not paying attention to Aaron. Anxious, Aaron couldn’t see Sammy Harris among them. Of course, he thought, he was waiting at the church. So Sammy was the chosen one! Aaron felt despondent.
Suddenly there was silence.
Ulayo approached slowly, accompanied by the priest. Her eyes locked on Aaron. A timid smile was lighting her face. The young man felt himself melt as she approached. He was unable to say anything.
Ulayo turned towards the priest. ‘Father,’ she said ‘please meet Aaron Pilurtuut, the man I’ll marry today….’
Born in 1952, Mr Tremblay is a graduate of the University of Montreal after a life in law enforcement (partly with the Inuit in Nunavik), and has been admitted to the Québec Bar in 1988. He has worked since 1988 with First Nations organizations such as the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee), the Assembly of First Nations, the Council of the Cree community of Waswanipi (a relationship that has endured for 22 years), the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne as well as the Conseil de la Nation Atikamekw where he was the counsellor to the Grand Chief from 2000 to 2006. After a brief stay in the Cree community of Waswanipi, he has since been attached as General legal counsel for the Algonquin community of Pikogan where he serves to this day while teaching legal techniques at Valleyfield College in the fall of 2011. He has a thorough knowledge of North American Aboriginal history and is preparing the definitive Biographical Dictionary of Aboriginal History (North of the Rio Grande).