North and South

  • Eddy Weetaltuk and Martin Thibault (Editor)
    From the Tundra to the Trenches. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at
  • Arthur Bear Chief
    My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell. Athabasca University Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Shaina Humble

Arthur Bear Chief’s memoir My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell shares his experiences of abuse as a student at the Old Sun Indian Residential School from 1949 to 1959. Bear Chief expertly crafts a narrative that blends his horrifying experiences of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse at residential school with the loving, familial, childhood memories of time spent with his Blackfoot family in Siksika, Alberta. Connecting these experiences to the contemporary moment, Bear Chief articulates the impact that these abuses continue to have on his interpersonal relationships (particularly those with his children and romantic partners), as well as challenges he faces with alcoholism, and his re-traumatization as a result of the legal battles involved with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and of the continued financial abuses of the Canadian Government following the settlement. Eddy Weetaltuk’s memoir, From the Tundra to the Trenches, begins depicting his birth in the snow during a family visit to the Strutton Islands for the annual arctic whale hunt, proceeds to cover his years as a student at the Old Factory boarding school in Fort George, and concludes by presenting his worldly experiences as the first Inuk member of the Canadian Armed forces. Both texts are gripping memoirs that describe the personal experiences of two Indigenous men during the twentieth-century and how these experiences connect to life in the twenty-first—North or South. These texts demonstrate how twentieth-century government policy continues to impact the lives of Indigenous peoples in lands claimed by Canada today.

Bear Chief’s memoir is essential reading following the completion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and subsequent discussions of reconciliation. At the beginning of the memoir, Bear Chief informs the reader that he hopes writing will help him on his “journey of healing and recovery” from the abuses that he experienced while at residential school. Sharing the continued impacts that residential school has had on him and on his family, Bear Chief argues that he does not believe the government has “learned anything from this dark era”; he needs to “write about [residential school] so that people will know what really happened.” The narrative, as living proof that the government policies imposed on Indigenous peoples were ultimately unsuccessful in erasing Indigenous peoples and cultures, also addresses Bear Chief’s successful career in public service and his work with his community, his re-acquaintance with some of his children, and his reconnection with the Blackfoot language and culture with the support of elders. Bear Chief’s personal account is supported by a preface that provides insight into the writing process, an afterword that adds additional context to the challenges of reconciliation outlined in the text, and a set of appendices that include legal correspondence around Bear Chief’s case and letters of apology from various organizations involved in the administration of residential schools.

When he began From the Tundra to the Trenches in 1974, Eddy Weetaltuk sought to produce, as Thibault Martin writes in his foreword, a “bestseller” that would reach a large readership, while simultaneously encouraging other Inuit to tell their stories. Published for the first time in English, Weetaltuk’s memoir provides readers with a first-person account of growing-up Inuk in the James Bay area during the 1930s: he narrates his experiences of being assigned his disc number or “Eskimo tag name,” of living in “matchbox” houses that were not built to withstand a Northern climate, of surviving the “seven years of famine,” and of seeing a seaplane that made him yearn to “fly to visit other foreign worlds.” Following the completion of grade eight at boarding school, Weetaltuk was informed that Inuit were unable to travel to the South to complete their education. However, Weetaltuk would later learn about the Canadian Government’s plan to use Inuit to “rationalize the land occupancy” and assert sovereignty in the North, despite many relocated Inuit suffering from “starvation and misery.” To circumvent the Canadian Government’s travel restrictions, Weetaltuk changed his name to Eddy Vital and created a fictional family history in which he had a French father and an Inuk mother. Weetaltuk’s fictional European name enabled him to join the Canadian Armed Forces, and to travel to the Canadian prairies as part of his training, to Korea as a soldier during the Korean War, to Japan during a military leave, and to Germany during a later posting. Written in a conversational style, Weetaltuk’s text effectively demonstrates the continued, personal effects of war, particularly its impact on future personal relationships, such as his romantic involvement with a German woman named Clara. The inclusion of Weetaltuk’s artwork, which he drew to represent narrative and contemporary photographs, adds an excellent visual element to the memoir.

Bear Chief’s and Weetaltuk’s memoirs are visceral accounts of their respective childhood experiences in different locations within Canada and of their returning home to share new experiences with their respective communities.

This review “North and South” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 133-134.

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