Humanities at Large

Two Tales of the Arctic

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on October 10 2019.

We gathered for this lunch for a discussion led by faculty research Fellow Mark Cheetham (Art History), and then toured Qaggiq: Gathering Place, an exhibition at the University of Toronto Art Museum.

Mark asked the Fellows to watch John Walker’s film Passage (2008), a semi-documentary look at the mid- 19th century efforts of Scottish explorer John Rae to find out what happened to John Franklin’s doomed expedition to find a northwest passage.

Rae and his companions found several objects related to the expedition and made contact with local Inuit who gave him a lot of information about the fate of the Franklin expedition. Rae's report to the English Admiralty included shocking evidence of cannibalism. For decades, Rae’s account was rejected in favour of racist suspicions promulgated by Lady Jane Franklin and Charles Dickens, who suggested there was no possibility that the explorers would have resorted to cannibalism and it was more likely that the Inuit killed the survivors.  Passage shows the process of re/creating a 21st century retelling of Rae’s experience, including appearances by Inuit politician Tagak Curley, Inuit artist Danny Aaluk, and a descendent of Charles Dickens.

Mark asked us to think about the way that the environment is characterized in white accounts of the Franklin expedition and its aftermath: as a hostile force; a strange, deceptive, terrifying, and dangerous environment. He also showed early visual depictions of the Arctic, including images of a “triple sun” phenomenon, the Aurora Borealis, and pictures of wooden ships helplessly ‘nipped’ in icebergs. Mark ended with a critical look at Stan Rogers’s song “Northwest Passage” and a revision that replaced Rogers’s heroicizing lyrics with words that highlight environmental concerns in the Arctic.

Video still from Isuma:The Journals of Knud Rasmussen
Isuma: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. 2006. © Isuma Distribution International. Courtesy of ISUMA and Vtape.

After lunch we walked to the Art Museum, where Qaggiq: Gathering Place recently opened. Quaggig is an unusual exhibition in that it is composed of video installations rather than material objects. Director and Curator Barbara Fischer explained that the videos were created by the Isuma Artists Collective, the first Inuit production company to show the Inuit experience from the Inuit point of view, and in the Inuit language. We watched a seal hunt as it would have looked in the 1940s–with sealskin parkas, handheld harpoons, and dog-teams pulling sleds in Nunavut: Our Land (dir. Zacharias Kunuk, 1995). Each room contained a different series of short episodic videos that show life in the Arctic, including the ways that it looks now; the last was Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change (Zacharias Kunuk and Ian Mauro, 2010).

The Isuma films show the environment differently: cold, but bright and clear; hospitable, predictable, and supportive to the people who live there. The contrast between these two portrayals of the Arctic was precise. Our conversation revolved around ways of telling history. The stories that we tell about the environment define the ways that we understand our relationship with it.

Thanks to Kimberley Yates who provided content for this post.