Manitoba History: Far Off Metal River: Inuit Lands, Settler Stories, and the Making of the Contemporary Arctic
by Brian Smith
Canadian geographer Emilie Cameron’s Far Off Metal River: Inuit Lands, Settler Stories, and the Making of the Contemporary Arctic takes its title from the particular wording in the instructions received in 1769 by Samuel Hearne from his Hudson’s Bay Company superiors to proceed on a journey of exploration to the mouth of the ‘Far Off Metal River.’ Hearne was sent specifically to discover what mineral and fur resources were present and to assess the navigability of the waterways for transporting the area’s resources. An event that occurred enroute Hearne’s journey to the mouth of the Coppermine, “the Bloody Falls massacre” has become one of the most enduring stories in the annals of northern exploration. The account of the slaughter of Inuit families by the Dene who accompanied Hearne has attracted attention and stirred the imagination of the outside world since Hearne returned to Prince of Wales Fort and began the telling of his travels and trials in 1772. Cameron demonstrates that this story, now a well-established part of Canadian history, has not yet faded—at least for Quablunaat (non-Inuit, non-Indigenous, non-Northern people)—and has become an iconic portrayal of exploration and exploitation of the Arctic’s people and resources. The ‘storying’ of Bloody Falls is the thread that weaves the ideas in this book together.
Cameron’s primary thesis is that the storying of the North by predominately non-Inuit, beginning with the tale of Bloody Falls (that served to the further HBC’s interest in locating, mapping and exploiting resources), has created and fueled a perception of the land and the people that has served to influence, prop up and justify how the North and northerners have been perceived by Quablunaat for more than two hundred years, directly fostering current approaches to modern Arctic oil, gas, and mineral exploration and extraction. Cameron argues that it is stories—and importantly the overwhelmingly lop-sided “storying of stories” by Quablunaat about the North—that has critically shaped past and present relations between Inuit and Quablunaat, as well as the perceptions of the places and resources of the North that are still held by the external, largely southern-based, but now international industrial interests.
Cameron puts forth that stories are dynamic “relational and material ordering practices,” and that the ordering of the world through stories has much to say about the story teller’s world view and their ideas of order and truth. How the audience receives the story also reveals much about their own views and ideas. Cameron’s balanced tracing of the Quablunaat ‘truths’ of the massacre story and how it was presented, re-presented, and resurrected again and again throughout the 19th and 20th centuries is truly good reading (even though from the beginning there were doubts about the reliability of Hearne to be a recorder and what he actually witnessed). Hearne’s account of the Bloody Falls massacre was allowed to survive as a whole, but its continued persistence in the Quablunaat world is artfully compared by Cameron to the Inuit and Dene views of Hearne’s foray to the mouth of the Coppermine and the Bloody Falls massacre. Her research demonstrates that despite the parts each group played in the story, in their view, it is basically a “non-storied” event and little shapes Inuit and Dene current relationships with each other and the land and resources they have shared together and as neighbors for centuries.
Far Off Metal River attempts to illuminate for Quablunaat how our material ordering of the North has affected how we relate to the people, the land, and the resources. One example of this ‘material ordering’ is the relentless gathering and presenting of information, or the production of knowledge. In the past that would include countless ethnographies, traveller’s diaries, and scientific expeditions, while in contemporary times it would largely be comprised of environmental and socio-economic impact studies and reports compiled by researchers to assess the effects of the resource industry in the Arctic. These would be ‘witnesses’ and ‘experts,’ who, like Hearne often claim to be neutral, unbiased and uninvolved, despite being present for a specific purpose and having pre-prescribed ways of collecting and presenting information. Cameron’s message is that it is necessary to consider and reconsider both the methods used and the results—not only what these stories / studies reveal to us, but “what they authorize us to do, and not only what they allow us to forget.” In other words, she forces readers to consider what the consequences are of these informational stories and how they affect our relations with the North and the Inuit. Essentially, the message is not only to consider the source, but also to consider the contextual biases within the source, and how that shapes not only the story, but how the story is told, and consequently how it is heard, received, and interpreted by different audiences. Importantly, we must realize that these stories about the North, or about impacts to the North, are Quablunaat stories. And these stories set the stage for how the modern industrial complex relates to the North and its peoples.
Learning how to achieve better relations with the North and the Inuit is a primary theme in Cameron’s work. One path to knowledge, she explains, is understanding that Inuit learning (and therefore knowledge and stories about relations with the land, its people and resources) is a lifelong cultivation of wisdom and judgement. This is not static, but an ongoing state that is relative and dynamic; it includes ‘not knowing’ as a normal process rather than indicating failure or signifying a state of hopelessness or helplessness. It occurred to this reviewer that it is unlikely that a Quablunaat industrial concern applying for a resource extraction permit would put forward a mitigation measure statement like: “At this time the current state of confusion about the actual effects of A or B will be resolved once things eventually become clear”—however true that statement might be. Cameron’s point, if I read her correctly, would be that Inuit stories about A and B may actually exist to inform this type of assessment and could bolster the application; the contextual impact of Inuit stories needs to be considered to foster better relations. The reverse could also be true as in the case of the Federal-Territorial attempt during the 1970s to nationally commemorate the (Quablunaat) story of Hearne’s journey to the Coppermine in the immediate vicinity of Bloody Falls. The result of that episode is telling and I will not disclose the ending; it is good one.
After hearing or reading an interesting story from a thoughtful and skilled teller, the characters, events, lessons, ideas and interpretations, along with the described scenery and presented places, are likely to remain with the audience to thoughtfully consider and debate for some time. Certainly this was my reaction to Far Off Metal River by Emile Cameron.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 15 September 2020