The legacy of Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, or Kapitaikallak, in Nunavut

Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, who became the youngest captain in the history of Canada at age 17, was an exceptional mariner. After setting records crossing the Atlantic aboard sailing merchant ships in the 1870s and 1880s, he made a career change, becoming the greatest Canadian explorer of the Arctic Ocean. Between 1906 and 1909, he took possession of several northern territories for Canada, thereby confirming Canadian sovereignty in the vast, sparsely populated region. Bernier and his crew forged enduring ties with the Inuit, with whom they lived for extended periods of time. Bernier, whom the Inuit fondly called Kapitaikallak (the “stout, little captain”), traded with them until 1917. The Ilititaa . . . Bernier, His Men and the Inuittravelling exhibition held at Musée maritime du Québec in Islet, where Bernier was born, and at Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in 2001-2002, highlights other aspects of the Francophone heritage these men left behind in Inuit territory.

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Historic ties and friendly relations

Without a doubt, Joseph-Elzéar Bernier’s main legacy from a historical point of view are his land claims in the Arctic. In 1906, he travelled to Melville Island in the western Canadian Arctic Archipelago, then to Baffin Island in the eastern part of the archipelago to claim the territories for Canada. Two years later, on July 1, 1908, he claimed the entire territory of the whole North American Arctic Archipelago at Winter Harbour on Melville Island by affixing a commemorative plaque on Parry’s Rock. The Ilititaa . . . Bernier, His Men and the Inuitexhibition presents more personal aspects of the legacy of Captain Bernier and his crew, related to the enduring ties these Qallunaat (“white people with big eyebrows”) formed with the Inuit.

Bernier and his men, all Francophones, arrived in northern Baffin Island 15 years before the Hudson’s Bay Company and 20 years before the first missionaries. They were the first to forge close and respectful ties with the Inuit. The Inuit served as guides and dressed the Qallunaat according to their traditions to protect them from the winter cold. In return, the crew taught them how to use telescopes, firearms and maps. They danced and ate together. The Inuit boarded Bernier’s ship, and the crew explored thousands of kilometres with their Inuit friends to map the territory.

During World War I, Wilfrid Caron, who had stayed at the trading post Bernier established at Pond Inlet, Baffin Island (Mittimatalik in Inuktitut), spent three and a half years alone there, because the war prevented Bernier from returning to the Arctic. Wilfrid Caron, called Quvviunginnaq (“watery eyes”) in Inuktitut because the cold made his eyes water, learned the Inuit language and customs and married Inuguk Panikpak, with whom he had several children. This matrimonial and cultural union led to even closer ties between Bernier and his men and the Inuit with whom they traded.

A sometimes surprising multiple legacy

During Bernier’s voyage to the Arctic for personal business in the winter of 1914-1915, a filmmaker who made the voyage with him filmed the first documentary about the Canadian North, Land of the Midnight Sun. A great many of the first photographs taken of Inuit were also taken by Bernier and his men at the beginning of the 20th century. Bernier gathered considerable information about the Inuit, whom he considered the guardians of the North, before regular contact between the Inuit and traders and missionaries led to increasingly pronounced changes in their lifestyle. Conscious of the extent of their knowledge and their generosity, Bernier believed that it was important to treat the Inuit well and preserve their culture. He attempted to develop a national sense of responsibility with regard to the Inuit, in particular by advocating against their relocation. This respectful attitude explains why the Inuit still have fond memories of Captain Bernier. The elders of Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) still talk about Kapitaikallak (Captain Bernier) as a Qallunaat who respected their ancestors, treated them as equals and willingly wore their traditional garb.

is the song Ilititaa, which appears in the title of the exhibition dedicated to them. Inuit who knew this song sang it without understanding its meaning, believing that it was a very old traditional Inuit song. In fact, the lyrics are a slightly different version of the French traditional song Il était un petit navire, which Wilfrid Caron, aka Quvviunginnaq, often sang: “Ilititaa puutinnaviru, kinava ja ja javinavigi, kinava ja ja javinavigi, ouri ouri” instead of “Il était un petit navire, qui n’avait ja, ja, jamais navigué, qui n’avait ja, ja, jamais navigué, ohé, ohé.” Descendants of Caron and Panikpak spread the song among other Inuit, who were unfamiliar with its origin.

In Nunavut, with the exception of the still vivid memories of some Inuit, the heritage associated with Captain Bernier and his crew is not well known, in particular because the places they frequented are often difficult to get to. Ilititaa . . . Bernier, His Men and the Inuit, however, can be consulted online. In 2001, Inuit descendents of Caron and Panikpak came to Islet to meet with other members of the Caron family in Quebec. The family reunion was warm and moving. They had just participated in the inauguration of the exhibition devoted to their ancestor, Captain Bernier and their Inuit and Quebecois friends.

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