Beneath the Surface: a look at early mining in Rankin Inlet – by Sarah Rogers (Nunatsiaq News – October 14, 2016)

Frank Tester’s new documentary premieres at the Inuit Studies Conference

It was the mid-1950s. Elizabeth Alareak had only just married her husband Edward Alareak when he was “summoned” to come and work at the Rankin Inlet nickel mine, among the first mines to operate in the Canadian Arctic, from 1957 to 1962.

“We didn’t understand what a mine was,” she recalled, laughing. “We simply agreed.” The Arviat elder, whose husband has now passed away, is one of the many voices featured in a new film documenting life at the mine and its impact on the region, called Beneath the Surface: Inuit miners at Rankin Inlet 1957-1962.

The film premiered Oct. 9 at the Inuit Studies Conference in St. John’s, Nfld. In the 1950s, the fox pelt market upon which so many Inuit relied for material goods had dropped so low that those who had made their living trapping could no longer survive that way.

In parts of the region west of Hudson Bay, some Inuit camps faced starvation, and the RCMP were settling those groups closer to Rankin Inlet to take advantage of mining job opportunities.

The Alareaks moved to the mine site just north of what is now Nunavut’s second-largest community with their only possessions—a canvas tent and a cup.

Although the average biweekly pay for Canadian metal miners in 1958 was about $167, Inuit miners such as Edward Alareak were making $100 every two weeks.

“So the payment of a mere $100 would seem like so much money for us then,” Alareak said in Inuktitut. “It turned out to be such a tiny amount. He would work all night.”

Alareak said her husband never saw a raise in the seven years he worked for the mine and the family never received a pension afterwards.

Beneath the Surface was researched, produced and written by University of British Columbia professor and documentary filmmaker Frank Tester whose research explores the impact of mining projects new and old in what is now Nunavut.

“[These Inuit had] gone from what is the oldest social, cultural and economic organization on the planet—a hunting and gathering society—to a modern, industrial one in a matter of a few weeks,” Tester comments in the film.

“This has to be one of the most rapid rates of change for any group in all of recorded history.”

Tester’s work is important, if only because it captures interviews with former miners and family members who won’t be around forever to tell their story.

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