For some, it had been more than 50 years since they had last seen Nutak.
On Wednesday, Inuit elders, their families and friends made their way by float plane and speed boat to the community, forcibly resettled when the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador cut off services to the area in 1956.
The Nunatsiavut Government arranged for the return, inviting all former residents to join in recognizing the loss of the community and to view the unveiling of a new monument to mark its relocation.
Many making the trip had vivid, powerful memories of how the manager of the town’s general store had informed their families of the government policy and the fact they would have to move.
The relocation from the area was seen by many as a blow to the very heart of the people, already struggling to fight off the influence of invading cultures through the Hudson’s Bay outpost and trying to maintain the traditional Inuit stories, language and way of life.
Families were split apart in the move, as community members went to places such as Nain, Hopedale, Northwest River and further South to start new lives.
As elders attending the reunion landed on the shores of Nutak this week, tears flowed and some dropped to the ground in their emotion — quickly consoled by family and friends and other members of the Inuit community.
There was also broad, uncontrolled smiles and laughter as old friends reunited and old stories were recalled.
Two planes were needed to get all of the elder relocatees who wanted to attend to the event.
“It’s good to see,” said Wilson Jararuse during the arrivals.
Jararuse offers translation services and has worked in interpretation, specifically focused on elements of Inuit culture, for Parks Canada.
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A relocatee, Jararuse was once a resident of Hebron, famous as a former Moravian mission community and a Labrador Inuit community which was forced to relocate in 1959.
“I’ll tell you there’s going to be a lot of emotion later on,” he said, turning to look inland, at the Nutak memorial site.
The elders sat for a meal that included fresh Arctic char, ptarmigan and dough boys.
Before sitting for the meal, they donned traditional clothing and set aside the items they had brought with them — flowers for the untended graves of family members or, in the case of Jessica Ford, a photo of the centre of Nutak from the time of the relocation.
“I find it looks a lot different,” Ford said, standing from the table at the end of the meal.
As she spoke, she stared at moss-covered areas that seemed like any other on the landscape, as though looking into windows of buildings long since gone.
She was 14 when she left Nutak. She started working winters in Nain, but returned every summer to be with family.
“It’s so long since I been here ...,” she said, trailing off as she stepped towards the gathering place for what was to be a ceremony of reconciliation, one that included members of the current provincial and federal governments.
As part of the ceremony, Labrador West MHA and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Nick McGrath, read aloud the official apology from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to the Inuit people — first offered by then-premier Danny Williams in 2005.
“This is a very important day. One that many people have waited for a large part of their lives,” said MP Peter Penashue.
“It is generous of you to share this significant milestone with us — and for that we thank you.”
The names of those who were relocated from Nutak, names inscribed on a memorial now standing at the heart of the former community, were read out by Nunatsiavut’s Culture, Recreation and Tourism Minister Johannes Lampe.
For the closing of the ceremony, Lampe announced the Nain choir would sing “God Be With You Until We Meet Again.”
“This will be sung in Inuttitut,” he added, before voices were raised.
The sound of the choir, with the community joining in, cut through the relative silence.
It was a song offered by a small group, gathered on a rock on the coast of Northern Labrador, hours by air from the nearest roadways, but minutes from the caribou herds, seals, land formations, waterways and other elements once at the heart of their daily lives.
“A lot have passed on and this could be the last trip for the remaining relocatees from Nutak,” Lampe said, noting his mother would be among those preparing to leave the area for the last time.
Lampe was born in December 1955 and about nine months old when his parents left the area with him.
“I’m quite happy and this is more of a celebration than a sad day,” he said, saying the memorial and final returns would allow for a purging of the pains of the past.