Fading reminders of terrible times

Michael Johansen
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If anyone’s keeping score (likely no one is), Makkovik seems to have the most surviving Hebron houses left in Labrador.

What’s a Hebron house? For those who don’t know about the forced relocation of hundreds of Labrador Inuit in the late 1950s, a Hebron house is a small wooden structure built by the dozens for the relocatees to occupy in every community from Nain to North West River.

Hebron houses are quite distinctive in their simplicity and uniformity.

They are all one-storey tall with roofs sufficiently peaked to provide living space in the attic — enough room for a family of four, at the most, to live somewhat uncrowded. Entrance is gained through lean-to extensions attached to one end wall or the other.

By most accounts the Hebron houses were unpopular from the start.

It’s no wonder they were, given the injustices the intended occupants were enduring at the time.

This is a well-known history — or should be, at least, since 2005 when the provincial premier of the day delivered an official apology to the Inuit of Hebron for their forced relocation.

The people who had been living north of Nain would have been quite content to stay where they were. They had no desire to move anywhere else.

However, their civil and religious authorities thought they knew better and they decided (without really asking the people involved) that Nutak and Hebron should be abandoned. They decided that the remaining residents should be scattered among the larger communities along the northern Labrador coast and at the head of Lake Melville.

The officials primarily blamed declining populations for the necessity of the move and some may have genuinely believed they were sending the Inuit to better lives, but there’s no doubt the whole tragedy was instigated with the unacceptable taint of paternalistic colonialism.

The relocations led to immediate suffering that in many cases persists today, children inheriting it from their displaced parents and passing it on to their own offspring.

Having been uprooted from the vicinity of their own hunting, fishing and trapping grounds and dumped into territories already claimed and used by the original inhabitants of their new communities, the families from Hebron and Nutak plunged into deep poverty and despair — the usual destination for someone robbed of a purpose in life and of the means to feed loved ones.

Given the mood and condition of their occupants, there’s probably no way a Hebron house could have become anyone’s happy home at the time, no matter if they had been the finest houses ever created.

However, they were far from perfect. Although they are clearly sturdy (judging by those that have survived the years), they were poorly insulated and, as a result, could be quite drafty and bitterly cold, especially for anyone sleeping on the upper floor.

They usually weren’t put in good locations, either.

The ones in North West River, for example, were constructed on unwanted boggy ground away from the higher and drier areas. Many of the houses anywhere were not used for long by the people for whom they were designed, just as many of the dislocated didn’t always remain in the communities to which they had first been shipped. Makkovik reports that few of the 150 people who were moved there from Hebron in 1959 settled permanently.

Unloved as they were, Labrador’s Hebron houses have been allowed to steadily disappear — unnoticed and unmourned. Nain’s last two (one of which had served as a residence for OKalaKatiget Society employees) were demolished more than a decade ago.

I can’t say if any are left in any other communities, but I know of one in Sheshatshiu, one and a part of the roof of another in North West River, and now of at least five in Makkovik — three of which are inhabited, one of which is uninhabited but in good repair, and one of which is rotting away on crumbling posts and will likely not last another winter.

Before any more of them disappear, the Hebron house should be recognized for its historical significance — not for sentimental reasons, certainly, but as a loud reminder that violating human rights in general, and committing forced relocations in particular, always ends in disaster.

Michael Johansen is a writer

living in Labrador.

Organizations: Hebron house, OKalaKatiget Society

Geographic location: Hebron, Makkovik, Labrador North West River Nutak Northern Labrador Lake Melville Sheshatshiu

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Recent comments

  • Cyril Rogers
    July 13, 2013 - 09:37

    Michael, your account is yet another painful reminder of the way we humans can inflict harm on each other, often unintentionally. This one is a classic case of the "Law of unintended consequences" kicking in! One can't help but wonder why we are continuing to force people to relocate, albeit more subtly by an assault on the economics of living in small, remote communities. We forget the human cost in making these decisions, yet both the federal and provincial governments, led by faceless bureaucrats......well-meaning and well intentioned....but utterly clueless about the strength, integrity, and resiliency of these communities.....continue to make "economic" decisions. They simply don't understand that people need to make their own decisions about something as fundamental as choosing to live in certain locales. While it is true that governments should not feel forced to simply throw money at these places, they often do so, with ill-conceived plans that don't work....... and only postpone what they believe to be in the best interests of the people living there. It just becomes another form of colonialism and paternalism.