Memories of a long-gone era have come flooding back for many residents of Pond Inlet when documentary filmmakers from Thunder Bay visited the community bearing sketches drawn in the community between 1970 and 71 by Susan Ross, an artist from Thunder Bay, Ontario who passed away in 2006.
Ross was close friends with Sheila Burnford, who wrote The Incredible Journey, of which the 1963 Disney Movie Homeward Bound was based on and they would go on to travel together across the North, Burnford would pen One Woman’s Arctic based on her experiences in Nunavut.The filmmakers also brought with them footage taked by Burnford during her time there.
After a decade of travelling to various First Nations communities in Northern Ontario and in Manitoba, the two finally got a chance in 1970 to travel to Pond Inlet.
“Most of the time when (Susan) would go to a community she just started sketching – so she did thousands and thousands of these sketches. She would go home in the winter in later years and she started doing printmaking,” said Kelly Saxberg, one of the filmmakers.
A Tale of Two Qallunaat, the film she’s working on, looks at the two women and their travels around Nunavut together as well as their legacy in the communities they visited. It’s being made under ShebaFilms, which Saxberg runs alongside her husband Ron Harpelle.
Saxberg came across the material when Sheila Burnford’s daughter approached her years after her passing with her mother’s photographs, writings and other works. Soon after, Ross’ family got a hold of Saxberg and gave her all of Ross’ old sketchbooks.
Ross picked up sketching after meeting Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau who encouraged her to travel to Indigenous communities and connect with them.
They’ve been gradually scanning Ross’ work over the last few years, said Adrian Harpelle, Saxberg’s son who’s also working on the project.
Jonquil Covello, Sheila’s daughter, also wanted to make the trip but could not make the trip due to health concerns.
There was an impetus among to share these works in the communities they visited, the filmmakers also had digital copies which they brought with them to Pond Inlet.
“It’s very important to them to be able to share all this work with the community,” said Saxberg, who added it’s also available in the Thunder Bay Museum digital archive.
“You can recognize them! That’s how good she was. You can recognize the Elders, you can recognize the women,” said Navalik Tologanak, the Inuk guide for the trip from Cambridge Bay, who was able to recognize people despite not having travelled to the community in a long time.
This was also the case for residents of Pond Inlet, who also recognized Clyde River residents, leading to the realization the two travelled to more than one community, the two also very briefly visited Iglulik, said Saxberg.
“They really didn’t expect so much and some came back again, we rented a room at the hotel and a couple of them went through every sketch, made us stop throughout the film footage and gave us the names of everyone they could recognize. That was really, really amazing,” added Saxsberg.
“Many have passed on, but there are some that are still alive. We even found out more people were alive just before (we left),” said Tologanak. This included one of the workers at the hotel they were staying at.
Saxberg wanted to approach this from a culturally informed and sensitive place, crucial to this was Tologanak’s participation, which has greatly assisted in their travels.
The filmmakers left the printed sketchbooks and digital copies with the Pond Inlet Hamlet Office, so residents can also directly access this material. Material from Ross and Burnford were also dropped off at Iqaluit’s Nunavut Research Institute.
This also presents a great opportunity for local high school students, Tologanak continues.
“What I would like to see is high school students taking it on as a project and connect with their own parents and their community, to see who all they’re related to and how Pond Inlet was. It’s a part of who they are and they can connect with it as a school project with their teachers.”
This is particularly important “because a lot of our ancestors are no longer with us,” she added.
Two close friends
“Susan and Sheila they were good friends, they loved to hunt and fish and go out on their hunting camp on White Fish Lake,” said Saxberg, this would be an annual journey about 100 km north of Thunder Bay.
Burnford immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom in the 1948 and met Ross in Thunder Bay, where they sparked a lasting friendship.
“They just loved being on the land and outdoors, (Burnford) was Scottish and she said if you don’t go out and walk every day then there’s something wrong, you have to be in nature.”
The two enjoyed connecting with Inuit and First Nations communities all over Canada, after Pond Inlet and Clyde River, Burnford later on moved back to the United Kingdom, but Ross went on to visit Kugluktuk, Kinngait and Pangnirtung, making sketches of people in those communities. In 2002 Ross was awarded the Order of Canada in visual arts for her work in documenting life in Canadian Indigenous communities.
“They didn’t go to the North to preach, teach or supervise,” said Saxberg, “they just went as artists to hang around, sketch people, go hunting or learn Inuktitut and chat with people.”
“What these ladies did, going up to the Arctic to Mittimatalik and just sit there and be with the people, to film and do sketches, that’s pretty special,” said Tologanak.
A Tale of Two Qallunaat is now currently in the editing phase.
For Saxberg, who approaches her work from a local angle, it was fascinating to travel and present this connection between her Northern Ontario hometown and Pond Inlet.
“There’s something very special about sketches, seeing people who have been captured by an artist, seeing those faces, they’re not anonymous, this isn’t an anthropologist studying whatever. These are two people that these women connected with and they were storytellers in different ways, one through words and one through art. It’s unique, I don’t think there’s other artists who did the vast amount of sketches and connected with children and Elders.”