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“One day, somebody is going to forget”: A Conversation With Mini Aodla Freeman

Book Cover Life Among the Qallunaat

Mini Aodla Freeman's Life Among the Qallunaat—a memoir of her experiences in the north and of working for the Department of Northern Affairs during the late 1950s—was first published in 1978, and appears now in a brand new edition edited and with an afterword by Keavy Martin and Julie Rak, with Norma Dunning. The new book begins with a conversation between Freeman, Martin and Dunning, excerpted here, in which they discuss how Freeman came to write her memoir, its enthusiastic reception by readers, and how copies were kept in a basement at Indian Affairs for fear that Freeman had included details of her time at residential school. (Freeman says, "I should have, but I didn't.)

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The original publication of Life Among the Qallunaat (1978) began with a foreword by Alex Stevenson, the "Administrator of the Arctic" who had worked at the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources during the time when Mini Aodla Freeman was employed there as a translator (1957–1960).

To provide context for this new edition, Aodla Freeman detailed her experiences of writing and publishing the original text in an interview with Keavy Martin and Norma Dunning. This excerpt is taken from a longer discussion recorded on March 20, 2014, at Aodla Freeman’s home in Edmonton.

Mini Aodla Freeman at Old Factory

Mini at home for the holidays at her father’s summer house at Old Factory River, PQ, 1959.

Keavy Martin: Can you tell us how you came to write Life Among the Qallunaat

Mini Aodla Freeman: We were living in Burlington, Ontario, while my husband was teaching at the university in Hamilton [McMaster University]. My last baby had gone—started going to school—and I had nothing to do, it seems. And I had wanted to...I didn’t want to, but I said to Milton, "Maybe I should write a book." And he said, "You know, you have a lot of experience in James Bay that you’ve told me over and over about." So that’s when I decided to write a book about James Bay and the people there. And it didn’t take me long; I think I wrote that big book for six or eight months. And I didn’t know my family for six to eight months [laughing]. They were so glad when I finished that!

I phoned Mr. Hurtig, who lived here in Edmonton, and he never hesitated: he just said, "Send it!" So I sent it, and before you knew, he was publishing it. I belonged to the Hamilton Writers Guild at that time because I was interested in writing, and they asked me if I’d done anything with my book. And I said, "It’s going to be published."

"Oh my God! I’ve had a book I keep sending to ten, twelve publishers!"

So, Mr Hurtig, when he saw it, he said he’s going to have to get it edited a lot—cut a lot—because it’s too long. So that’s what they did. And then while I was writing it, I discovered that I really like writing. You know, I really enjoy writing. It’s not because I wanted to force myself; I couldn’t force myself. I just really enjoyed it. I’m book crazy, you know: I belong to the library across the street and I go there every month, I think [laughing]. Yes, and it’s something that I have questioned myself over and over, because in my culture, we are not 'writing people'; we memorize everything: everything what people say, everything of where we went, everything what we plan to do. You know, it was all done by memory. And all our culture, our rules, our laws, our games are all from memory, passed on from one generation to another. And I said to myself, "One day, somebody is going to forget." So that’s when I decided to write the book.

KM: And who came up with the title? Was that your idea? 

MAF: I had a different title, and Mr. Hurtig phoned me and he said, "We’re going to change your title to Life Among the Qallunaat in order to.... How he did it put it? Something about "fighting back [against the book] Life Among the Eskimos." I said, "Go ahead." You know that book, Life Among the Eskimos? Written by... what’s his name? He was a scientist from Germany [Bernhard Adolph Hantzsch]. And that’s how I ended up with that title, Life Among the Qallunaat.

Mini Aodla Freeman with Bonds in Ottawa

This photograph taken of Mini in Ottawa, c. 1959, was used to suggest that Inuit were now buying Canada savings bonds.

KM: So what did you want to call it?

MAF: Something about "James Bay Inuit."

KM: Yes, because when you’re reading it, only some parts are actually about qallunaat and being in the South. A lot of it is about James Bay, Nunaaluk [Cape Hope Island], and your family, and being at home. 

MAF: A lot of it was cut off. 

KM: Well, one of things that we are hoping to do is to find the parts that were taken out of your manuscript and to put them back in.

MAF: Okay.

KM: Because it’s not that long. And we thought that the parts that were cut out are important; we learned a lot from reading them.

MAF: Okay, but I will see it when you get it all together before you send it to publish. Will I?

KM: Yes, of course. Absolutely. And then, if there’s anything that you want us to change or take out, we’ll be asking you to tell us that.

MAF: Okay.

Norma Dunning: After you published, Mini, you went on a bit of a speaking tour. You went up north, didn’t you?

MAF: There was three of us; there was Daphne Odjig, and Alice French from the Western Arctic. Her book [My Name is Masak] had come out earlier, and we went on tour in the northern parts of provinces—just the northern part. We stopped in, I think, Winnipeg—that’s the only place we stopped—but the rest were all small communities. Met a lot of Indians and Inuit in northern parts of Manitoba and Alberta.

ND: When did you know that your book got put into the basement of Indian and Northern Affairs?

Mini Aodla Freeman, Photo by Niels Jensen

Photo by Niels Jensen

MAF: I think the people in Northern Affairs had feared that I might tell something, you know? That’s how guilty they are [laughing]. We had been invited—all the writers, magazine writers, artists from Cape Dorset—we were all invited to Ottawa, and I was one of them. And people kept saying to me, "I haven’t seen your book. Where is it?" And I couldn’t answer with all those people there, you know. So I just said, “Well, it should be out somewhere.”

And then somebody told me the whole 3,000 of them were in the basement of Northern Affairs. Just kept it there until somebody read it and started distributing it up north. And the man who reads all the books for awards from Toronto [Peter Buitenhuis]—he somehow got it; I think Hurtig sent him one, and he read it. And he was asking where he could find copies and saying that he recommended it to get an award [the Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction]. And it never happened because they couldn’t find the book.

KM: Do you remember how long it was that they were in the basement? 

MAF: I think it was at least six to eight months. I think they were afraid that I might talk badly about residential schools. And remember: at that time, Northern Affairs kept denying, denying about residential schools. When an Indian person came up and talked about it really badly, they would shut them up. And then, I think they thought I wrote something bad about residential schools, which I should have, but I didn’t [laughing]. I think that was the worry, and when they discovered there wasn’t something about residential schools, they decided to put it out. And they paid our airfares after that to travel north.

ND: Has your brother ever said anything about the book? Did he ever say, "Mini, we didn’t fight that much!" [Laughing]

MAF: As you know, Inuit don’t read or write much. And he never said anything about it. But they didn’t know until about—let’s see—it must have been till the '80s, '90s, when they started to say, "I saw your book. I saw your book." That’s how long it took.

KM: And how did people respond when they read it? Did you get any responses?

MAF: I have a bunch of clippings from newspapers somewhere in the box. Mr. Hurtig would send me one for me to see. Out of all those, I only had one woman saying really bad things about it. She said something about eating raw food—I just ignored her. That’s the only bad thing I got; the rest enjoyed it, loved it....

Mini, with editors Julie Rak, Keavy Martin and Norma Dunning, with Keavy Martin’s son, Edzazii. Photo by Richard Van Camp.

Mini, with editors Julie Rak, Keavy Martin and Norma Dunning, with Keavy Martin’s son, Edzazii. Photo by Richard Van Camp.

KM: So how do you feel about the book coming out again after all these years? 

MAF: People kept saying to me, "It’s about time, it’s about time. You should have done that right after the book was sold out—you should have done that long time ago." But I kept ignoring it, and I was busy with the other things, you know, being an Elder there and here and there. I feel good about it now—I’m ready to take it again. Yes. At least nice people are handling it.

[Laughter]

KM: You’re nice to put up with us!

MAF: You have time for tea?

1. The etymology of the term "qallunaat" is subject to debate, but it is used variously to refer to "Southerners," "white people," or even "English speakers."

August 13, 2015

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