White man in an inuit land

August 25, 2000

Kenn Harper was a young teacher from a rural family in Newmarket, Ontario, when he decided to spend a couple of years in the far north of Canada. Thirty years on he is still there. "I'm now 55 and I've lived my entire adult life in the Arctic, among the Inuit," he says. "I didn't intend to stay for so long. I intended to have some adventure and then move on."

Harper left teaching in 1974 and since then has had businesses involved in real estate, hotels, and retailing, has worked for the government, and has been a linguist and researcher. But at heart, he says, he has always been a historian and a writer.

When Harper first went north - with his wife and young son - it was to live on an island just north of the Arctic Circle. His marriage - like several subsequent ones - buckled under the strain. But Harper, who had been interested in Canadian history and native peoples as a child, was content: he had found himself.

He is not, by nature, a bystander and once settled in the north was determined to get the most out of the experience. "At that time very few of the Inuit could speak English. I decided it would make a lot more sense in the small community I was living in if I could speak to the people."

After a year in his first job, he transferred to an even smaller island where, besides teaching, he acted as the settlement's administrator and nurse. He left teaching in 1974 to start his first business venture - a general store including a bookshop specialising in the people of the Arctic and their environment.

It was around this time that he began writing. His books included a couple of works on the Inuit language but in 1977, a chance conversation with a friend in northern Greenland alerted him to the story of Minik.

"I knew that a great injustice had been done," he says. "I knew I had come across a great story that was begging to be told, and I also hoped that by telling it I could achieve for Minik what he was unable to achieve in his own life - that is, getting his father's skeletal remains out of the Museum of Natural History in New York, and buried."

The research and writing took about eight years and he became obsessed with tracking down every detail of the story. He published Give Me My Father's Body himself in 1986. Over the following decade he sold some 9,000 copies, mostly in his own store.

Since then the book has been republished in the United States and the actor Kevin Spacey, who agreed to write the foreword, has an option on film rights.

Encouraged by this success, Harper is working on another true Inuit story, about a man and wife who accompanied the American explorer Charles Francis Hall on his three Arctic expeditions in the 1860s, as guides and interpreters.

The most public recognition of Harper's interest in the Inuit and their future was his appointment to the federal commission advising the Canadian government on the creation of Nunavut, one of the regions formed by the 1999 division of the old Northwest Territories. He was the only non-Inuit person appointed to the commission.

But with high unemployment, a high cost of living and the almost complete disappearance of their traditional nomadic way of life, the future of the Inuit people is unpredictable. The new Nunavut government is developing opportunities including fishing, oil and gas, hunting and tourism, but there is no quick fix. Harper says: "You cannot send people back to snow houses and a hunting culture. It is too late for that."

Harper now lives in Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut.

Geoff Watts

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