Labrador park is Canada's 'exquisite jewel'
SALLIKULUK, Labrador — Jarring, barren beauty looms all around a mass grave of Inuit who have hunted, fished and lived off this land for thousands of years.
The giant pile of rocks tells just one of the many stories of perseverance and pride, heartbreak and hope that live among these soaring mountains. It marks the spot where the remains of 113 Inuit were repatriated — many years after their ancient graves were excavated by outside researchers without warning or consent. Subsequent generations of Inuit — and the spirits said to haunt here — objected.
In August 1996, nearly three decades after the skeletons were removed by a Toronto paleontologist, native elders held a private, emotional ceremony for mass reburial.
The repatriation was one of the largest in Inuit history.
Gary Baikie, who helped bring the bones back and now works here at Torngat Mountains National Park, points to the sod houses, animal bones and ancient hunting tools scattered across Sallikuluk — also called Rose Island. It is customary to leave a bullet or a coin at an Inuit grave, but a growing number of visitors to the sacred ground has altered that practice.
"If we did that all the time, it would be a dump," Baikie says.
As Canada's 42nd national park, every inch of Torngat will now be subject to the highest standards of archeological, historical and ecological protection. The designation came after decades of official wrangling over aboriginal land claims and boundaries.
Inuit have inhabited this land for thousands of years, yet the vast wilderness remains rugged and unspoiled.
Visitors are awestruck by diverse, dramatic and quick-changing terrain and seascape. Eyes must make a fast decision on whether to train on the polar bears ambling along the shore or to glance over and admire a grand luminescent iceberg floating nearby.
Torngat has turquoise shoreline, brightly-coloured blue bays and magnificent snaking valleys. It has deep fjords, stark plunging cliffs and the highest peaks east of the Rockies.
Today, fluffy clouds decorate clear, brilliant skies and soft rippling water glistens from the sunshine.
Tomorrow, the mood might change abruptly, offering bitter brisk winds, choppy water and an ominous grey sky.
Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice, an avid outdoorsman who oversees Parks Canada, scans the panoramic view from atop a mountain 4,000 feet high and marvels at the beauty. He calls this an "exquisite jewel" in Canada's park system — even more precious because it is so pristine and untouched.
"It is still part of the great adventure, building the country," he says.
Parks Canada has been undergoing a "renaissance" in recent years. The national system has expanded by roughly one third, and ramped-up efforts are attracting more visitors through marketing campaigns and investments to improve park infrastructure.
It's part of a new vision to protect national parks for Canadians, instead of from Canadians, Prentice says. He has visited about half of Canada's national parks, but calls Torngat, one of the newest additions, "unsurpassed."
"It may well be the most beautiful and diverse park in the entire system - it is absolutely spectacular," he says. "I think the challenge very quickly is going to turn to how to manage the people who are coming. It is such an extraordinarily beautiful, mountainous, adventurous part of North America that once people see it in Canadian Geographic and National Geographic and see it on their television set, people are going to start to come here to take advantage of some of the incredible experiences there are."
Prentice sees potential for science, adventure, education and eco-tourism. One of the first hurdles is the park's relatively remote location, which makes it challenging and costly to reach. It is accessible only by charter boat, cruise line or helicopter in the warmer months or snowmobile in the winter. The Arctic weather is harsh much of the year, and dangerous wildlife don't always welcome human visitors even at the best of times.
"An encounter with eight polar bears and one unprepared hiker would be a disaster," Prentice notes.
New arrivals to the park are required to register and take in a mandatory briefing that includes polar bear safety training. Those venturing off the base camp - secured by an alarmed electric fence — are encouraged to enlist an armed Inuit bear guard.
Prentice hopes the park will develop in a way that ensures the Inuit serve not only as guards but as educators and stewards, sharing their great history and deep connection with the land with fellow Canadians and international guests.
"These are the people who have lived off this land, protected it and nurtured it since time immemorial. And now, in a sense that carries on," he says. "That carries on in the context of the building of the country and the setting aside these lands as part of our national parks system."
Torngat Mountains National Park stretches about 10,000 square kilometres, straddling the Quebec border to the west with the Labrador Sea licking at the east. The base camp offers tents and modest amenities about six weeks in the summer, serving mostly researchers, summer students and tourists who arrive by cruise line, boat or aircraft. More permanent expanded facilities are now under construction.
Alan Latourelle, CEO of Parks Canada, sees opportunities to develop other small base camps in strategic locations through the park, but stresses the need to minimize the human footprint on the land. It is critical not just to preserve the environment and culturally sensitive areas, but also to ensure Inuit leadership and interests trump any commercial ones.
"I see this park as being a shining example internationally of how to establish a national park working with aboriginal communities — meaningfully engaging them and maintaining the cultural aspect of the landscape as part of the parks management," Latourelle says.
Inuit fish, hunt and gather berries on the land and water, teaming with polar and black bear, caribou, char and a variety of birds. Bennett Barbour and Eli Merkuratsuk, Inuit bear guards, say it gives them a sense of peace and pride to reconnect with their ancestors and the land.
Johannes Lampe, the minister of culture, recreation and tourism for the Nunatsiavut government, says the park also holds fresh hope for area Inuit who have suffered a legacy of despair, depression and addiction.
He was only nine months old when his family and others were forced to relocate from their homes in Nutak. Hebron - another community settled by European missionaries - was also closed three years later in 1959 with devastating social consequences still felt today.
"We need to show them this is their history. It is their ancestors who lived here and survived for thousands of years - it will give the young people the message that we are survivors, and that life is worth living," he said. "When we bring our children to these places where their ancestors lived, there is a spirit of healing."
Lampe also hopes the park, the Labrador Inuit's "gift" to Canada, will educate others about Inuit culture and yield employment and economic opportunities for future generations.
John Crosbie, lieutenant-general of Newfoundland and Labrador, called it "astounding" to ponder the hardy past generations enduring such hostile conditions. He predicts the park will be "inundated" with visitors once word gets out about its rich cultural stories and stunning beauty.
"The fact that cruise ships are already beginning to call in here is evidence places like this are going to do well in the future," he says.
Angus Simpson has worked in Canada's most spectacular national parks in the east, west and north, but he says none holds a candle to Torngat.
"It's a place that is so much larger than we are, and it inspires us with its grandeur. More than that, it's the people and the incredibly rich layers of human history that enhance the very spiritual experience you get from the land," he says. "They say the North gets into your blood. Torngat gets into your soul."