We were so honoured to visit Hebron, a former Inuit community and national historic site in northern Labrador. The community was greatly influenced by the Moravian church, which first established a mission there in 1831. In 1959, the provincial government and the Moravian mission decided to close their buildings in Hebron, forcing the community members to relocate further south. This was very traumatic for the people of Hebron. Today, community members and Parks Canada are working to restore the site. We spoke to some of the people who know Hebron well to learn more about why this place is so culturally significant to them.
Sophie Keelan was born in Hebron and was relocated to Makkovik with her family when she was 11 years old. In this photo, she stands in the Inuit graveyard where some of her family members are buried. Many of them have no headstone or name plates.
“At the time we just went along with our parents, we were kids and we couldn’t talk back. They just relocated us against our will. It was a bad experience for us. Women were crying on the ship, families were being separated. For many years, I was very mad at the government. After the apology, in 1999 when the prime minister came here, that’s when I tried to feel settled. We can’t rewind the years, we just have to keep going and living. I have a good feeling when I come back now. It’s very happy but mixed emotions.”
Levi Noah Nochasak was born in Hebron and was two years old when his family was forced to move to Nain. He loves coming back to Hebron.
“In Nain too many people are hunting in the same area. The further North you go, the more you are on your own, the more you hunt the way you want, peacefully. The animal is not so frightened from the sound of planes and snowmobiles. Hebron is where people want to hunt because there are less people. We come by ocean, shore, or inland. And I pass that on to my son; I teach him the land.”
Caitlyn Baikie’s family had lived in Hebron for generations. Her aunt and uncle, who are still alive today, were born in Hebron and her great-great-grandmother lived in the house she stands in front of in this photo. The first time she visited was when she was 11 years old and she travelled with her father and some friends and family over two days by snowmobile to get there.
“Now when I go back I wonder what my life would have been like if I would have grown up there. I am lucky to have the life I have now, but I can’t imagine how grateful I would be if I had that life. My family talks about Hebron often. Whenever I go visit my grandmother, she talks about Hebron in a very positive way, how much she loved it, and what life was like for her there.”
To keep the history of Hebron alive, community members and Parks Canada are now working on restoring buildings like the Moravian church. This has helped some people from Hebron come back to the place they were born.
Gustav Semigak was 3 years old when his family was relocated from Hebron to Hopedale in 1959. His parents told him that none of the families wanted to move, and that they were told about the relocation in the church, where people were not allowed to speak or give their input. He now works in Hebron from June–September as a construction worker.
“I’m really proud of myself to be doing the reconstruction of the place where I was baptized. There are times when I wished that people could come back here to live, but I don’t think that could happen. Every time I come back here I feel like I’m home.”
Johannes Semigak was born in Hopedale and remembers many stories from his father Gustav about the relocation. He was told that his father was promised that their house would be moved with them, but it never came. This is his first time in Hebron and he is proud to be working with his father on the reconstruction of their family’s house and the church.
“It touched my heart when I seen the land. When I came here, it was very emotional. I was happy to be here because my father was born here. I love it. I want to stay here all year round. My father is renovating the house where he was born.”
In 2005, former Premier Danny Williams apologized to the people of Hebron on behalf of the government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Newfoundlanders and Labradorians value a society of equality and justice. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, on behalf of the citizens of the province, recognizes that, in the past, it made mistakes in its treatment of the Inuit of Labrador. It is willing to learn from the past and to find ways to heal the negative impact that historical decisions and actions continue to have for certain Labrador Inuit today,” the apology read.
Natan Obed is the President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national representational organization for Canada’s 60,000 Inuit. We asked him why he thinks it is important for Canadians to learn about Hebron.
“We Inuit have a long history of trying to achieve self-determination, and it’s up to all Canadians to be with us on this journey because we have been with Canada and Britain and Germany, and have been welcoming, and tried to make it work as best we can over the last 250 years with colonial occupation. But now it’s time for Canada to make it work with its Indigenous peoples.”