Tales from the Torngats: A Leg 6 blog

by Samia Madwar

I almost skipped the helicopter ride. As part of the day’s activities, which included a live concert on a beach along Ramah Bay in Torngats National Park, featuring some hauntingly beautiful collaborations between the Twin Flames, Mike Stevens, Madeleine Allakariallak, Sylvia Cloutier, and Rose Cousins, Canada C3 participants were given the opportunity to fly to a chert quarry by chopper.

I wasn’t terribly interested in that option at first, but thank goodness for FOMO, because that little side activity delivered one the most important lessons I learned today. First, some context: Ramah Bay is one of only two places in the world where a certain type of chert can be found. For thousands of years, the Inuit, Dorset, and Pre-Dorset travelled along the coast of what is now Torngats National Park to collect the nearly translucent rock. The material’s flakiness made it relatively easy to sharpen into arrowheads and other tools, and chert products can be found as far away as Greenland, indicating that it was likely a heavily traded material.

But before Parks Canada ranger Martin Lougheed began his presentation on chert, he firmly asked us not to move any stones out of place and to avoid altering the landscape as we walked around. In Canada’s national parks, it’s illegal to pick vegetation or take away rocks, shells, or other natural trinkets. And, as Lougheed explained it, it’s also a matter of preserving the history that brought each stone to the place where it lies today.

As I listened, I had a flashback to a family trip from when I was 10 years old. I lived in Syria at the time—it’s one of the places I call home—and was lucky enough to visit a spot along the banks of the Euphrates River, where archeologists were excavating what they estimated to be an 11,000-year-old site. I remember the mud huts and the artifacts they showed us, particularly the arrowheads. As I walked around the site, I picked up what I thought might be arrowheads, then tossed them back—but not before I’d pocketed a few. I didn’t know any better. But even if I did, it might not have mattered much. I later learned I would be one of the last people to ever access the site. Soon after, it was flooded by Lake Assad, the reservoir of a nearby dam. It was one of several incidents that over the years convinced me that one of Syrian society’s greatest failings—one that I believe contributed to its ongoing war—was its disconnect from its own history. In losing sites like Abu Hureyra, Syrians lost a piece of their identity.

It’s encouraging to see Nunatsiavut set a far better example. Over the past few days on Leg 6, we visited the partly restored Moravian church in Hebron, one of the Labrador communities whose populations were forcibly relocated in 1959. We learned about how the national park, in collaboration with the Nunatsiavut Government, aims to make the site of the abandoned town accessible to all Labrador Inuit who wish to visit it. We learned about the revival of throat singing and drum dancing, two of the art forms prohibited by the church and by residential schools. And we were reminded, several times, of the importance of leaving the land intact, as Inuit had for thousands of years.

So what might appear to be trivial to a modern-day visitor—the act of removing one rock from a giant quarry, for example—is just as crucial to preserving cultural identity as passing along oral histories and reviving ancient art forms. Funnily enough, it took a helicopter to the top of a mountain to provide me with a new perspective, and I’m grateful for the experience.