Experts Confront Postwar Poverty, or How Good People Do Bad Things

Tina Loo

Figure 1: Padlei [in the Keewatin region], 1950. Credit: Richard Harrington / Library and Archives Canada / PA-177219.

The Northern Affairs Officers who live and work with the people of the Keewatin have no promise and little hope that tomorrow will bring an opportunity for work and self-dependence for all the Eskimo people of that region. If the problem does not seem capable of immediate solution, it is no reflection on them; we have been impressed with the serious and constant concern they show for the future of the Eskimo people with whom they live. The problem of Keewatin is one Canada may not yet know how to deal with, for we have not experienced one quite like it before.

Donald Snowden, Chief, Industrial Division, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, 1963[1]

“We tried hard but we don’t have the answers.”

That’s essentially what Donald Snowden was saying. His admission isn’t one we might expect to find at the start of an expert report recommending ways to improve the standard of living in the Keewatin region of the central Arctic. Those recommendations included forced relocation, something that had been tried multiple times in the region before – with tragic consequences.[2]

Figure 2: Map of the Keewatin District. Credit: Eric Leinberger.

His open acknowledgement of the intractability of the problem of poverty and development is striking. It contrasts with the confidence we’ve come to associate with the bureaucrats and experts engaged in what anthropologist James C. Scott calls “high modernist schemes to improve the human condition.”[3]

The resignation and distress that colour Snowden’s remarks point to what we might think of as the emotional history of high modernist expertise.[4] Emotions – in this case those of the experts and bureaucrats who designed, implemented, and oversaw forced relocations – need to be taken seriously if we’re to understand the motives behind the exercise of state power. In doing so, I’m not drawing an equivalency between the agents and victims of state power. Instead, I’m contextualizing the actions of the former. Emotions were part of that context, and excavating them is part of a project aimed at understanding, not justifying, the inhumanity that often resulted from policies and actions that the state and its agents – then as well as now – believed were humanitarian.

Forced relocations were one of the many postwar projects of improvement undertaken by the Canadian state that failed to deliver fully, or even partially, on their promise of upliftment. Indeed, such projects often did irreparable harm to the places and the peoples they were supposed to help. And in the case of the Keewatin Inuit, forced relocation killed. In the first move, which saw forty-seven Inuit moved from Ennadai Lake to Nueltin Lake in 1950, Mary Anautalik recalled that four elders died as a result of a lack of food and shelter in what was supposed to be an area rich in resources. The group walked back to Ennadai, only to be moved again in 1957 to Henik Lake. That move led to the deaths of several more Inuit, both from starvation and the violent conflict that resulted from it. In the wake of these disastrous consequences, in 1958 Northern Affairs moved the survivors a third time to settlements on the west coast of Hudson Bay.[5]

As historian Priya Satia observes in her study of the British empire, the modern period is especially notable not only for the number of such schemes, but also for the fact that they were carried out by individuals who were convinced they were doing good and that they had the responsibility to do so.[6] In Canada, people like Donald Snowden and his colleague on the ground in Keewatin, Robert Williamson, could be counted among their ranks. Explaining why he left his job at the National Museum in Ottawa for a posting as welfare officer in Rankin Inlet, Williamson, an “Eskimologist,” insisted “there was so much to be done that one could not sit, eyes cast to the ceiling, finger-tips together, thinking only abstractly. One had to respond to one’s responsibility to make use of one’s knowledge.”[7]

“How,” Satia asks, “did such avowedly good people do bad things?”[8] The answer, I think, lies at least partly in examining their emotions. My sense is that at least some of Snowden’s distress was rooted in the expert report he so gloomily introduced. In it, resource economists D.M. Brack and D. McIntosh outlined a neo-Malthusian case that the population of Keewatin would out-strip the area’s resources and consign Inuit to poverty. Asserting that “the key variable in the future of Keewatin is the population growth,” they reported that “there is a minor population explosion taking place.”[9] The prospects were dire: “[s]ometime within the next ten years, it seems highly likely that the renewable resources barrier will have been passed.” Relocation was one of the few ways to avert disaster.[10]

Figure 3. As a prelude to relocating Inuit, Brack and McIntosh carried out a settlement-by-settlement census of Keewatin communities and their country food resources in order to determine which were over-populated and which were under-populated. From their Keewatin Mainland Area Economic Survey and Regional Appraisal (Ottawa: Projects Section, Industrial Division, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, 1963), 62.

Such ideas were influential between the 1940s and 1960s, popularized by Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968). Preventing detonation was a matter of population control. In the central Arctic, Brack and McIntosh recommended it be achieved through forced relocation. Along with regulating women’s reproduction or restricting immigration, moving people could also achieve the kind of balance between resources and population that would avoid the kinds of crises imagined by neo-Malthusians.[11]

Yet for all their reductionist abstraction in seeing country food as calories and people as moveable populations, Brack and McIntosh also recognized the limits of such analyses. For them, a strictly neo-Malthusian approach failed to distinguish between a region’s ability to feed a population and what was required for people to live “with some prospect of social and economic progress.”[12]

Achieving that would require more state intervention to facilitate individual and structural change. Specifically, in their view, progress depended on having a literate, formally-educated population trained for wage work and imbued with a recognizable work ethic. The Keewatin Inuit weren’t just any population; they were people government experts had deemed not-yet-fit for modern life. In addition to transforming individuals’ capacities, Brack and McIntosh argued there had to be a mechanism for generating and keeping capital in Keewatin’s communities. As it stood, private traders from the south profited from Inuit spending, removing capital from a region whose peoples had “a moral right to it.”[13]

But individual and structural change would take time, and Keewatin, with its growing population, was running out of it. These circumstances must have made moving people seem like a feasible and faster solution. Fearful of a neo-Malthusian crash, Brack and McIntosh proposed relocation and suggested Northern Affairs study the possibility of moving “a small number” of Inuit families to southern Canada.[14] It was an old idea, and one, as I noted, Northern Affairs had tried before with no success. Donald Snowden would have been well aware of this – something that likely explains the frustration, distress, and resignation apparent in his introduction to their report.

Taking the anxiety, uncertainty, and urgency of the state’s agents seriously gives us different insights into the motivations behind forced relocation. As much as it was a welfare and development measure, as I argued in my last book, it was also a form of population control and a reaction to a perceived crisis. What happened in the central Arctic wasn’t unique in Canada: the same urgency born of neo-Malthusian concerns was also visible in some assessments of Newfoundland’s poverty, and provided a rationale not just for resettlement within the province but, in one economist’s view, for depopulating it via state-sponsored out-migration.[15]

As several historians have argued, emotions did material work – the work of empire and settler colonialism.[16] In certain regions of Canada, emotions and, specifically, fear, led experts and federal government bureaucrats to take desperate measures, to see moving people as a viable, even ethical, solution to poverty. Exploring the emotional history of development schemes and the constraints – imagined and felt – under which those who designed them worked are an important context within which to understand the exercise of state power and the violence of good intentions.

Tina Loo is a professor of history at the University of British Columbia. Thanks to Laura Madokoro, David Meren, Suzanne Morton, and Shirley Tillotson for helping think through some of the ideas in this post, which began as a contribution to the 2021 Canadian Historical Association’s Roundtable on Forced Migrations.

[1] Donald Snowden, “Foreword,” D.M. Brack and D. McIntosh, Keewatin Mainland Area Economic Survey and Regional Appraisal (Ottawa: Projects Section, Industrial Division, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, 1963), iv.

[2] See Frank J. Tester and Peter Kulchyski, Tammarniit (Mistakes): Inuit relocation in the Eastern Arctic, 1939-63 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1994), Frédéric Laugrand, Jarich Oosten and David Serkoak, “‘The saddest time of my life’: relocating the Ahiarmiut from Ennadai Lake (1950–1958),” Polar Record 46, 2 (2010): 113-135, and Tina Loo, Moved by the State: Forced Relocation and Making a Good Life in Postwar Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2019).

[3] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Fail (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[4] There’s a literature, which I am just becoming familiar with, on emotions in international history that has been useful for me in thinking about the emotional history of high modernism. A key contributor is Frank Costigliola, who writes about the world of high diplomacy and diplomats. See his “‘I React Intensely to Everything’: Russia and the Frustrated Emotions of George F. Kennan, 1933-1958,” Journal of American History 102, 4 (2016): 1075-1101.

[5] See Laugrand et. al., “‘The saddest time of my life’,” 118 and generally. Tester and Kulchyski also discuss these relocations and their consequences, see their Tammarniit (Mistakes), Chapter 5. Farley Mowat’s accounts of the government’s dealing with the Keewatin Inuit are controversial, but his work was responsible for drawing attention to that part of the north and its peoples, and the deadly neglect of Northern Affairs. See his People of the Deer (London: Michael Joseph, 1952), The Desperate People (Boston: Little, Brown, 1959), and his “The Two Ordeals of Kikkik,” Maclean’s Magazine 31 January 1959.

[6] Priya Satia, Time’s Monster: History, Conscience, and Britain’s Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020), 5.

[7] Cited in Loo, Moved by the State, 38.

[8] Satia, Time’s Monster, 5.

[9] Brack and McIntosh, Keewatin Mainland Economic Survey, 135.

[10] Ibid, 137.

[11] Erika Dyck and Maureen K. Lux, Challenging Choices: Canada’s Population Control in the 1970s (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

[12] Brack and McIntosh, Keewatin Economic Survey, 111.

[13] Ibid, 134.

[14] Ibid, 145.

[15] Parzival Copes, The Resettlement of Fishing Communities in Newfoundland (Ottawa: Canadian Council on Rural Development, 1972).

[16] Again, this is a literature I’m just starting to familiarize myself with. See Tony Ballantyne, “Moving Texts and “Humane Sentiment”: Materiality, mobility and the emotions of imperial humanitarianism,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 17, 1 (2016); J.E. Lewis, “Empires of Sentiment, Intimacies from Death, David Livingstone and African Slavery ‘at the Heart of the Nation’,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 2015, 43, 2: 210-237; and Jane Lydon, Imperial Emotions: The Politics of Empathy across the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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One thought on “Experts Confront Postwar Poverty, or How Good People Do Bad Things

  1. Jared Milne

    This essay is a thoughtful one in itself, and I think the same line of thinking that motivated the modern-era bureaucrats could probably also be traced back to the creation of the residential school system.

    The feeling of an impending crisis facing people who were ‘unfit’ for the modern world, and who needed to be ‘trained’ in modern ways of living? The belief that the people the bureaucrats were planning for were doomed unless the bureaucrats did something, without really engaging the very people they thought they were helping? Long before Confederation, the missionaries and government officials that opened residential schools had many of the same thoughts about other Indigenous people as Snowden and his contemporaries did, and opened residential schools as the ‘solution’.

    Another parallel, of course, is the disastrous results that ensued.

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