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Book review: Life Among the Qallunaat, by Mini Aodla Freeman

cover-lifeReviewed by Marilyn Herbert

Today I’d like to highlight an Inuit author who has seen a lifetime of change in her own family and in Canada’s Inuit north. If you are not familiar with the Inuit word “qallunaat,” it literally translates as “those who pamper their eyebrows,” but figuratively refers to those who live in the south or in non-Inuit environments.

I have met and come to know many Qallunaat … and learned to be cautious with them. Some are nice and kind, but none want to see or understand my Native culture. Some don’t want to know, some don’t have time, some try but find it too deep to understand or accept. They all want to cover it up with their own ways. They always want me to be different, a novelty, and they refuse to see that I am a plain human being with feelings, aches, hatred, the desire to cheat, lie, love, adore, understanding, kindness, humanity, pain, joy, happiness, gratitude, and all the other things that every other being was capable of having, doing, thinking and acting. (p.219, 220)

Mini Aodla Freeman was born in 1936 in Canada’s north, in James Bay. Her memoir Life Among the Qallunaat, first published in 1978, is a glimpse into her life as an Inuk child within a hunting family. But it is bigger than that: It compares and contrasts her rural life with the urban life of Canada’s south.

Aodla Freeman and her family lived on the land, hunting and fishing and moving from winter lands to their summer lands. They were familiar with the Native Cree tribes and dealt with the Hudson’s Bay Company. She grew up in tents and was in for a major culture shock when she came to southern Ontario for the first time.

This was a time of cataclysmic change for the indigenous communities of the north. By the time she was in her early twenties, Aodla had lived in the north, travelled by canoe, learned nursing in Moose Factory, Ont., and became a translator in Ottawa. We see her extraordinary nomadic family life and we experience her loneliness at a residential school, in a tuberculosis hospital in Hamilton and her busy life in Ottawa, translating for native people in four languages.

MiniThe author is married to Milton Freeman, a renowned anthropologist who lived and worked in the north nearly all his early life. They have raised a family and currently live in Edmonton.

Life Among the Qallunaat is written in diary fashion with a great many sections, each representing a single event or story. In this, Aodla Freeman mimics the Inuit tradition of oral storytelling, where details are repeated so that they will be remembered. Storytelling is very meaningful and everyone is taught to memorize and retell stories. There was very little written language.

As a child, she lived with her father, grandparents, and brother, and we get to know them quite well. Equally, we are introduced to the various people, white and Indigenous, that she meets through the years. She is very open about her opinions and observations and she takes us with her into her unusual world.

Life Among the Qallunaat is a play on the title of another book: My Life Among the Eskimos: Baffinland Journeys of Bernard Adolph Hantzsch, 1909 to 1911. Mel Hurtig, first a bookstore owner, then a publisher, best known for the Canadian Encyclopedia and the Junior Canadian Encyclopedia, took on Aodla Freeman’s book and wanted to parallel the Hantzsch memoir.

Life Among the Qallunaat was published in 1978 and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s medal for literature, but then the book disappeared. It had been suppressed by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs because they were afraid that the book contained information criticizing the residential school system. It didn’t, but 20 years later, the University of Manitoba Press republished it in its original form.

The residential school system was established in 1880 by the Christian church in collaboration with the Canadian government to convert and integrate Indigenous children to Canadian society. The last residential school was closed in 1996. It was a terrible experiment that disrupted Indigenous family life, language, and culture.

The tone of the book reflects the writer’s upbringing and beliefs that life is to be experienced, not necessarily directed. Aodla Freeman is like a feather in the wind. “I am Inuk — I do not shape my future for my own gain. I let others shape it for me and learn to take whatever comes, good or bad.” (p.239)

Life Among the Qallunaat is an important book for every Canadian to read. It is a mirror that reflects a piece of both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures and history. It is also one of my favourite books this year. Please share your comments on this review both on our site and on Facebook.

Want to receive a $5 coupon for a Bookclub-in-a-Box PDF discussion guide? Just leave a comment below telling us what you thought of Life Among the Qallunaat, or why you want to read this book, and we’ll send you a coupon. Offer ends at 11:59 p.m. on August 4.


1 Comment

  1. Tricia Wettlaufer says:

    I’ve just ordered this book based on this review. My son’s partner has Cree background so my grandson does as well and I’m very interested in learning more about first nations life.

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