Eight Inuit hunters from the town of Iqaluit, died after their canoe capsized in the frigid waters off Frobisher Bay, near Baffin Island. Two others survived by clinging to the overturned hull for three days. Inuits from neighboring communities expressed their sorrow.
The 20,000 Inuit who live in tiny communities dotted along Canada’s expansive Arctic coastline share a common heritage, based on hunting and fishing in one of the most punishing climates on the planet. And so when tragedy strikes, as it did last week when eight Inuit walrus hunters from the Baffin Island community of Iqaluit drowned in the frigid waters of Frobisher Bay, the residents of the Arctic tend to grieve as one. Within hours of the news of the deaths, the Inuit of Grise Fiord, 1,500 km north of Iqaluit, held a church service in honor of the victims. The CBC radio station and newspaper in Iqaluit were flooded with calls and letters of sympathy from people throughout the Far North. Northwest Territories Government Leader Nellie Cournoyea, herself an Inuit from the western Arctic community of Aklavik, summed up the feeling: “The hearts of all northern residents go out to the friends and families of those lost in this horrible tragedy.”
Yet in the midst of the mourning, there was cause for celebration. Against all odds, two other members of the hunting party survived the ordeal. For nearly three days before they were spotted by an airborne rescue crew, Pitseola Alainga, 33, and Billy Kownirk, 27, floated helplessly atop the overturned hull of their capsized fishing boat. That they survived for so long amid the gale-force winds, blinding snow and choppy seas struck most observers as nothing short of miraculous. But for many of the Inuit elders, their fate was not so surprising. “It’s an age-old Inuit tradition that whenever there is a tragedy there are survivors who live on to tell the stories of what happened,” said one Iqaluit resident who asked not to be named because he was talking about the knowledge of the elders, not his own views.
From their hospital beds in Iqaluit, Alainga and Kownirk declined most media requests for interviews. But through interviews with rescue officials and with family and friends who visited the survivors last week, a picture began to emerge of how the tragedy unfolded. Led by Iqaluit elder Simonie Alainga father of Pitseola the 10 men left Iqaluit on Oct. 25 to hunt walruses near Loks Land, about 160 km to the southeast. The first sign of trouble came on the evening of Oct. 29 when the hunters, who were about 25 km offshore at the time, sent out a radio distress signal to a nearby outpost camp, saying that the engine and the pumps on their fishing boat had broken and they were taking on water. That message was later relayed to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax, which launched an exhaustive air search of the area.
After sending the distress signal, the hunters abandoned their boat for a 16-foot canoe they had brought along. The canoe then capsized, plunging them into the chilling waters. Kownirk, who was the only hunter wearing a survival suit, swam towards the hull of the fishing boat, with Pitseola Alainga clinging to him. They climbed aboard the hull where they huddled until being spotted by a Hercules aircraft on Nov. 1. Both men were conscious and talking, though their limbs were severely swollen. As for the others, they had disappeared into the murky waters without a trace, in a scene that Kownirk later described to his cousin, Levedee Attagoyuk, as “a nightmare.”
On Friday, the schools and offices in Iqaluit closed at noon to allow the town’s 3,500 residents to attend a public memorial service. And while tribute was paid to all of the victims, the death of Simonie Alainga a well-respected elder who taught many young Inuit traditional hunting skills hit particularly hard. As the survivors begin to pass on their stories, Alainga will no doubt continue to play a critical role.