Qapik Attagutsiak, last survivor of the Inuit collectors of bones to make Second World War munitions – obituary
Story by Telegraph Obituaries • 22h
Qapik Attagutsiak lights an oil lamp in her home in Arctic Bay, 2014 - Clare Kines© Provided by The Telegraph
Qapik Attagutsiak, who has died aged 103, was the last known survivor of the Inuit who contributed to the Second World War by collecting animal carcasses in the Arctic that were shipped to southern Canada to be made into munitions, aircraft glue and fertiliser.
She was born on June 11 1920 on the island of Siuraq, a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, in the vast territory of Nunavut. Her father, Quliktalik, was a hunter and her mother, Pakak, was a seamstress.
They lived nomadically all over the eastern Arctic. The winter was spent on the ice in igloos with walrus-intestine windows. In the spring, they moved to the land, in tents of hide. In the summer and early autumn, they would hunt caribou for clothing, living in a hut of sod, with a roof of hide and a porch made of clear panes of ice. At the age of 10, she began training as a midwife.
When a Catholic missionary informed them in 1940 that the world was at war, she recalled, “we were afraid that our husbands would be killed if they encountered [the enemy] who may jump from an airplane.” The missionary told them they should “shoot to kill” and “we must collect the bones as the army wants us Inuit to make something for smoke”. (The Inuit do not have a word for explosives.) This was part of the National Salvage Campaign, a patriotic appeal for Canadians to gather rags, rubber, paper, metals, fats and bones, which could be recycled into war materials.
At that time, the Inuit’s hunting and sled dogs were being ravaged by an unknown disease. Hunters who had once had between 12 to 14 dogs to pull their sleds were reduced to one or two.
Qapik Attagutsiak near her home in Arctic Bay - Parks Canada© Provided by The Telegraph
Qapik Attagutsiak put her one-year-old son in her amauti – a caribou parka with a baby pouch – and began picking up maggot-covered dog carcasses with her bare hands. She would fill up three government-supplied sacks per day, harvesting walrus and seal, as well as dog. The work was revolting, and a full sack weighed nearly 9 stone, but, she reasoned, “I suppose that it was worth it just as long as we win.”
Small schooners of the Hudson’s Bay Company then ferried the carcasses to a steamship, which took them to Montreal or Halifax for processing into cordite, aircraft glue and fertiliser. In total, millions of pounds of animal carcasses were collected across Canada, and several tons by the Inuit alone.
The thought of being paid for their work did not cross their minds. “They made smoke out of the bones that we gathered and [the Allies] won,” she said. “The Germans lost most of their people. We immediately stopped thinking about it.”
Her philosophy in life was: “We cannot give in. We cannot give up. We always have to think, if this situation is very hard, we can trudge ahead and help each other.”
Qapik Attagutsiak with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2019 - Shutterstock© Provided by The Telegraph
She continued to work as a seamstress and midwife, delivering hundreds of babies, helping to found the Akausivik Inuit Family Health Team in Ottawa, and advising academic studies on how to improve the health of Inuit who had relocated to cities. She was concerned to see a younger generation of Inuit “taking in substances that are not natural”, and expecting elders to visit them, rather than the other way around. Modern life meant that “I no longer know how to be in serenity,” she said.
In the town of Arctic Bay, she was the last resident to live in a traditional hut, heated with seal oil. Her neighbours delivered chiselled ice to her, which she melted for fresh water.
In 2012, she was given the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. In 2020, she was honoured as a representative of wartime efforts by the Inuit in a ceremony at the Canadian Museum of History.
She had 14 children with her husband Attagutsiak, a founding member of the Canadian Rangers. When he died in 1984, she adopted two more.
Qapik Attagutsiak, born June 11 1920, died December 14 2023