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Compelling Inuit tale underplayed in polite doc

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Arctic Defenders tells the story of Inuit families routinely shuffled throughout the North by  the Canadian  government.

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Arctic Defenders tells the story of Inuit families routinely shuffled throughout the North by the Canadian government.

In the opening minutes of this doc about the formation of Nunavut, writer-director-narrator John Walker scores points for hilarity with his references to sleep-inducing '50s and '60s-era National Film Board documentaries about "Eskimo" life.

Walker's focus is on the radicalization of the Inuit people in subsequent decades, yet his film too is a tad soporific in its earnestness and relentless good intentions.

Part of the problem is the film inserts abundant autobiographical material in which Walker recalls being fascinated by an Inuit carving his dad installed in their Montreal home. This led to the teenage Walker's trip to Resolute Bay in 1968, when he finally got to realize his ambition to meet a carver (and inadvertently supply this doc with abundant illustrative stills). It also initiated a reconsideration of the simple, friendly, happy Eskimo people he had heard about in those school films.

Walker offers a closer look, telling the story of Inuit families routinely shuffled throughout the North like chess pieces by a Canadian government primarily concerned with establishing a Canadian presence in territory vulnerable to foreign interlopers.

There is stuff here to boil the blood. Whole families, including young children, were shipped to remote RCMP detachments with the understanding they were to help the police survive. The Canadian government sponsored a wide-scale slaughter of sled dogs to curb the Inuit's migrant tendencies. The culture was eroded. Communities were blighted by suicide.

The triumph of the story was an Inuit leadership, demonstrating the preternatural patience of the traditional Inuit hunter, negotiating for rights and, ultimately, the formation of Nunavut over decades of bargaining with the Canadian government, all without so much as a threat of violence.

The story is compelling, even epic, but Walker's style is so underplayed and polite and Canadian, dammit, as to deprive it of its proper level of potency.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2014 D6

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