RecensionsBook reviews

DAVELUY, Michelle, 2009 Roundtrip: The Inuit Crew of the Jean Revillon, Edmonton, CCI Press, 120 pages.

  • Francis Lévesque

…more information

  • Francis Lévesque
    Chaire sur le développement durable du Nord, Université Laval, Pavillon De Koninck, Québec, Québec G1V 0A6, Canada
    francis.levesque@ciera.ulaval.ca

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Roundtrip: The Inuit Crew of the Jean Revillon tells the story of Lionel Angutinguaq, Athanasie Angutitaq, Louis Taapatai, and Savikataaq, four Inuit men from the Canadian Central Arctic hired by the Revillon Frères fur trade company in 1925 to bring the supply ship Jean Revillon back to its hauling station in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. The book contains 56 figures (colour and black-and-white pictures, reproductions of newspaper articles, and maps) as well as many transcriptions of newspaper articles and book extracts.

Chapter one presents the genesis of Roundtrip. In 1998, Peter Irniq—who was visiting St. Mary’s University as one of four delegates of the Nunavut Department of Culture, Languages, Elders and Youth (CLEY)—told the author that his father, Athanasie Angutitaq, had visited Nova Scotia in 1925. Curious, he wondered whether there was a way to document his voyage. The author agreed to help him and embarked on a decade-long adventure that took her to Shelburne (Nova Scotia), Baker Lake (Nunavut), and Paris (France), where Revillon Frères kept its archives until recently.

Chapter two chronicles the four-month voyage of the Jean Revillon from Baker Lake to Shelburne. The chapter also pays attention to the six-day stay by the four Inuit in Shelburne and attempts to describe their journey back to the Arctic the next summer, an almost impossible task considering the lack of written and oral records. This chapter also introduces the story of Revillon Frères and its precarious financial situation in 1925 (a year later, the company would sell 51% of its shares to its rival, the Hudson’s Bay Company).

Chapter three returns to Peter Irniq’s initial visit to St. Mary’s in 1998. Among the four Inuit he was travelling with was David Owingayak, the son of Savikataaq, another Inuit crew member of the Jean Revillon. The chapter depicts how both Irniq and Owingayak travelled to Shelburne, went to the local museum and were met there by the curator, who had organised an exhibit in town about their fathers’ visit. They also met Mary Archibald, the daughter of John Alfred Weingart, who had built the Jean Revillon in 1923.

Chapter four describes the outcomes of the joint endeavour between the author and the Inuit. To illustrate the importance of this collaboration, the author uses the example of NunaScotia, a summer program based at St. Mary’s University and designed to help Inuit high school students to graduate and get ready for higher education. The author explains how, in 1998 and 1999, the story of the Jean Revillon was used in NunaScotia’s curriculum. Students had to complete some research activities in newspapers published during the visit of the Inuit to Shelburne in 1925. “For the students,” Daveluy writes, “it provided a very practical research opportunity on a topic to which they could relate” (p. 73). More importantly, the students’ “involvement gave a completely different meaning to Roundtrip. For a long time, our work had been about places when it needed to be about people” (p. 76).

The last chapter relates how the author assumed, at the beginning of the project, that this story was one of exploitation. She thought that Lionel Angutinguaq, Athanasie Angutitaq, Louis Taapatai, and Savikataaq had been coerced into sailing the ship and that they had suffered during their voyage. She realised along the way that this was unlikely and that the four of them might have been eager to meet the challenge of sailing a 125-ton supply ship during four months to its southern hauling station to expand their own economic base and increase their influence in their respective communities.

Roundtrip is not a history book per se. Only one of its five chapters describes the events from which the title of the book is drawn. The other four focus on the collaborative research and its outcomes. This kind of research has now become the norm in Arctic anthropology and history, for ethical and funding reasons. Yet very few books describe the researcher/researchee relationship in a more dynamic, thoughtful, and thorough manner. Some do, but limit such details to the introduction or conclusion. Roundtrip is all about collaborative research, from the first to the last page. This is where the book is most successful.

Ironically, this success is problematic because Roundtrip’s main objective is to reconstruct the accurate story of what happened to Lionel Angutinguaq, Athanasie Angutitaq, Louis Taapatai, and Savikataaq. The book itself is not so much about the voyage they undertook in 1925 as it is about the process of documenting what took place. There is nothing wrong with wanting to emphasise the collaborative research (quite the contrary, actually). At times, however, Roundtrip feels like its main objective and its title are at odds with its actual content.

Roundtrip, despite its claim to the contrary, is not so much about people who were part of the story as it is about the events they went through. There is little information in the book about the four Inuit men. This is unfortunate because they were not only the ones who sailed to Nova Scotia but also the ones who brought the story back to the Arctic and first told it to their relatives and friends. It has been shown that for the Inuit of the Central Arctic, “the truth of a statement stems more from the authority of an elder than from reality itself” (Laugrand 2002: 109, my translation). It would have been interesting to know what kind of influence they had in their own communities, what role they played, how they were seen by others, and so on. The author chooses to avoid the subject altogether by claiming that “credibility is attributed to the story itself, not the storyteller” (p. 4).

Roundtrip also suffers from lack of discussion about the meanings associated with this story in the Arctic (as well as in Nova Scotia). Under what circumstances was the story told? By whom? When? Did it have different meanings to different people? Did different people tell different versions? If so, were those differences meaningful? And, if so, in what way? And so on. Julie Cruikshank (1998) has shown how the context deeply influences the meaning of a story. She has also shown how, by understanding the meanings people attribute to stories, it is possible to get a better understanding of how they conceive themselves in their world (Cruikshank 1998). Daveluy agrees that stories always have meanings (p. 4) but chooses not to acknowledge or analyse them. This is somewhat unfortunate because people build their understanding of the world not on accurate historical facts but on the meanings they attribute to them.

Roundtrip should be considered for what it is: a book that tells a compelling story about four Inuit men who decided to embark on an adventure into the unknown, as well as an excellent description of successful collaborative research between academia and the Inuit. Despite its shortcomings, Roundtrip shows that successful, productive, and legitimate collaborative research is possible and even attainable in the Arctic. And for this reason, the book is worth a look.

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