By Katie Kendall
In June 1960, photographer Rosemary Gilliat (later known as Rosemary Gilliat Eaton), along with journalist Barbara Hinds, travelled across the Arctic. Northern Affairs Canada and the National Film Board of Canada sponsored her journey. Her assignment in Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay, Nunavut), Kuujjuag (formerly Fort Chimo, Quebec), Kangiqsualujjuag (formerly George River, Quebec), Killiniq (formerly Port Burwell, Nunavut), and Cape Dorset (Nunavut), was to take photographs of life in the north. During this period, Gilliat kept an extensive diary of her travels, describing the people, places, ways of life, events, and even the flora and fauna she encountered.
As a practicum student at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) this term, I read the diary in full, taking note of important dates, people, places, and events. This will help improve the archival descriptions of Gilliat’s photographs in LAC’s collection. Many of the photos taken by Gilliat during this trip have been included as part of Project Naming, a LAC initiative that enables Indigenous peoples to engage in identifying the people, places, and activities in historical photos. Gilliat’s 455-page diary and many of her photos from the Arctic will be available for the public to help transcribe, tag and describe in our new and upcoming tool Co-Lab!
Gilliat’s diary describes many fascinating aspects of the Arctic in the summer of 1960, reflected in the almost-daily entries. Gilliat describes the landscape of the north in spectacular detail, and particularly focuses on the Arctic flowers at the start of her travels, when she had not yet made many acquaintances. Her occasional frustration with friend and travel companion Hinds is relatable, and her frequent photographic mishaps (for example, forgetting to carry film) are amusing. The snippets of news from the outside world provide the reader with a glimpse of life at that time. For example, Gilliat receives news about the ongoing space race—Russian dogs Belka and Strelka successfully orbit the Earth and return from space in August 1960—prompting Gilliat to muse on when the world will see the first human in space, which would happen less than a year later in April 1961. Gilliat also takes note of women’s roles in the north, referencing the second wave women’s movement of the 1960s.
Most importantly, Gilliat shares experiences with the Inuit of the communities she visits, accompanying members of the community while they fish for char, hunt for seals, and travel from one location to the next by boat or plane. Gilliat had a couple of near-death experiences travelling by boat through storms and ice, and was stranded a couple of times (once on an island for several days). In late August, she witnessed a beautiful polar bear swimming, only to realize that Eetuk, Isa, Sarpinak and Moshah, her Inuit companions, were going to kill it to provide food for their people. Gilliat’s expressive writing vividly explains her conflicting feelings on the event.
The hunting expeditions and tumultuous sailing events are thrilling, but the quiet moments between Gilliat and Inuit friends stand out. For example, in Cape Dorset, she meets Kingwatsiak, one of the oldest and most respected members of the community. Kingwatsiak invites Gilliat into his home and asks her to take a photograph of him. He also asks her to write a request on his behalf to Queen Elizabeth II. Kingwatsiak wishes for a photograph of her younger son, Prince Andrew, as his name (in English) is also Andrew. The letter is included in the diaries, and explains that he received a medal at the Queen’s coronation and travelled to Scotland as a young man and attended Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. He asks the Queen to deliver the photograph soon, as “I am now a very old man” and therefore may not have much time left.
Although much of the terminology and ways of thinking are outdated, Gilliat’s descriptive anecdotes and direct observations makes the diary a joy to read. She remains objective but eternally optimistic, describing what she sees but never letting it dampen her outlook on the beauty of the Arctic and the kindness and resolve of its people.
Katie Kendall was a practicum student (MA Art History, Carleton University) in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.