Reindeer in Canada

In the early 1900s, the introduction of reindeer to Canada was seen as a possible way of supplying food and bringing an economic boost to remote northern areas of the country. This animal had been domesticated in many other northern nations and had played an important role in sustaining the population. While reindeer meat, milk and other bi-products such as hides and horns can provide resources vital to life, these animals are also strong—packing or pulling heavy loads great distances. As well, they are naturally adapted to the northern climate and environment.

Black-and-white photograph of a photo album collage. There are five photographs showing reindeer pulling sleds of various kinds, with people in the background. The pictures are labelled and some of the people are identified.

Reindeer have been used as draught animals for hundreds of years. Here we see herders with reindeer harnessed to sleds possibly on Richards Islands, N.W.T., circa 1942 (MIKAN 4326743)

Several efforts to introduce reindeer to Newfoundland and Baffin Island had early success but the most successful example was the Alaskan experiment. The American government, urged on by missionary groups, purchased 1,200 Siberian reindeer from Russia between 1892 and 1902. Another small herd was bought in Norway and shipped to Alaska, along with a group of Lapp herders and their families, hired to manage the animals and train the local indigenous population to become herders.

Canada’s government began to study the results of the American experiment. A Royal Commission on reindeer and musk-ox was appointed in 1919. The dramatic growth of the Alaskan herd was impressive, several hundred thousand deer, spread across a hundred herds, with several hundred local indigenous owners and herders engaged in the enterprise. Fresh meat was now available for local consumption, and sold to the southern states for profit.

Black-and-white photograph of a photo album collage. Four photographs showing reindeer carcasses and skins drying.

Reindeer meat drying on racks and being lifted on a hoist (possibly Elephant Point, Alaska and Richards Island, N.W.T., 1938 (MIKAN 4326727)

Many groups pressed the Canadian government for action, resulting in plans to purchase an Alaskan herd and move it to a suitable site in the Northwest Territories. Two Interior Department botanists searched for a location with good grazing, recommending a headquarters be established (to become known as Reindeer Station) east of the Mackenzie River delta. A contract was signed with the Loman Bros. Company for purchase and delivery of 3,515 animals at a price of $150 a head. The reindeer drive was expected to take 18 months and cover 1,500 miles but incredibly it took five years and travelled twice the distance. In March 1935, Andy Bahr and his crew delivered 2,370 reindeer. Shortly afterwards, 811 fawns were born, bringing the final total close to the initial target number.

Black-and-white photograph of a photo album collage. Four photographs showing reindeer herds. Some photographs are taken from afar, others are close-ups of the herd.

Reindeer herds on a summer range and in a corral, probably in Kidluit Bay, Richards Island, N.W.T., 1941(MIKAN 4326736)

The early success was followed by a series of setbacks, culminating in the death of four Inuit owners and a Lapp trainer in a boating accident in 1944. It became more difficult to interest traditional Inuit hunters to abandon their customary lifestyle for the often lonely and monotonous life of a herder. Months of effort could be overturned in a moment as storms or predators could cause a stampede resulting in the loss of many animals.

Black-and-white photograph of a group of men standing around a small reindeer chute and pen.

Inuit were original owners and employees of the first reindeer enterprises in Kidluit Bay, N.W.T. (MIKAN 3406119)

As with the other Canadian experiments, the Reindeer Project did not achieve the success of Alaska’s venture. The herds under Inuit control were passed back to government control and the Canadian Wildlife Service administered the operation until 1974, at which time it was sold to a private owner, Canadian Reindeer Ltd., and remains a private operation today. Although the ambitions of early advocates have not been achieved, the efforts form an interesting piece of Canada’s northern history.

Related resources

There are hundreds of documents and photographs held in the Library and Archives Canada collections which reveal much more detail about the reindeer experiment in Canada. You can have a look at some of them by searching the following sources:

Government sources

Prime Ministers’ papers

Private papers

Reconnecting families through digitization

As part of Project Naming, a community engagement and photo identification project that aims to reconnect Inuit and their past, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has undertaken the digitization of a series of photographs from the Indian and Northern Affairs Collection. These albums have been the starting point of a great story regarding a family from Nunavut.

In this collection, are a number of images of the Weetaltuk family taken during the summer of 1949 on the Cape Hope Islands in Nunavut. The original captions accompanying the photographs provided basic details. Fortunately, the database records for these images are now more complete after several family members contacted LAC to provide the names of relatives and other relevant information about these pictures. Most importantly, they were able to correct the Weetaltuk surname, as well as community names that had been incorrectly recorded. From the original captions, we knew that George Weetaltuk was a community leader, a skilled hunter and an expert boat builder. His family members explained the detailed process that George followed in creating his boats, as seen in this photograph of him with his son, William, and his adopted son, Simon Aodla, constructing an 11.58 metre (38-foot) boat.

Another record that the Weetaltuk family was able to correct was this group photograph taken in front of a log cabin. The caption states that this picture was taken on Cape Hope Islands. We now know that the picture was probably taken on nearby Charlton Island, James Bay, where for many years, George and his family resided while he was employed seasonally by the Hudson’s Bay Company. In addition to this information, the family was also able to identify five of the people in the photograph, and provide genealogical connections.

Weetaltuk family photograph. Back row: Adla (far left), married to William, George’s oldest son (2nd from left),  George Weetaltuk (centre) and his first wife, Ugugak (4th from left). Front row: George’s sons Alaku (far left) and Tommy (sitting on the ground). (PA-099605)

Weetaltuk family photograph. Back row: Adla (far left), married to William, George’s oldest son (2nd from left), George Weetaltuk (centre) and his first wife, Ugugak (4th from left). Front row: George’s sons Alaku (far left) and Tommy (sitting on the ground). (PA-099605) Source

In addition, another of George’s sons, Edward, was a member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He was the first Canadian Inuk to serve in military combat with the Canadian Army during the Korean War. Following his 15 years of service, he began writing his life story. According to a news article, Edward (Eddy) Weetaltuk “wanted to show young Inuit that education was important and that Inuit can become anything they want and even become famous, if that’s what they want.” (Nunatsiaq Online, July 16, 2009)

Although Eddy started writing E9-422: Un Inuit, de la toundra à la guerre de Corée in 1974 (in French only), it was not published until 2009 only a few days before his death.

Through these family connections and dialogue with the community, our photographic collections are constantly improved and enriched for future generations.

For more information about Project Naming, read our Blog article, published on May 9, 2013, and listen to our Project Naming and Canada’s North podcast.

Project Naming: The first ten years and beyond

Initiated in 2002, Project Naming is a community engagement and photo identification project that aims to reconnect Inuit with their past by identifying the people and events portrayed in photographs held at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). We have added the names of individuals and descriptions of activities to our database, which you can search online.

Over the last ten years, we have digitized more than 8,000 of those photographs and have received identifications for approximately 1,900 individuals. New information about these pictures is gathered through a variety of methods, including an online form, community slide shows and other social gatherings, weekly features in local newspapers, social media and on-site research visits.

Quite often, identifications come as a result of intergenerational conversations that take place in person or virtually—or both. Such was the case when Nunavut News/North published a photograph of Rhoda Qaqsauq, and her daughters, Lucy Evo and Janet Tagoona, on February 11, 2013; upon discovering this picture, Deborah Kigjugalik Webster shared it on Facebook, thus sparking a lively conversation between her and other family members.

An example of a successful on-site visit occurred in June 2012 when a group of Elders and youth from Arviat, Nunavut, located on the southwest coast of Hudson Bay, made a trip to Ottawa. They looked through hundreds of photographs and negatives taken between the 1920s and the 1970s.

This enabled them to identify 31 family members in 17 images. Louisa Gibbons discovered her mother, Catherine Kopak, and her grandmother, Yarat, in a picture taken in Kingayualik, near Padlei.

Elder Eva Muyunaganiak (left), Louisa Gibbons (centre) and Elder Mary Nowtalik (right).

Elder Eva Muyunaganiak (left), Louisa Gibbons (centre) and Elder Mary Nowtalik (right).

Elder Eva Muyunaganiak also discovered a photograph of her mother, Uyaupiak, dating from the late 1960s. Today, the remaining 22 Elders in the community of Arviat are the only ones able to recognize people and describe what life was like in photographs taken more than 50 years ago. Elder Muyunaganiak passed away in September 2012; her death reminds us of how time-sensitive an initiative Project Naming is.

Project Naming has now evolved into a broader community engagement initiative that has expanded beyond the territory of Nunavut to other Aboriginal communities in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Labrador. We hope to build upon this dialogue with members of Northern communities using new technologies and social media.

To learn more, listen to our Project Naming and Canada’s North podcast.