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Fostering Healing and Preserving Cultural Heritage

Explore the Hebron and Nutak Reunions project through the lens of Lena Onalik, an archaeologist with the Nunatsiavut Government. In this interview, learn how this initiative aims to reunite Inuit Elders with their homelands.
Lena Onalik and guest in Labrador

© Dennis Minty

Lena Onalik, Nunatsiavut Government archaeologist

Could you explain what the Hebron and Nutak Reunions project is and what it aims to accomplish?

In 1956 and 1959, the two towns were forcibly relocated, removing 417 residents to the southern communities of Makkovik, Hopedale, and Nain, Labrador. Some went to Goose Bay, and some moved north to Nunavik.

Today there are forty remaining Elders from Hebron, and twenty-seven remaining from Nutak/Okkak Bay. In 2016 under the lead of Michelle Davies, the Hebron Family Archaeology Project began. Michelle brought small groups of Elders and descendants back to Hebron for one week in the summer to help map the foundations of the homes in the former community.

In 2021 and 2022 when I engaged with the Elders for the upcoming season, it became clear that they didn’t want to choose amongst each other anymore; they wanted to return home together. The Hebron and Nutak Reunions are to help the remaining able-bodied evictees of these former communities to return home together.

Hebron Labrador original building

© Dennis Minty

Hebron, Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland and Labrador

What is your role as team lead for this project?

With guidance from former Minister of Language, Culture, and Tourism, Roxanne Barbour, I submitted a briefing note to the Nunatsiavut Executive Council to get approval to pursue a reunion for the remaining evictees of Hebron and Nutak. This began the process of searching for funding and a ship to bring the remaining Elders home.

As the lead on file, I am also the lead of the project, much like planning two mini cruises at once. With a small team made up of representatives from various departments within the Nunatsiavut Government, my team and I are planning all the logistics from travel and accommodations to the daily plan.

I will also be accompanying the Elders on the reunions. As logistical lead for the groups, I’ll ensure the reunions happen as safely and smoothly as possible.

Lena Onalik talking with guest Labrador

© Dennis Minty

You're an archaeologist with the Nunatsiavut Government. How does your experience in this field contribute to the project, and what have you learned along the way?

Through the Hebron Family Archaeology Project and the Nutak Family Project, we have gained insightful knowledge about the former communities of Hebron and Nutak/Okkak Bay, their former residents, and the importance these places still have for Inuit to this day. We recognize that the Elders have been longing to return home together. Hebron and Nutak/Okkak Bay are places of importance to the evictees and their descendants.

Archaeology follows the evidence that is left behind by those that have come before us. It shows a long history in both Hebron and the Nutak/Okkak Bay regions. This presence will continue into the future through their descendants. As the archaeologist for the Nunatsiavut Government, and as a descendant of the region, I recognize the importance of these places and the importance of making them accessible to the former residents.

Lena at work with soil samples photo by Maria Merkuratsuk

© Maria Merkuratsuk

Lena taking notes of the soil samples removed from the site of a new cabin built in Hebron.

I guess my experience in the region helps to showcase the importance of making it accessible to the remaining Elders.

"The most important thing I have learned is that our Elders are our living connection to the past. They have so much to share with whoever is willing to lend an ear. You just have to listen."

What kind of impact do you hope this project will have on not only the communities of Hebron and Nutak but also on other Indigenous groups facing similar challenges?

The main purpose of this project is to bring the remaining able-bodied Elders back home to Hebron and Nutak/Okkak Bay in as safe a manner as possible. These two former communities are not the only communities that have been impacted by forced relocation. We recognize there are places all along the coast that hold importance to Inuit, and currently, this project is just one on the list.

Our project will allow those Elders who are healthy enough the opportunity to return home together. With them, we will have a support team that is made up of mostly people who are descendants of these evictions including nurses, home support and mental health counsellors, bear guards, and youth who are the grandchildren of the Elders. We hope this project can be used as a blueprint for other projects that work towards bringing Elders home to visit.

Hebron Labrador original building

© Dennis Minty

One of the original buildings at Hebron, as it can be seen today.

Are there any standout moments or memories from your years of involvement in this project?

The standout moments for me are the connections made with the Elders over the years, being part of the smaller projects where we have brought Elders home for the first time in so many years. I have sat with and spoken to and listened for hours with Elders, laughing and crying, listening and sharing stories of days gone by. I have learned the names of every remaining Elder and have spoken to every single one. I have crumbled to my knees crying at the profound loss of Elders. These projects are so important.

In 2022, as we prepared for the Hebron Family Archaeology Project and I engaged with the Hebron Selection committee, we met to vote on who would get to attend the project that summer. One of the Elders spoke up to say, “We never wanted to have to choose amongst each other who would get to go home; we all want the opportunity to return together.” That stuck with me and inspired my pursuit for the reunions.

Lena Onalik on board speaking

© Dennis Minty

Lena aboard an Adventure Canada expedition through Labrador in 2023.

Can you share details about upcoming projects or collaborations you’re enthusiastic about or your vision for the project’s future?

There are twenty-seven remaining Elders from Nutak/Okkak Bay. In July, sixteen of these Elders will be going home together. This group is aged sixty-eight years plus. This trip will be made possible through the partnership between the Nunatsiavut Government and the Royal Canadian Navy. We have identified various places of importance to the remaining Elders of Nutak/Okkak Bay that we intend to visit on this trip. July is notoriously good for fishing, so we have designated space in the agenda for that. I am very excited about the knowledge sharing that will take place between the Elders and the support team including youth that will be involved.

There are forty remaining Elders from Hebron. Thirty have confirmed that they will attend the Hebron Reunion in July. This group is sixty-five years and older. We are sub-chartering the ship, MV Polar Prince to make this reunion possible. The ship will be the mode of transportation, accommodations, and meals for the remaining Hebron Elders. In addition, we are hiring boat drivers to assist with transportation for the support team that can’t fit on the ship. We have built a fishing trip into the agenda as well as excursions to nearby places of importance to the remaining Elders. I don’t think there will be another large-scale event such as this for the Elders of Hebron and Nutak/Okkak Bay.

Hebron Labrador fall landscape

© Dennis Minty

The Ocean Endeavour anchored near Hebron on the Greenland and Wild Labrador: A Torngat Mountains Adventure expedition.

Right now, the reunions consume most of my time and energy, but once this clues up, we will continue with the various files that our office works on.

Climate change and archaeology are big. We are working towards having a repository to house the large inventory of artefacts that have been collected on sites from within Labrador Inuit Lands. We have numerous policies we are working on including Repatriation and collections management. Most of our work is guided by Chapter 15 of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement. Nunatsiavut Government archaeology is the permitting authority over Labrador Inuit Lands. We hope to continue to see researchers coming to the region to work as it is just too much for our little office to manage alone.

I invite everyone to visit our beautiful land with Adventure Canada!