Colonial Gazing, Part 2: The Silent Attack on Inuit Nunangat

Emma Martin and Jonas Henderson study the DEW Line photographs within the CCA’s collection

Authors’ warning – This article contains sensitive information that can be triggering/traumatic for readers, including colonial information and quotations using inappropriate words. If you find this article to be triggering, you can seek out various support systems such as counselling, crisis lines, and support groups.

Indigenous peoples describe our environments differently than non-Indigenous people. We describe our Mother Earth as a living being whereas Southerners primarily recount our Mother Earth as available for seizure. To Inuit, the Arctic circle is Nunangat. As self-governing, the Inuit coexist alongside our Mother Earth. But the far North has been under industrial attack since the 1700s, when the whalers arrived. Throughout the nineteenth century, anthropologists, historians, and politicians studied Inuit communities, using their observations of Indigenous people to justify their colonial and nationalist aspirations for the Arctic. Looking to colonize the North, the Southern governments of the so-called nations Canada and United States used the Cold War to launch a second mass invasion.1 With the Soviet Union breathing down their necks, they created the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line.

Used to detect soaring bombers crossing the ocean, the DEW Line was a silent attack on Inuit. How intentional was the placement of the DEW Line stations when viewed through a decolonial lens? To what degree did the introduction of the DEW Line stations disrupt life in the North? For whom does Arctic Sovereignty count? Is it largely reflective of Southern governments’ need for a politicized, militarized North?

  1. “A second big ‘Invasion’ from the white man occurred along the Yukon coastal line as well in other parts of the Arctic. This was the creation of the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) built during the cold war period.” Murielle Ida Nagy, Yukon North Slope Inuvialuit Oral History, Occasional Papers in Yukon History, no. 1 (Heritage Branch, Government of the Yukon, 1994), 59,

Unknown photographer, Aerial view of DEW Line radar station FOX-3, Dewar Lakes, Nunavut, Canada, c 1960. Gelatin silver print, 20.6 x 25.3 cm. Gift of Stephen Bulger, CCA, PH2016:0004:017

The presence of a colonial gaze became apparent as we reviewed the DEW Line photographs within the CCA collection. These images display sites on a barren landscape taken from a distance, representing Southerners’ colonial view of Inuit lands. They have been unmoored from their anchorage in a real, lived history and a precise location in space and time. This unmooring can be read as the result of the typical carelessness with regards to the relational context in which photographs were often created and traded under imperial rule.

Photographed for the company that was in charge of M&O (Manning and Operation) for these stations, the sites appear as if they have been plunked down in the hostile environment of a foreign planet. No wonder these images made their way into the Southern popular imagination and became perfect locations for cult horror movies like The Thing.1

Like the photographs, settlers struggle to offer views from an Indigenous perspective. Indigenous people incorporate a lived experience into Indigeneity that settlers cannot fully appreciate. When we began our research, the sites in the photographs were unknown. By locating the stations depicted in the images, we acknowledge that the collection needs to be read against its colonial biases, language, and ways of upholding settler colonialism’s reach across Inuit lands and archives. In the CCA’s collection, we identified five DEW Line sites: DYE- Main, BAR-1, BAR-3, FOX-3, and FOX-C.2 These sites affected many Inuit communities, notably Aklavik, Inuvik, Iqaluit/Frobisher Bay, and Tuktoyaktuk. By focusing on these communities, we are making the images available for other stories by Inuit community members and redescribing the photographs in the collection to give them context.

After recognizing the importance of first-hand Inuit voices and their teachings across archives, and contrasting these with colonial historical records, it became clear to us that the DEW Line was intended to establish Arctic sovereignty for Southern governments. The DEW Line ran across Inuit lands, interfering with their connection to Nunangat and traditional ways of life. Part of the outcome involved Southern governments creating settlements on or near Inuit lands, furthering colonial political needs such as monitoring Inuit lands for the purpose of claiming them for Southern resource extraction and sovereignty. Inuvik was the Northwest Territories’ first planned community. The town, whose name translates from Inuinnaqtun to “Place of Man,” came together in 1955 as a new administrative centre for the Western Arctic. Over the decades, Inuvik has continued to grow, bolstered by its proximity to the DEW Line and oil and gas interest in the Beaufort Sea.3 It and other similar settlements were established to maintain the DEW Line and keep the Inuit in place.

  1. The Thing, directed by John Carpenter (1982; Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures), film.  

  2. Brian Jeffrey, “DEWLine Stations,” The DEWLine, 1995, accessed November 21, 2022, DYE- Main is known as Cape Dyer, Nunavut and located on the most eastern side of Baffin Island. DYE-Main is the headquarters for the DYE sector. BAR-1 is known as Komakuk Beach, Yukon, and located just east of the Yukon-Alaska boundary. It is a DEW Line Auxiliary Site. BAR-3 is known as Tuktoyaktuk and located beside the community Tuktoyaktuk, NWT. It is a DEW Line Auxiliary Site. FOX-3 is known as Dewar Lakes, Nunavut, and located in central Baffin Island. It is a DEW Line Auxiliary Site. FOX-C is known as Ekalugad Fjord, Nunavut, and located on the east coast of Baffin Island, approximately 240 kilometres north of Qikiqtarjuaq and 260 kilometres south of Clyde River. It is a DEW Line Intermediate Site.  

  3. “Inuvik,” Spectacular Northwest Territories, accessed 21 November 2022,

Department of National Defence, Old and new hunting techniques are compared by the hunters and the crew of the C-124. Iqaluit (Frobisher Bay), Baffin Island, 1956. Source: BAR-1 DEW Line Archive

In the declassified report “A History of the DEW Line,” Thomas W. Ray writes, “Maps, hydrographic charts, and RCAF were studied with a view to pin-pointing potential sites that, from the standpoint of strategic locations and topography, were readily accessible to logistical supply routes via water, land and air, and best lent themselves to the DEW Line Operations.”1 By forming communities, the Southerners further enforced their authority over the land. This authority was established using the presence of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and military. Colonial powers battling for Arctic sovereignty furthered violent colonialism.

Although the DEW Line stations were not officially documented as a repressive instrument of the North, the results were the same—Inuit losing their identity further. The suppression of their identity came with the presence of non-Indigenous people. The pushing of their beliefs upon Inuit caused the “whitewashing” of Indigenous people. Southern governments sought to persuade public opinion by using reports stating that “the Eskimo of Canada are in a primitive state of social development. It is important that these people not be subjected unduly to disruption of their hunting economy, exposure to diseases against which their immunity is often low, or other effects of the presence of white men which might be injurious to them.”2

Yet, in building these stations, the US and Canadian governments did cause undue disruptions to traditional ways of life for Inuit, destroying their identity and confining them within artificial borders—forcing sedentary lives upon Inuit that cut them off from other circumpolar northern communities. With their own protection in mind, the Southerners expanded their control over the North. DEW Line sites were planned with no regard for the land and the Inuit living there. The violence of colonialism has impacted Inuit communities in a multitude of ways, disturbing their ceremonies and disrupting hunting and gathering, interrupting Inuit trails and passageways, relocating communities and destroying burial grounds. In the new settlements, Inuit took up new ways of living and new forms of hunting and transportation, with guns and other weapons replacing traditional harpoons.3 Additionally, hiring Inuit on DEW Line sites forced the communities to rely on the Southerners.

  1. Thomas W. Ray, “A History of the DEW Line,” ABC Historical Study no. 31 (government report, U.S. Northern Command, June 1965), 16. Accessed via,%201946-1964%20Full%20Release.pdf?ver=2017-03-16-115749-817.  

  2. P. Whitney Lackenbauer and Matthew Farish, The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line Coordinating Committee: Minutes and Progress Reports, 1955–63, Documents on Canadian Arctic Sovereignty and Security (Faculty of Arts University of Calgary and Centre on Foreign Policy and Federalism, 2019), xxii.  

  3. Jessica Rose, “Surviving in the Arctic,” Esri Canada, 2021,

Erik Watt, Iqaluit/Frobisher Bay, Nunavut, 1960. © NWT Archives/Erik Watt/N-1990-005: 0245

Despite promises of housing and medical care, Inuit who moved off the land received little medical assistance and were put into camps like the Northern Affairs ghetto at Frobisher Bay. Called Iqaluit village at the time it was in use, whites were forbidden to enter the camp without permission from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND). The government feared that the intermingling of Qallunaat and Inuit would lead to the “debauchery of the natives”.1 But the Southern government was already violently affecting their way of life: most of the youth were sent to residential schools where they were stripped of their Inuit Identity, losing their language and traditional ways of life.

The adults, meanwhile, had to find new ways to provide for their families. The Southern governments had set in place a regulation stating, “Any matters affecting the Eskimo, including the possibility of their employment in any area and the terms and arrangements for their employment, if approved, will be subject to the concurrence of the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources.”2 Many Inuit adapted their trapping economy to wage labour.3 Trading their goods for money changed the Inuit view of bartering, and the DEW Line solidified the presence and dominance of money exchange. This interruption in their way of life resulted in the formation of modern Inuit.

As we redescribe, contextualize, and make the photographs legible for Inuit community members in particular, the intergenerational trauma of colonialism is apparent. A contemporary Indigenous person is someone who embraces their identity and evolves with changing times. Colonialism has this aspect of forced adaptation and speed. These are twinned processes: living with passed-on trauma and re-identifying ourselves as Indigenous people. Hawaiian activist and attorney Poka Laenui describes the cultural loss that follows colonization:

  1. Iqaluit/Frobisher Bay NU, photograph, 1 January, 1960, item N-1990-005-0245, Erik Watt Fonds, NWT Archives, Yellowknife,  

  2. Lackenbauer and Farish, The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line Coordinating Committee_, xxiii.  

  3. Nagy, Yukon North Slope, 59.  

“When a colonial people first come upon an Indigenous people, the colonial strangers will immediately look upon the Indigenous as a people without culture, no moral, nothing of any social value to merit kind comment. Thus, the colonial people deny the very existence of a culture of any merit among the Indigenous societies. Indigenous people themselves, especially those who develop closer relationship with the new-comers, gradually withdraw from their own cultural practices.”1

  1. Marie Ann Battiste and Poka Laenui, “Processes of Decolonization,” in Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000), 150–160, 79.  

Michela Sutter, Cooking muktuk in an abandoned oil barrel near the DEW Line. © Michela Sutter

Being born into a position that demands we engage in a decolonial process with the trauma coursing through our veins since birth, modern Indigenous people struggle to find their identity, having to relearn their teachings and find their connection to Mother Earth. “People who have undergone colonization are inevitably suffering from concepts of inferiority in relation to their historical cultural/social background,” Laenui says. “They live in a colonial society which is a constant and overwhelming reminder of the superiority of the colonial society over that of the underlying Indigenous one.”1

When the DEW Line was abandoned, Inuit used found materials from the stations for their daily lives to help to improve their living situation. Some of these materials were barrels and kitchen supplies. Chemical pollution from the DEW Line sites caused diseases among Inuit confined to these new communities. The poison wept into Mother Earth, slowly infecting her and all creatures. These communities are still affected by industrial colonialism. By industrializing the North, the Southern governments are suppressing Inuit. The violence of the colonial gaze silently attacks Inuit Nunangat.

  1. Battiste and Laenui, “Processes of Decolonization,” in Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000), 150–160, 81. 

Old graves at the west end of the airstrip at the Shingle Point DEW Line, 19 July 1991. We can see the airstrip in the background, along with a few buildings. Photographer: Murielle Nagy. Source: Inuvialuit Cultural Centre Digital Library, https://inuvialuitdigitiallibrary/show/2738

Disregard and disrespect for Inuit—these were part of not including them in the planning of the DEW Line locations. With the need to assert Arctic sovereignty came the political and militarization of the North, a battle between nations for land that was never theirs to take. Apprehensive of Inuit self-governance, the governments of Canada and the United States worked together to curtail Inuit independence. They built DEW Line stations on and beside Inuit burial grounds. They established stations on sacred grounds, interfering with Inuit being able to build connections to Inuit Nunangat. In not understanding the Inuit traditional ways of life, the Southerners forced adaptation.

The corruption of industrial colonialism still goes undetected by the mass public. The Southern governments continue to interfere with Indigenous identity through the removal of burial grounds and other sacred places for their own aspirations such as natural resource extraction and sovereignty through military projection and performance. By giving more context to the locations in its DEW Line photographs, the CCA can begin to account for its own implication in colonial collection practices. The contextualization of the DEW Line photographs within the photography collection is a first step towards reconciling these holdings. The next steps are to hold their collections accountable and, with the humility of the truth, respect the objects. Before receiving new material, the CCA should do the necessary research to ensure the proper care for the item. Moving forward, the CCA should seek to strengthen its relationships with the items in its collection and to make them available for Indigenous community members to tell their stories.

Emma Martin is a participant in the 2022 Association of Art Museum Directors’ internship program and Jonas Henderson is the CCA’s 2022–2023 Inuit Futures Fellow.


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