Volume 19, Number 111, October/November 2016 WINNER OF THE 2016 CANADIAN ESSAY: THE ALVIN ENS PRIZE Inuksuks: A Statement in Stone by Derek Peach
In the 1960s, every rock on every highway in this land from Cornerbrook to Sooke was doomed to be a billboard for a great mob of idiot vandals with their chalks or paints to proclaim that Kilroy or one of his brainless cohort had been there or was in love with such a one or was from such and such a town. The most inaccessible places were prime targets for this graffiti. The more difficult to reach, the better. The scrawl would defy attempts by highway crews on periodic clean-up duty to scrub it off. What couldn’t be scrubbed - and much of it couldn’t, meaning that time and frost and wind would have to do their slow renewal - might be painted over. That was the final indignity, a blank confession of helplessness in grey paint scarcely better than the mindless ‘little splashes’ that it covered over.
But then, sometime in the nineties, things began to change. The spray paint desecrations on the highway rock cuts diminished, and you could drive hundreds of kilometres of beautiful scenery between what remained of these former scars. I was traveling the highways across the country during those years, reconnecting with family in Ontario and taking fishing trips to the interior of BC and I witnessed this shift in values. I drove the Yellowhead north and west through Barrier and Battleford. I camped along the transCanada through Roger’s Pass, and at the Great Lakes chose either the north shore’s rugged landscape or the extended prairies through Minnesota and Michigan to the Sault before branching out in Ontario. One time I would drive east to Ottawa, another south through Parry Sound to Toronto. No matter the route, there were many granite easels for the highway graffiti goons to use, but they hadn’t. What became more and more noticeable on these cross-country road trips, besides the awesome scenery, were little piles of rock by roadsides, on ledges, atop boulders, or scratching the skyline along the upper margins of rockcuts. The inuksuks had come south.
These symbols of friendship were first used by the Inuit in Canada’s far north where there are few natural landmarks and the inuksuk functioned as a navigation aid across the barren tundra. Although the use of rock cairns by indigenous peoples has been recorded on all of the continents, it was in our northland that they became a significant communication device, pointing the way to a settlement, forming a corral channel for caribou, or even supplicating the powers beyond the grave for intercession on behalf of lost souls. The design varied as the materials at hand, but seldom did they actually resemble a person with legs supporting a body supporting a head. For that iconography which once graced all publicity for the 2010 Winter Olympics, we acknowledge Vancouver Inuit artist Alvin Kanak who created the design for the 1986 World’s Fair Northwest Territories Pavilion in Vancouver. Our Olympic logo was named Ilanaaq or Inuktitut for “friend”.
The word inuksuk is now almost universally pronounced and correspondingly spelled as “inukshuk” with the plural as inukshuks. Although purists may lament that the correct forms are inuksuk and inuksuit, Canadians will continue to follow the folk-law of linguistics in applying familiar rules to new words entering their lexicon and “inukshuk” it will henceforth be.
Inukshuks then, a symbol deeply embedded in the Inuit culture, signifying hope of food and shelter and friendship, now signal drivers along the highways of Canada that someone passed this way and wished them a safe journey. They appeared first, to my knowledge, in BC and east of Manitoba where rocks were plentiful as new highways were blasted through mountain and shield, but soon even the empty lands of the prairies were sprouting small roadside monuments to goodwill. In many parts of Saskatchewan, someone must have spent considerable time to collect suitable stones for their construction, and that also was part of the inukshuk’s message. Location, whether atop north shore rock mound or by prairie wheat field, spoke of the effort and care that had gone into its construction.
Like the graffiti before them, Inukshuks began to inhabit the most inaccessible spots along Canadian roadways. Some parents surely gained a few grey hairs on suddenly noticing their offspring perched where they had no right to be without wings, happily piling stones. I have seen our small winter games mascot surveying the countryside from atop great boulders thrust up from lakes around Sudbury. There are Inukshuks along the Niagara escarpment. Little stone figures line the roadway at the rest stop by the Coquihalla toll booth and by approaches to the cable car across Hell’s Gate on the Fraser River. They greet commuters and tourists entering Victoria on the island highway. They have even traveled to other continents.
In 2006, my wife and I were in Peru and took a bus tour up into the Andes to see a glacier that was melting into extinction. Along the gravel route of its retreat at 5000 metres up in the Andes, a host of small Inukshuks testified to all who had come there, observed, and gone away, leaving the small army to watch an icefield die. Along the Atlantic coast in a national park of Portugal, while wetsuited youth surfed the swells, Inukshuks of various sizes looked out to sea as might the 14th century mariners of that country’s great period of exploration, apprehensively studying a fogbanked horizon that held either great promise or oblivion. They stand now along pathways in remote Tanzanian villages and by Gibraltar’s crest. They honour the lives of Canadian soldiers killed in Kandahar. They even stand on guard for us beside our flag on Hans Island to remind the Danes of our jurisdictional claim over that small piece of arctic real estate. They are one of our best ambassadors, and they speak most often for all Canadians in saying here is a place of friendship.
This summer, when you go camping with your family or even for just a day trip to one of our parks or beaches, try building an Inukshuk. Locate it preferably in a position just off the trails where it may inspire appreciation rather than annoyance and be content in the knowledge that you will have helped to confirm the change in our relationship to our environment from one of mindless exploitation to creative expression.