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The Little Guy

The Little Guy

Memories of the sudden, dangerous birth of Hunter Tootoo in 1960s Rankin Inlet
By Sally Luttmer
Sep 22
2014
From the September 2014 Issue

It was a hell of a party. Jean Urbanski, a young qablunaaq teacher, had just been joined in wedlock with Billy Carson, the son of a Bay boy—what we called Hudson’s Bay Company workers in those days. Most of Rankin Inlet had come out to help them celebrate; in 1963, a year after its nickel mine had closed, Rankin was a small community, and the celebration was open to everyone. The beer flowed, the fiddler and the accordion player rarely stopped. The old mine’s former dining room was hot and stuffy, but no one cared. Standing outside in the cool mid-August air for a few minutes was enough to refresh us. 

At seven months pregnant, with Batiste at my side, I dodged the beer but not the dancing. My mother, Annie Wolfe, was at home babysitting our 10-month-old adopted daughter, so we were free to enjoy ourselves. Inuit square dances go on a lot longer than their southern counterparts, and by 11 p.m. I was ready to call it quits. 

We walked home slowly between the rows of old mine houses, turned the corner at The Bay and headed the short distance past the Anglican church to our house. All was silent as we entered, so we quietly climbed into bed and fell asleep immediately.

About 3 a.m. I was awakened by a grinding cramp in my abdomen. The next thing I knew the bed was soaking wet. 

* * * 

I had met Batiste in 1959, a year after I’d graduated from McGill with a degree in anthropology and headed to Akudlik, near Churchill, to live with the Inuit who worked at the adjacent military base. Why Akudlik? My professor had told me I was more likely to get a government grant if I went to a location where I had some support system. My father, Rufus Wolfe, had been going to Churchill since the port opened in 1937; Wolfe Stevedores Ltd. was in charge of loading all the grain that western farmers sold to Europe. 

I soon realized three months was too short, got my grant renewed, then stayed long enough to learn Inuktitut and get a better grounding in the culture.

The following spring, Batiste Tootoo returned to Churchill from living and working in Yellowknife and northern Alberta. We became good friends—and then more. Batiste moved on to Rankin for work, but we kept in touch. In the fall, he told me he was going to Kingston to interpret for a group of Inuit men taking a diesel mechanic course: they were being trained to operate and maintain the power plants that were being installed in northern communities. Did I want to get married and go with him?

On short notice, Father Belair married us in the Roman Catholic Chapel. The Churchill ladies put on a reception, and the next day we left for Kingston. What followed were a few years of office work for Batiste in Kingston and Ottawa, a sailing gig in Newfoundland, and then back to Rankin, where he’d work for the local Northern Service Officer—a local  representative for the federal government. Meanwhile, my job was to visit Inuit patients in southern hospitals and report back to their families in the North. I took photographs and sent Inuktitut messages to those who had been left behind. Once in Rankin, Batiste and I lived in its “suburb,” Itivia, where I worked at the Rankin Inlet Rehabilitation Institute. In the front office of a little Quonset hut, my colleague Bob Williamson and I helped Inuit who had relocated to Itivia from inland, where they had experienced incredible hardships.

Batiste had friends in both communities, Inuit and qablunaaq, which was fairly unusual for the times. In fact, there was only one other southern woman married to an Inuk that I met in Ottawa—Grace Menarik and her husband, Elijah, who was from Nunavik. 

By early 1962, I resigned my position at the rehabilitation institute due to health
issues, and moved into new government housing in downtown Rankin. Soon after, I became pregnant with my first child.

* * * 

Waking Batiste at the best of times was not easy; add in a hard day’s work, a late night with a few beers and lots of dancing, and the task became formidable. 

“I need to go to the nursing station!”

“What for?” was the groggy reply.

“The baby’s coming!”

“It’s not due for another two months.”

“It obviously doesn’t believe in schedules. I can’t walk down there alone. Please—get up!”

That got through to him. We both dressed quickly, and I left a short note for my mother. Batiste and I walked the mile to the nursing station. By now it was quite light, so at least we weren’t stumbling around in the dark. 

A few raps brought the community nurse, Mrs. Beacum, to the door. I explained what had happened and she ushered me into the one-room, two-bed nursing station. Batiste returned home—this was long before partners helped with birthing.

So yell I did, in the most colourful vocabulary I knew. I yelled at the baby that I loved it, but it was time to face the world. I yelled at the pain to give me a break. All the while, I completely forgot that the nursing station was on the lower floor of the old mine bunkhouse, now being used by government workers. It was filled with men trying to sleep.

Mrs. Beacum settled me into a bed; the other one lay vacant. Fortunately she was also a midwife, and a good one. She coached me through labour pains that seemed to go on forever. As the baby pushed its way into the world I wondered if I could keep myself from being split in two. The pain was excruciating.

“Just go ahead and yell,” Mrs. Beacum advised. “That will help a lot with the pain.”

So yell I did, in the most colourful vocabulary I knew. I yelled at the baby that I loved it, but it was time to face the world. I yelled at the pain to give me a break. All the while, I completely forgot that the nursing station was on the lower floor of the old mine bunkhouse, now being used by government workers. It was filled with men trying to sleep.

Finally came reprieve: Mrs. Beacum was holding my baby—slime-covered but beautiful. He was tiny: three pounds, 11 ounces. How, I wondered, could a child that small cause so much pain?

Fortune was with us again: the otherwise bare-bones nursing station had an incubator. My little son was placed within. By now it was late in the afternoon of the post-wedding day. Mrs. Beacum had radioed Churchill for a plane to medevac us out, but the weather was closing in and no one would fly to Rankin’s unmanned gravel strip of an airport. 

My dad Rufus, in Churchill for the summer shipping season, had been told about the birth of his first grandson and was frantic (my mother must have been frantic too, but she was stuck at home taking care of my daughter). Over the years, he’d made many friends. He knew Brock “Rocky” Parsons, a bush pilot whose Norseman’s drone was always easy to identify when it flew over Rankin. Rocky often came to our house for a meal when he was in town. Recently he’d purchased a two-engine Lockheed. Thanks to my dad’s powers of persuasion, Rocky risked a flight from Churchill to Rankin in uncertain weather to pick us up. Mrs. Beacum, my son in his incubator, and I were driven to the airstrip and bundled onto the plane. 

We were whisked to the hospital—at that time on the military base. I remember lying in bed in the ward and hearing that Jacqueline Kennedy’s youngest baby had just died of hyaline membrane disease. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that my tiny baby might die too.

The next thing I remember is being trundled into the Churchill airport on a stretcher. There, barely able to stand from all the congratulatory drinks, was my dad. He reached over to me with a huge grin and gave me a big scotch-drenched kiss.

We were whisked to the hospital—at that time on the military base. I remember lying in bed in the ward and hearing that Jacqueline Kennedy’s youngest baby had just died of hyaline membrane disease. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that my tiny baby might die too.

* * * 

I was soon out of the hospital; my son remained in the incubator, fragile but stubbornly alive. My mother-in-law, Jenny Tootoo, and my sister-in-law, Mary Hickes, both lived in Churchill and were nursing babies of their own. Both had an oversupply of milk. Every morning, I would carry my little basket and collect a bottle of breast milk from each of them. Then off I would go to the hospital where I’d feed my tiny son, at first with an eyedropper and later, when he was strong enough to suckle, from my own breast, supplemented by bottled milk and the breast milk I’d collected. He grew slowly, surviving two bouts of pneumonia, one of bronchitis. Three months later, when my boy was finally at a healthy seven pounds, Dr. Manderville announced he could leave the hospital.

But my son and I were essentially homeless. In Rankin we’d been packing to move to northern Quebec when he had made his unexpected appearance. In my absence my mother, my husband and my friends completed that job. By the time my son could leave the hospital, Batiste had left Rankin for Salluq in Arctic Quebec, where he’d found work in preparing for the development of a new mine. One problem: there was no family housing available in Salluq. The men were living in a bunkhouse on the job site.

My mother-in-law’s house was overflowing with her own children—my husband was the oldest of 13. My mother had returned home to Montreal with my daughter. My father had also left Churchill for Montreal as the shipping season had ended. The doctor said my boy was ready to fly—I’d just have to make sure he got enough oxygen on the plane—and so I decided to join my parents and daughter in Montreal. 

Too tiny to fit in my amauti, the boy spent his first ever flight in a blue baby carrier, which I hung by its straps from an overhead bin. The slight swaying lulled him to sleep almost the entire way. 

In Montreal, I took my son to the doctor who had been my own childhood pediatrician. He pronounced him well on his way to a healthy life, and was convinced that the breast milk donated by my in-laws had made the difference for the little guy.

My boy is grown up now and has children of his own. He truly owes being alive to at least four people: Mrs. Beacum, who delivered him safely and competently in the Rankin nursing station; Rocky Parsons, the pilot who took a chance on flying to medevac us to Churchill when others wouldn’t; the boy’s grandmother Jenny Tootoo, who always had a special place in her heart for him, the first male grandchild of many; and his aunt Mary. 

By making a difference in his life, they ended up making a difference for the territory of Nunavut. That “little guy” was Hunter Tootoo, until recently a member of the Legislative Assembly since its creation in 1999, a cabinet minister who held various posts, and finally, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut.

Editor's note: In addition to his past political posts, Hunter Tootoo was elected Liberal MP for Nunavut on Monday, defeating Conservative incumbent Leona Aglukkaq.