Down North in the Sixties

by Chris Rolton


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




When I left Britain in 1967 to work in Labrador, the Inuit were still called Eskimos and the Innu, Indians. Their communities were small and isolated, accessible in winter only by bushplane, skidoo or dog team. In the short summer, boats could be used once the ice had gone, usually in late June. In July, August and September supplies for the whole year were delivered by ship. Most of the harbours were too small to allow the ships to dock. They sat in the middle of the harbour and the local people made dozen of trips back and forth, in small boats, collecting food, clothing, spare parts for skidoos and furnaces, and school supplies.

By the following April, most of these were used up. People 'made do and mended' and ate a monotonous diet out of cans and whatever game they could get. Meat was not a problem. Caribou, partridge and seal were readily available, supplemented by the occasional rabbit, and there was ice fishing.

The little houses had no plumbing or sanitation, and not much privacy. Many did have electricity from a local generator fueled by oil, brought in on the summer ships and distributed primarily to the nursing station and the school. The Innu houses, built by the government, were very poorly constructed, with no insulation. The people froze in them; they had been much warmer in their caribou skin tents.

In Labrador the medical services were operated by the Grenfell Mission. Some communities had a nursing station; maybe eight beds with one nurse and local assistants, whom they often trained themselves. Doctors tried to do monthly clinics, but this depended on their availability and the weather. Some very small communities had no nurse, and the medical work was done by the minister or priest, or a teacher or, in one case, the postmistress.

In my time there (the late 1960s), the first Labrador Inuit got her RN, though several Innu and Inuit were qualified practical nurses. Emergencies were dealt with on site and/or airlifted out by bushplane.

The bushplane pilots are still the heroes of the north. Very skilled - and not given to bravado - they defy dreadful weather, isolation, and an unpredictable compass (near the North Pole) to rescue the sick and injured, the stranded and the lost. They also deliver the mail and 'ferry' police, government officials, forestry personnel and others, sometimes picking up an unexpected patient on the way.

The nursing stations had two-way radios and could call the hospital near Goose Bay for advice, information and, when needed, an emergency 'medivac'. We weren't supposed to chat on these radios, but they were the only contact the nurses had with others with the same responsibilities and concerns; so we ignored the rules quite a bit on our daily checkups.

Both health care and education were administered from outside, by people who frequently came from completely different environments; in my case English suburbia. As a result, very foolish advice could be given and expectations of what, practically, could be performed, were ridiculous. Modern technology, particularly in the communications field, has improved this enormously.

During break-up and freeze-up, the communities were almost completely cut off. The ice wasn't solid enough to land a plane on, but was too thick for a boat. The planes were fitted with skis in winter and pontoons in summer. During break-up and freeze-up, some communities would be frozen and others not, as spring worked its way north, or winter south. Helicopters were sometimes used, but often could not land close to the action due to hilly, rocky or swampy terrain, or high winds.

Newcomers soon learned respect for the cold and quickly acquired parkas and mukluks (skin boots). We also learned to eat seal, partridge and caribou - no problem. Many learned to skate for the first time, much to the amusement of local youngsters who could walk and skate with equal ease.

Much has changed in the last 30 years, mostly for the better. Developments in health care, education, transportation and, more than anything, communication technology, have all contributed to bringing remote communities toward the main stream.

© Dr Chris Rolton 2002. Dr Rolton graduated from British medical school in 1964 and emigrated to Canada in 1967. She worked in northern communities in Newfoundland, Ontario and Manitoba and has recounted her experiences in Doin' the Locum Motion, published by Creative Book Publishing in Canada,



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