Visiting Hebron was the most educational, emotional and impactful experience of our 10-day expedition cruise along the east coast of Canada: an amazing opportunity to learn firsthand about the forced relocation of 58 Inuit families from the Hebron mission to other communities in Labrador, the formal government apology almost half a century later – and Inuit acceptance thereof – and to see the pride of the specially-trained, mostly volunteer carpenter crew have in their work to restore and renovate the old church!
The RCGS Resolute was still underway when we headed to the dining room for breakfast. The anchor dropped as we were finishing up, so I gulped down the last of my coffee and we headed up to the observation deck, cameras in hand. Within minutes, a Canada Coast Guard vessel came in sight.
Having identified the approaching vessel, we turned our attention to Hebron – its few buildings and the surrounding landscape. Hebron is north of the tree line, but the undulating landscape is softened by grasses and low shrubs. The handful of remaining buildings and cluster of tents on the left made me very aware that there’s no easy access to this isolated spot. Travelers arrive by plane, boat or overland by snowmobile in winter.
As at Gros Morne, the passengers who enrolled in the optional kayaking program disembarked first, paddling towards the shore for a closer look at the partially-restored and renovated church.
The wildlife highlight of the kayaking excursion was sighting a black bear a short distance from the tiny Hebron settlement.
Once again, we traveled by Zodiac from ship to shore. The arrangement of rock formations in the little bay was the perfect set-up for making it look like the Resolute was grounded!
Once ashore, we changed into more comfortable hiking boots, stashing our expedition boots and dry packs near one of the Zodiacs tied up to a convenient stone on the shore. That’s the Canadian Coast Guard vessel in the distance.
One of the buildings just up from the shore has partially collapsed. As the tour progressed, we learned this was the Hudson’s Bay store, an essential part of the Hebron settlement. The past 60 years have brought it tumbling part-way down.
While we waited for our fellow passengers to be ferried ashore by Zodiac, one of the summer-resident Inuit walked past, wearing a florescent safety vest and what we soon learned was a gun for protection against bears, especially polar bears.
Once everyone was ashore, we were divided into smaller groups. Each group was assigned an Inuit guide.
We headed off with our group towards the largest building at Hebron: the partially restored Moravian church. Mounted to the end closest to the shore is the plaque identifying Hebron as a National Historic Site, a designation awarded in 1976. Just to the left of the sign are bite marks left by a problem polar bear that was in the area the week before.
Once inside the church (women through the women’s entrance, men through the men’s entrance as is the Moravian custom), we met our guide, Levy Noah Nochasak.
I was not the only one in the church with tears silently rolling down my cheeks by the time Levy shared his story…
The Moravian church founded its Hebron mission in 1830. Over more than two centuries, the settlement slowly grew. The Inuit who came to call Hebron home received religious instruction,schooling, medical care and had access to the Hudson Bay store.
Life was hard, with periodic epidemics of whooping cough, smallpox and influenza. The Spanish flu outbreak in 1918 was particularly devastating. There was a shortage of firewood. And at the age of 5, the children were sent to residential school (which had heartbreaking parallels to church-run Indian residential schools in other parts of Canada).
In 1959, when Levy was two years old, church officials used an Easter service to inform the residents that the mission was closing and that all members of the 58 resident families would be moved to other towns on the coast of Labrador.
There was no consultation. Because the Inuit people respected the church leaders, they obeyed. By the fall of that year, Hebron was empty.
The forced re-locations had terrible consequences: promised housing was not available; extended families were torn apart; and they were not familiar with the land where they were moved so hunting, fishing and trapping were difficult – even more so because the best locations had already been claimed. Poverty was common.
I’ve since learned the same thing happened 3 years earlier at the Moravian mission in Nutak.
In 2005, almost half a century later, the Honourable Danny Williams, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, apologized for the manner in which the decision to close Nutak and Hebron was made and for the difficulties experienced by former residents and their descendents as a result of the closures. In 2009, a monument was installed at Hebron, with the text of the apology and the names to everyone forced to move. Subsequently, Inuit leaders installed a second monument accepting the apology.
Beginning in 2004, with funding from the Nanutsiavut government, specially-trained (mostly volunteer) Inuit are working to restore and renovate the original church. The foundation has been stabilized and restoration work is on-going, limited by scant funding and the fact that volunteers are on site for just six weeks per year.
The architecture is highly representative of Moravian design: Germanic, with a steep elongated roof, small dormers and a cupola. It’s one of the oldest standing mission buildings in Canada. We saw evidence of restoration work underway in just about every room.
Some of us took advantage of the opportunity to climb up a steep wooden ladder and clamber into the cupola for a bird’s eye view of the site. In one direction, a group of passengers was making the short walk to the fenced cemetery…
…where another group was examining grave markers and seeing first hand the separate areas for Inuit and missionaries’ graves.
Another group was gathered around the apology and acceptance monuments.
Our group soon took their place…
…and looking at the list of names, I felt tears well up again.
Then it was our turn to walk to the cemetery, accompanied by a gun-carrying, Inuit bear guard – just in case a polar bear came around.
Back outside the church, on the way back to our Zodiac, I spotted some blossoming chives. I couldn’t help but wonder which of the 300 residents had tended the garden plot that has been reabsorbed into the landscape, save for one hardy plant. Apparently there are some rhubarb plants at the site that have also survived the past 60 years untended by human hands.
After lunch aboard the RCGS Resolute, passengers had the option of staying aboard, a Zodiac excursion along the shoreline, an easy hike or a more challenging trek for strong hikers. With opportunities to hike few and far between on this expedition cruise, we opted for the strong hikers group.
In all the years we’ve been hiking, this was a unique experience. First, we were accompanied by two bear guards – gun carrying Inuit – who were always within view on nearby ridges and outcrops, keeping a sharp eye out for polar bears. This was so unusual that I didn’t even think to ask what kind of guns they carried. Second, there were no trails! We were always within sight of the shoreline and usually had a sight line to the church, so there was no risk of getting lost. But after so many years of sticking to established trails, I definitely experienced mental dissonance in this regard.
We saw cotton grass and boggy areas…
…and beautiful shoreline views.
Here’s one of our bear guards, with the church building in the background.
There were swarms of mosquitoes! We’d packed the bug hats we bought for our 2015 trip to Iceland and this was the first day we’d taken them out of our suitcase. Thank goodness we had them. A couple of the expedition guides who accompanied the strong hiking group also had bug net hats, but the rest of the group used bug repellent, waved their hands, smacked their arms and necks or were impervious! 🙂
Trip photographer Adeline Heymann took a group photo at one of the ridge line, stone navigation markers.
One of our bear guards looking over the land.
A few remnants of snow reminded us how short the summer season is at such northern latitudes.
Our other bear guard, in a florescent safety vest so he can be easily spotted.
This was about as far as we ventured from the shoreline.
A couple of hours after we set out, we were back at the Zodiacs for our return ride to the RCGS Resolute.
This stop, more than any other, made me truly regret that we were unable to stop at Hopedale due to the fueling detour at the start of the trip that seriously disrupted the planned itinerary. Some of the Hebron residents were relocated to the Moravian mission at Hopedale. We missed the opportunity to learn even more about this little-known, tragic chapter of Canadian history.
I have since done some reading about the Inuit nation and the Nunatsiavut government. If you’re interested in learning more about Inuit self-government in Atlantic Canada and/or the history of the Inuit, I highly recommend this article in The Walrus magazine.