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Renatus’ Kayak

Dr. Rozanne Enerson Junker is a CNS member who divides her time between San Francisco and Blue Sea, Quebec. She has a PhD in political science but has also studied anthropology, history and economics. In 2008, her interest in her Norwegian and Danish roots (six of her great grandparents were Norwegian and one was Danish) led her to sign up for an excursion to visit Viking sites in Iceland, Greenland, Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland. On her return to California, she visited her uncle, Elwood (Woody) Belsheim, to tell him about her trip. But it turned out that Woody was not really interested in the Vikings - all he wanted to know was whether she had visited Hebron, a small settlement at the northern end of Labrador. In Rozanne’s talk to the CNS on October 17, she told us how her visit with her uncle resulted in what was to become a new excursion into a very different past.

Hebron was originally established by the Moravian Church as a mission to convert the Inuk to Christianity. Rozanne’s Uncle Woody was stationed at a secret weather station there as a young American G.I. during World War II. He and six others recorded the weather measurements needed to ensure the safe delivery of over 10,000 military planes to European Allies, and coded them so they couldn’t be read by German U-Boats offshore. At that time, in addition to the Moravian mission, Hebron included a trading operation , one Newfoundland Ranger, and some Inuk families.

Hebron


There was not much to do in such a northern, isolated settlement, especially in winter. Luckily for Woody, an Inuk named Renatus Tuglavina took him under his wing. Woody was impressed with the skills of the Inuk and their ability to flourish in such a harsh environment. He told Rozanne that when they went hunting together, he saw that Renatus had removed the sights from his guns. His shot was so straight that he never missed and never wasted a bullet or killed what wasn’t needed. Everything he killed was shared with his community.


Renatus had a daughter named Harriot. She spoke no English but Woody applied himself to learning the Inuks’ language and he and Harriot became close. Woody credited Renatus and Harriot with helping him to maintain his sanity during his stay at the weather station.

On August 3, 1945, Woody had no choice but to leave Hebron. The War was ending and there was no longer any need for the weather station there. Before he left, Renatus presented him with a model sealskin kayak. Woody presented Harriot with his graduation ring and two pillows. For the rest of his life, Harriot stayed on Woody’s mind. He hoped that she had married someone who appreciated her kind nature and would care for her. He asked Rozanne if she would find out what had become of her, and he gave her the model kayak Renatus had presented to him in 1945. Rozanne knew she needed to bring that kayak back to Labrador.

And so began a multi-year research and writing adventure that would take Rozanne across the U.S.A. and Canada many times in search of Moravian, Hudson’s Bay Company, Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial archives. She did research at Library and Archives Canada, the Canadian War Museum and eventually travelled to Devon, England in search of a key figure in Renatus’s life.

Rozanne’s book, “Renatus’ Kayak,” starts out with the interesting story of the northern weather stations in World War II, both German and Allied, and we learn how important they were to the overall War effort. It then moves on to the peculiar story of Hebron itself - the Moravian missionaries who settled there almost 200 years ago, the trading post, government employees and other Europeans who lived there at various times, and the Inuk who interacted with them in different ways and with different results. It is no surprise that the character of the individuals themselves was the key to either mutual respect or complete lack of understanding.


The book explains how Woody’s early life experiences made him one of those who was curious and open to others. Renatus’s strong spirit and individuality shine through in the various mentions of him that Rozanne uncovered in her research.

Rozanne felt deeply compelled to pursue this quest, and encountered many remarkable coincidences that assisted her and encouraged her to continue. The resulting book immerses us in a time and place that is now history. The Inuk of Hebron were forced to transition from one kind of life to a completely different one in 1959 as their entire community was moved further south to Nain, on the central coast of Labrador. The kayak that Renatus presented to Woody and Rozanne’s book about it, its creator, and its origins, have been placed in a new cultural centre in Nain. And so this small, poignant moment in time that encapsulates such significant events in Canadian history, lives on.



CNS member France Rivet’s company Polar Horizons is the publisher of “Renatus Kayak.” Polar Horizons concentrates its efforts on historical research, enabling the Inuit community to rediscover a part of its history that is hidden in the archives and thus contributing to the processes of reconciliation and healing. “Renatus Kayak” can be ordered directly from the Polar Horizons bookstore (https://polarhorizons.com/en/bookstore).

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