Bill Kemp, pictured here in the Rift Valley, dedicated much of his life to ensuring Inuit had sovereignty over their own research.
By Stephen Hendrie
Photos courtesy of Lorraine Brooke
Any attempt to map the life of Bill Kemp – a giant of a man in the Arctic – is a tough assignment. The tributes are numerous, the stories hilarious, and his life’s work will be mapped for years to come.
Bill was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1936. He did his early studies in the USA in the 1960s – a time of social revolution. As a student, his first trip to the Arctic was to canoe the Coppermine River in 1961. He worked in South Baffin Island where he lived with Inuit at a camp outside of Kimmirut for two years. He was named ‘Inukpaq’ – a very large person. He first came to Nunavik in 1963, conducting annual field work on traditional land use until 1969.
In 1970 he became a professor in the Department of Geography at McGill University in Montreal. He was a beloved teacher, relating his personal experiences with Inuit across the Arctic. It was there he met his wife Lorraine, and they were together until his passing on January 5, 2020.
Bill and Lorraine gave an interview to TaqralikMagazine in June, 2019. They talked about the creation of the Nunavik Research Centre. Lorraine said, “There’s a nice irony in that the original Research Centre was in the renovated Taqralik office, that little blue building on main street. We started with a staff of four.”
The need for an Inuit-led research centre grew from the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Bill recalled lengthy discussions with Charlie Watt, Mark R. Gordon, Johnny Peters, and Zebedee Nungak. The original issues of concern were contaminants, such as mercury, as well as Inuit knowledge and data, which lead to a comprehensive land use and ecological mapping project. There was also an archeological side, led by Daniel Weetaluktuk of Inukjuak.
“Behind all of this was a philosophy from Mark R. Gordon and Daniel Weetaluktuk about the need for information self-sufficiency,” said Bill. “I remember them saying, ‘unless we get the chance to take this over, we’ll always be the victim of somebody else’s information system.’”
In many respects, Bill dedicated much of his life to ensuring Inuit had sovereignty over research. He was involved in the development of the early eider duck, beluga, and charr studies. The harvest study was also a major project, which involved pretty much all hunters in Nunavik writing down in booklets what was caught, “from clams to polar bears,” said Bill. “I think there are five volumes of the harvest study, which are still in existence, and are considered to be one of the best background evaluations of resource availability for management purposes.”
Reflecting on the importance of these historical studies, Bill said, “You know the value that this information has is its historical depth, drawn from interviews from Inuit who were elders in 1974, and its identification of territory, and travel routes, and it can’t be argued against. These were just unbiased interviews that provided information that now has an extreme relevance.”
In the 1970s Bill also contributed to a ground-breaking project for the mapping of Inuit land use and occupancy for the 34 Inuit communities and outlying camps throughout the NWT as a starting point for Nunavut land claim negotiations. The Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project was run by the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, now ITK.
Bill expanded his work on cultural heritage, mapping, and Indigenous rights to other parts of the world. He worked with the Maya Indians in southern Belize. In South Africa he helped map and document San Bushmen land use to help reconnect with traditional lands. Other ports of call included war-torn Croatia, biodiversity conservation in Vietnam, the Nile Basin in Africa, and tsunami relief in Indonesia.
His love of history, maintaining traditions, documenting the past, and living life slowly were manifested in his rambling historic house in Montreal. With Lorraine, he loved to host large dinner parties, and looked forward to a huge Christmas gathering of family and friends each year. Don Allard noted that Bill was in fine form for a last holiday supper last December, before he left us all in early January. He died of cancer.
He leaves behind his life partner Lorraine, and his children Ellen, Caroline, and Andrew, their spouses Cesare and Marnie, and his granddaughters Maya, Emma, Amelia and Isabelle. He also leaves behind a legacy of Arctic research and was a mentor to many. Hugh Brody wrote a moving tribute to Bill published on January 30 in Nunatsiaq News. The heartfelt accolades following the story from friends across the Arctic and around the world help map the contour lines on the life of Bill Kemp.