Bressay man’s time in the Arctic was wide-ranging and memorable

A Shetlander who emigrated to Canada at the age of 17 is to be featured in a BBC documentary on Wednesday.

Jimmie Deyell left Bressay on 22nd August 1965 to join the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Arctic. He remained with the HBC and its successor The North West Company until he retired three years ago, and thanks to his work with the company he is known as a “Bay Boy lifer”.

Jimmie married a Scottish-born nurse, Jeanette, who worked in the Arctic communities and they currently live in Ottawa. Now his life and work, along with that of four other Scots who emigrated to work for the company, is the subject of a documentary film.

Jimmie had a job to go to when he left Shetland – the Hudson’s Bay Company recruited extensively in northern Scotland for people to work in their stores. “It was either that or the Merchant Navy,” he said. He was happy in the choice he made. “I would do it all over again.” Jimmie flew to Canada and three days after leaving home he was in the Arctic (with a latitude only 300 miles north of Shetland), starting work as a trainee in the company’s stores trading goods with the Inuit.

In the 1960s the Inuit abandoned their nomadic existence and formed communities around Hudson’s Bay posts. Every outpost had a general store from which a Hudson’s Bay Boy traded basic supplies for furs brought in by Inuit hunters. These were “anything that moved”, mostly sealskin but could also be white fox or polar bear – in creek country further south it would be muskrat, mink or beaver.

Jimmie did not find the life too different from that of a crofting community in Shetland. He said: “I adapted fairly easily. People helped one another.”

Life was tough, however, with days between incoming flights and no planes at all from September to February.

“The north tends to weed you out. Running a store, you have to be self-reliant. You couldn’t pick up the phone, there were no phones.”

Provisions were shipped in once a year, food was dehydrated or canned and milk was powdered. Communication was by radio, using Morse code. But, he said: “Being remote is just a figment of the imagination.”

Over the years a relationship of mutual respect and inter-depen­dence with the Inuit developed. They needed the store – which also provided financial services, there are still no banks in the area – and the provisions. But, Jimmie said, but “we needed the Inuit far more”. They would provide food – seal, whale, walrus, duck or the fish of choice, Arctic char – and clothing made out of skins or acts as guides.

Jimmie became a manager and later a district manager, and was posted across the Arctic to run these stores, becoming a well-known figure in the 43 years until he retired. He always stayed close to the communities and learned their language, latterly becoming a company representative, liaising with the government.

His most memorable posting was to the remote island community of Sanikiluaq in Nunavit in 1968. At only 19 years old, his duties as a Bay Boy included ordering all that was required for the community, clothing, food, and ammunition.

He also had “extra curricular activities” which saw him take on the role of doctor in the community and delivered four babies. He pulled teeth, looked after dogs and gave rabies shots with nothing but a manual to guide him – and the manuals could leave him “more confused than before”.

Jimmie said: “There was no training – you were it. The re­sponsibility was very heavy. There were no aircraft coming in for months [this has now changed]. It stretched you. But the north teaches you you’re not invincible.”

It was a challenging time. As the Bay Boy Jimmie lived in a house, but the Inuit lived in tents in what he describes as “third world conditions”.

His life was difficult enough, however. The dark Arctic winters, which were “dry and arid”, with snow compacting like ice, brought severe storms and he recalls cutting ice blocks to protect his house. These blocks, three feet by two feet by 10 inches, would be placed around the house door and would freeze in place to form a porch to shield the door from the elements.

Ice blocks would also be placed round the base of the house to stop the wind blowing underneath – houses were raised from the ground so as not to disturb the permafrost. Other ice blocks were stored (off the ground out of the reach of the free-ranging working dogs belonging to the Inuit) and put into water tanks for drinking water.

Winter clothing was made from thick duffle, a long-fibred woollen cloth, with a fur trim around the face (preferably of wolverine, other furs would stick to the face). Other sought-after winter gear would be of caribou skin, which has hollow hair providing good insulation, or coats made of duckskin, perfect in wet conditions.

Jimmie was “adopted” by a local family who made sure that he was looked after, and remains very touched that their youngest child, whom he delivered, is named Jimmie after him. This is in the Inuit tradition of “sauniq”, meaning “of my bone”. Jimmie said: “This means he’s me and I’m him, we’re one.”

In this working life Jimmie has seen many changes and fears that the Inuit way of life is threatened. There is no economic base of the community, he said, due to the furore over the seal trade stirred up by Greenpeace. “The mainstay of their life and culture has been taken away. The market has been killed.”

Sealskins, were worth $32 one day, $8 the next. The Inuit, he said, are good stewards of wildlife and now there are too many seals and not enough fish.

This has serious implications and communities are in “great despair”, with the highest suicide rate among young men in Canada.

Coupled with that is a burgeoning birth rate – 75 per cent of the Inuit are under 25 – low literacy and numeracy and problems with drugs (the internet and more frequent flights make this possible).

Changes have taken place in 50 years that would have occured in hundreds of years anywhere else, Jimmie said, but he hopes that the “resilient” people will find a way through the uncertain times.

The Canadian way of life clearly appeals to Jimmie’s family. His children were born in the Hudson Bay area and his brother Frank lives in British Columbia, working in paper production. Meanwhile his youngest brother Brian works on his croft in Bressay.

  • The Hudson Bay Boys will be shown on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

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