Becoming a dog musher was Harry Okpik's childhood dream. But during the Dog Slaughter in the early 1960s, when government agents shot thousands of Inuit huskies across the Canadian Arctic, 11-year-old Harry saw the sky turn red and thought his dream forever destroyed. Twelve years later, after traumatic residential schooling, another personal tragedy struck when he suffered a shooting accident. Three years of intense hospitalization and estrangement from his community followed. Then Harry made the harrowing decision to amputate his leg – one he believed would forever rob him of his hopes of becoming a real man, a father, a true Inuk; a decision that would lead him to recovery and back to his home, the north. Filmed over the course of several seasons, we follow Harry as he recounts the momentous events of his life and cares for his magnificent husky dogs in preparation for the Ivakkak – a gruelling 600 km Inuit dog sled race across the Canadian Arctic.
Credits - Film
Written and Directed by | Laura Rietveld
Produced by | Katarina Soukup
With | Harry Sam Willy Okpik
Also Appearing | Michelle Dionne DMV, Adamie Michaud, Matthew Okpik, Susie Okpik, Tappia Okpik, Johnny Oovaut
Directors of Photography | Alexandre Domingue, Alex Margineanu, Stefan Nitoslawski
Editor | Heidi Haines
Original Music | Ramachandra Borcar
Featured Throatsinger | Sylvia Cloutier
End Credits Music | Jaaji Okpik
Sound | Kyle Stanfield, Lynne Trépanier, Mélanie Gauthier, Benoît Coailler, Claude Langlois, Lise Wedlock
Credits - Website
Produced by | Katarina Soukup
Creative Director | Dominic Turmel
Technical Director | David Mongeau-Petitpas (Folklore)
Front-end Developer | Julien Carignan (Folklore)
Content Experts | Laura Rietveld, Jobie Weetaluktuk
Writers | David Eng, Jobie Weetaluktuk
Original Music | Ramachandra Borcar
Web Capsule Editors | Tamara Sherbak, Heidi Haines
Laura Rietveld – Writer & Director
Laura Rietveld left a successful career in corporate media sales to tell thought-provoking, socially relevant stories. Laura has written and narrated for Outfront, CBC Radio One. Her first feature length documentary, Okpik’s Dream, an exploration of Inuit identity in today’s modern world, reflects her deep interest in the human story behind news headlines. This interest and drive is informed by her previous work with Indigenous peoples in South America, experiences in South Africa after apartheid, walking 900 km along The Camino de Santiago, and by her former career with one of Canada’s largest media organizations. With formal business training and a love of the natural world, Laura relies on a unique skill set to bring her creative vision to the screen. She holds an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario and a BA in history from Queen’s University, Canada.
KATARINA SOUKUP – Producer
Before founding her company Catbird Productions in 2006, independent producer Katarina Soukup worked for many years as documentary and multimedia producer with Isuma Productions, the award-winning Inuit team behind the Canadian cinema classic Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (Caméra d’or, Cannes 2001). Catbird Productions is dedicated to producing feature-length, broadcast and interactive documentaries about music, the arts, culture, human rights and the environment. Recent titles include Lost Rivers (Radio-Canada, ARTV, CBC Documentary, NHK), Come Worry With Us! (SuperChannel) by award-winning Canadian filmmaker Helene Klodawsky, and the acclaimed web documentary Burgundy Jazz (Radio-Canada/CBC Music), winner of a Digi Award, a Prix Boomerang, and a Prix Numix; and nominated for a Canadian Screen Award, a Prix Gémeaux, a Webby Award, and a Rockie Award from the Banff World Media Festival.
ALEXANDRE DOMINGUE – DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
As director of photography, Alexandre Domingue has travelled to over 40 countries to work on both fiction and documentary films. He has collaborated extensively with Igloolik Isuma Productions, the Inuit production team behind Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (Caméra d’or, Cannes 2001). He collaborated as cameraman on Isuma’s feature film Before Tomorrow (Best First Canadian Feature – 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, Official Selection Sundance Film Festival 2008), and was most recently director of photography on Catbird documentaries Tusarnituuq! Nagano in the Land of the Inuit (2009) and Lost Rivers (2012). Domingue is also founder/owner of Post-moderne, a Montreal-based post-production house.
Heidi Haines – editor
Heidi Haines is a Montreal-based film editor. A BFA graduate of Concordia University, she first started cutting music videos for a wide range of artists, from Céline Dion to the Barenaked Ladies. She then moved to commercials and fiction, and most recently focuses her love of the craft on perhaps the most challenging form for an editor: the documentary film. Her strong sense of rhythm and storytelling helped win a Grammy Award for Best Music Film with All Together Now; a Best Canadian Documentary Award from the International Festival of Films on Art for Karsh is History, a Gemini for Danser Perreault, a Gémeaux for Gratien Gélinas, a Golden Knight Award for Best Feature Film with Secretariat’s Jockey: Ron Turcotte, among other prizes and nominations. Her most recent work is on Okpik's Dream, a beautiful and compelling film about an Inuit musher.
Ramachandra Borcar – Composer
Following his studies in classical composition, orchestration and electro-acoustic music at McGill University, Ram spent several years touring internationally as a DJ and released two albums with his Ramasutra project. For the past ten years Ram’s extensive and diverse work as a film & TV composer has garnered critical acclaim and numerous awards including the 2014 Jutra Award for his work on the film Roche Papier Cisseaux (Rock Paper Scissors). Throughout his film career he’s been recognized as one of the most diverse composers in the field and has often used unusual instruments in his work. He has composed music in a wide variety of styles including big band jazz, full orchestra, ambient soundscapes, atonal chamber music, post rock, traditional ethnic music and experimental electronics.
Sylvia Cloutier - FEATURED THROATSINGER
Sylvia Cloutier's throatsinging is featured in Ramachandra Borcar's original music for Okpik's Dream. Originally from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik (Northern Quebec) and presently based in Montreal, Sylvia is a mother, performing artist, producer, director, well known for Inuit throat singing and drum dancing and has collaborated with artists all over the world including Think of One from Belgium; Tafelmusik, a Toronto based baroque orchestra; and Montréal based DJ Madeskimo. Sylvia is also the co-founder of a performance company Aqsarniit, producing shows that promote Inuit culture for special events such as Nunavut Celebration at the Museum of civilization in April 1999, Toonik Tyme and Alianait festival in Iqaluit, and Canadian North Airlines' 2007 Nunavut Day Gala. Sylvia is the Producer and Co-director of TULUGAK which has united performing artists from Nunavik, Nunavut and Greenland since 2011.
Jaaji Okpik - End Credits Music
I perform by my Inuit name Jaaji. I grew up in Quaqtaq in Nunavik. I am a 37 year old father of 4 and I reside in Ottawa. I grew up around music but it wasn’t until I was 20 I taught myself to play guitar. I was raised by my maternal grandparents, being and taught the traditional ways of our ancestors, hunting and fishing and living on the land. Music was always a way to sooth my soul. I am often in the mood for my own songs, they were all written with reason and it helps me to take the time to reflect on life. My songs are a representation of family and friends which is a big part of my life.
A Hardworking Member of the Famly
For thousands of years, the semi-nomadic Inuit relied upon sled dogs for their basic survival. Inuit considered their sled dogs to be an integral part of the family and a necessary tool for human existence. The Sled dogs – known as Qimmiq, Canadian Inuit Dog, Canadian Eskimo Dog or Canadian husky – have a strong prey drive and were essential for hunting animals such as caribou, bears or even seal when local seal populations became depleted. In addition, the strength and stamina of the dogs were required for family and group mobility.
Sled Dogs are imposing, muscular and powerful, though as usual the females are smaller. Their appearance superficially resembles the wolf, however they do not share any recent ancestry. Huskies require a great deal of exercise and space and thus aren’t as suitable as house pets. They also prefer the cold and are prone to heatstroke due to their thick coat. Inuit allow their dogs to run free in their seasonal camps, especially in the summer, in order to release energy, to find food and water, and retain their health. They are known to be very intelligent and loyal. Although they can be temperamental around strange people or dogs, they are otherwise very gentle.
Throughout Inuit history, the dogs numbered in the tens of thousands. As their numbers fell precipitously in the 1950s and 1960s, due to the impact of modernization and the dog slaughter, they became threatened with extinction. An effort by people like Harry Okpik, his fellow dogsledders, and Inuit organizations is being made to increase their numbers.
Purebred Husky Traits
- BODY The husky has a generally robust and muscular body. It has a slightly long and straight back; a stumpy neck; a strong, deep and broad thorax; and sturdy legs
- HEAD Its head is well-proportioned – a bit wide with a dome-shaped skull, and a square pointed muzzle that is generally black or dark brown. It often has a mask around the eyes.
- EARS The ears are triangular, short, erect and point slightly towards the front.
- EYES The eyes are generally brown, almond-shaped, slightly oblique, not too wide, and with dark rims.
- TAIL The tail is a bushy tuft curling up just above the small of the back
- FUR Its fur is thick, straight, long or semi-long, and often longer around the neck and chest forming a lion-like ruff. Colours can vary from white, black, grey, brownish yellow, reddish brown or any combination.
- WEIGHT Approximately 25 to 50 kilograms
- HEIGHT 50 to 70 centimetres (from the withers down)
The Dog Slaughter
The slaughter of Inuit sled dogs was an unofficial campaign by Canadian and Quebec government officials or their representatives to rid the north of dogs in the 1950s and 1960s. In the middle of the 20th century, the Canadian Government sought to assert Arctic Sovereignty as a result of the Cold War, and to resolve “the Eskimo problem” by sedentarizing and forcibly resettling Inuit in permanent centres. Hundreds of Inuit families in Quebec, and the then-Northwest-Territories, were relocated to unfamiliar and distant settlements – sometimes up to 2000 kilometres further north – and made to assimilate. As a result, the previously self-sufficient Inuit became increasingly dependent and impoverished, while their dogs were deprived of their much-needed exercise and freedom of movement. Then over a period of two decades, most of the Canadian Arctic dog population was subject to frequent mass killings by the RCMP and government agents.
Makivik continued lobbying the Quebec government, and Judge Jean-Jacques Croteau was appointed to lead an investigation in Nunavik. Although he found no definitive proof of an official, systematic plan to kill Inuit dogs, he nonetheless acknowledged that hundreds of dogs were killed in the communities he investigated. He discovered “officers had a total lack of awareness of the culture of the Inuit people and it’s relationship to natural resources, the land, the climate, the environment and finally to their companions, the sled dogs.” Furthermore, because the sled dogs were so critical to Inuit livelihood and way of life, Judge Croteau also determined that the “whole of Inuit society suffered the harmful and damaging consequences.” He held both the Canadian and Quebec governments accountable.
A Living Tradition
Ivakkak is Nunavik’s own sled dog race. After the Inuit of Nunavik realized the devastating impact of the dog slaughter, they considered ways to bring back the sled dog from near-extinction. Ivakkak was the solution: they would create a sled dog race for Inuit mushers. The name is from the Inuktitut word for “trotting” or "when the dogs are at their best pace," since many elders had fond memories of trotting for miles by dogsled. With years of lobbying and final success, the Makivik Corporation launched the Ivakkak race on March 28, 2001. Nine teams left from Umiujaq to Puvirnituq, approximately 440 kilometers along the coast of Hudson’s Bay.
The first Ivakkak was won by Puvirnituq elder Tamusi Sivuaraapik. Harry Okpik didn’t participate in that first race, but has raced every time since. Ivakkak has continued with a different course each year but always traverses hundreds of kilometres through several communities in Nunavik. In this way, the appreciation for their tradition and contact with sled dogs is shared with everyone. Most Nunavik communities have been able to field a dogteam, and some have as many as three.
After initial guidance by Makivik, Ivakkak became self-governing. When members desired to race in a more traditional fashion with less snowmobile support, they modified the guidelines in 2006 to allow a partner to ride with them. This change also allows mushers to pass on their skill and knowledge to younger generations, who act informally as apprentices. Minnie Ninguruvik of Kangirsuk, the only woman so far who has participated in Ivakkak, partnered with her father Noah. In recent years, the race has taken place during a full moon so that racers caught out at night can find their way by moonlight. It is a demanding, challenging race that requires a great deal of responsibility.
Current rules stipulate that a racer and partner can run a team of 8 to 12 dogs. Participants can range in age from a minimum of 16 up to and including elders. They are required to use traditional Nunavik-style sleds of 14 to 16 feet in length. The dogs must be Eskimo or Husky dogs, purebred or as close as possible. Siberian Huskies and blue-eyed dogs (indicating mixed breeds) are forbidden.
Makivik provides a veterinarian during the race, and sick or injured dogs are sent home. Scouts, safety patrols, and race officials are employed to safeguard racers and race conditions. They have been required on occasion when participants experience health problems, become lost or if the race needs to be suspended due to winter storms. Ivakkak enjoys strong support in the region. Regional organizations are proud to be associated with the race. Makivik Corporation is the main sponsor and organizer, while Air Inuit provides free airfare for racers and their dogs. The ongoing success of Ivakkak is a proud accomplishment for the Inuit of Nunavik.
In the film, the Ivakkak Race ends in Puvirnituq, which holds a Snow Festival every two years. Musicians and performers from across the North perform for enthralled crowds, world-renowned carvers create magnificent snow sculptures on the frozen sea ice, and the community hosts a massive feast in a vibrant celebration of Inuit culture. The entire village comes out to cheer the Ivakkak racers on as they cross the finish line and join the Snow Festival festivities. The mushers are revered for their determination, courage and skill.
Harry Okpik & his dogs
Harry Okpik was born in Quaqtaq in 1954. He is married and is the father of five children, one biological and four adopted (Inuit adoption is common and adoptees are considered to be no different than birth children). Matthew and Tappia appear in the film and are his youngest son and daughter. Harry Okpik is a KRG (Kativik Regional Government) nature officer, one of the longest serving in Nunavik. Harry is also a lay veterinarian for Quaqtaq (due to a veterinarian shortage in the Arctic, the provincial Ministry of Agriculture allows trained laypersons to provide basic care such as vaccinations).
Harry begins raising his dogs from when they are puppies, not just for racing but because "they are good for his health" and because it is an interesting lifelong challenge for him. He likes to bring his puppies indoors so that they are easier to train. He spends a great deal of time with them in order for them to get to know him. After naming them, he begins teaching them right away so that the young dogs get used to his voice and commands. This training process also gives him a sense of which dogs are smarter or more reliable. Harry says "raising sled dogs not only requires knowledge, but also patience and a lot of time." It takes at least a couple of years to raise a good team since they not only need to be able to pull, but they need to be responsive and trustworthy.
Whether one chooses to hunt and fish or to buy dry food, raising a team can also be expensive since the dogs need to be well-fed. Harry says, "I cannot eat if my dogs are hungry. I feel guilty." Most agree that it’s best for the dogs to be fed country food, i.e. hunted and gathered food such fish, caribou, seal, walrus or whale meat. Dogs don’t require as much food in the summer because they’re less active. But as it gets colder, they should be fed more fatty foods which will help their fur to grow thick, advises Harry. "During the cold winter days, feeding your dogs fat becomes even more important as they will need it to keep warm."
Inuit ancestors arrived in the area thousands of years ago. The peninsula became a winter campsite because it was near the limit of land-fast ice. Fur companies built trading posts in the late 1920s and 1930s in nearby Iggiajaaq, but when they were closed around 1950, the Inuit residents moved to Quaqtaq where a Catholic mission was established in 1947.
Quaqtaq didn’t receive public services as early as in other communities because its population was too small, consisting of a handful of semi-nomadic families. But after a measles epidemic tore through the area in 1952 and killed 11 adults (10% of the population), the federal government began providing some basic care. In the 1960s, a nursing station was built and the Quebec government opened a store and a post office with a radio-telephone. In 1978, Quaqtaq was legally established as a Northern village.
Currently, the population is approximately 400, the majority of whom are under the age of 30. Its citizens are called Quaqtamiut.
David Okpik (also known as Tivi Uppik) was born in 1934 in an igloo. He is a father of eight. Harry Okpik is his oldest son and child. It is Harry’s early memories of dogsledding with his father that sparked his lifelong passion. One of the first to speak English in Quaqtaq, David became known as "David the Hunter" for his expertise and success in harvesting country food (traditionally hunted and gathered food). In 1980, he was elected as the community’s first mayor. In the spring of 1985, he discovered JfEj-3, an important geological and archeological quarry site a few kilometres south of Quaqtaq. He became an actor and played the character “Pualuna” in the 1992 movie Shadow of the Wolf starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Toshirô Mifune and Donald Sutherland.
He was a Lay Minister for Quaqtaq's Anglican congregation. He was appointed member of the federal environmental review panel, as well as a member of the Quebec provincial environmental agency which assessed the environmental impacts of development in Nunavik. He retired from the Kativik Environmental Advisory Committee in 2009 after almost three decades of service.
When asked about Harry’s dogsledding, David says “I used to say…don’t do that. I find it a bit too hard for him.” It’s a lot of work to feed the dogs year round and especially in the cold. Harry has to have guts and be a fighter to dogsled."