From the French resistance to Nunavut: The love story between Gabriel Gély and the Inuit

Gabriel Gély, a French painter who spent much of his life alongside the Inuit, died at the end of November in Selkirk, Man., at the age of 96. To the University of Manitoba, he left his archival collection of photos that document the lives of people in the Canadian North from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Nothing predestined Gély, who was born in Paris, France in 1924, to live the majority of his life in the Canadian Far North. But after participating in the resistance during the Second World War, a young Gély fell in love with the Canadian Arctic after seeing an exhibition of Inuit art in the storefront of the Librairie Sainte-Beuve in Paris. He gathered all his savings and left for Canada in 1952.

“He said that the living conditions in France and the situation after the war were really desperate,” said Shelley Sweeney, the retired head of the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, who knew Gély personally.

“After some time in southern Canada, where he sold cameras, he moved to Nunavut.”

In 1953, when he was 29 years old, Gély obtained a position as a cook with Transport  Canada.

Atasluk with unidentified child, Arviat, 1977. (University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Gabriel Gély Fonds)

“He said to himself, ‘I’m French, I should be able to cook,'” recalls his longtime friend, Michael Shouldice, who has held various positions in the Far North, and still lives in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

“He was chosen because he was the one who, of all the applicants, was the most motivated to go to the North, according to what the recruiter had told him.”

Over the years, Gély worked at several weather stations located in Clyde River (Kanngiqtugaapik), Ennadai Lake on Baffin Island, and Sachs Harbor (Ikaahuk) on Banks Island.

Feeding the hungry 

Gély quickly became friends with some of the Inuit around his postings. His compassion led him to break the rules and give food from his workplace to the men, women and children of Ennadai Lake who were on the brink of starvation.

According to legend, he was nicknamed “back door” or “bottom of the stairs” by the people he helped, after the location where the food was stored.

“I don’t think his bosses were too happy with him, but he would bring in people and he would give them food and flour and let them eat,” said Shouldice. “People never forgot that about him.”

Until his death, they remembered him for his kindness and compassion.– Michael Shouldice, longtime friend of Gabriel Gély

Everywhere Gély went, he left a mark in people’s hearts.

“He talked to everyone, and everybody wanted to talk to him. Walking from one end of Eskimo Point to the other took forever if you walked with him because everyone wanted to shake his hand, share a good story, a smile. People loved him and he loved this community. He spoke well of them all the time,” said Shouldice.

In 1988, Gély and Shouldice raised funds to allow the elders to return to their ancestral lands near Ennadai Lake. A television crew from CBC’s The Fifth Estate followed their journey.

Defender of Inuit art

Gabriel Gély worked all of his life toward the recognition of Inuit art. 

During a radio interview on Radio-Canada’s show Partage du jour, in 1964, Gély said the commercial aspect of art “completely escapes” the Inuit.

For them, “the world market is an abstraction,” he said. “They don’t know what we’re talking about because, unless they’ve been exposed to southern markets, they can’t imagine that there are maybe a million people around the world who are interested in their art.”

Moreover, Gély could be very vocal when something or someone annoyed him, like people who bought carvings in Northern Canada for a low price and sold them for several thousands of dollars in the South.

“Gabriel was very vocal about the inequity of things like that,” said Shouldice.

Pangullaq, right, with his wife Ulujak. This photo was taken by Gabriel Gély at Ennadai Lake in 1954. (University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Gabriel Gély Fonds)

His legacy: a photographic testimony of life in the Arctic

In addition to the memories, Gély leaves hundreds of photographs which bear witness to life in the Canadian Far North between 1954 and 1987. An archival collection has been established at the University of Manitoba with this material.

“The collection is comprised of almost 600 black-and-white and colour photographs, more than 2,000 negatives, close to 700 slides, publications, [and] a manuscript,” said Sweeney. The photographs were taken throughout Gély’s life and they “cover communities such as Arviat, Pioneertown, Clyde River, Eskimo Point and quite a few other northern communities.”

His photos depict scenes of daily life, whether it is a caribou hunt, a sculptor at work or even discussions around a table on which small Inuit artworks can be seen.

“That’s what makes his photos valuable,” said Sweeney.

Gabriel always had a sketchbook and a camera. It was his ‘petit joujou.’– Michael Shouldice, longtime friend of Gabriel Gély

The documents left by Gély provide precious information on life in the Far North especially during a period for which there is little documentation.

“It gives a glimpse into a way of life that even Nunavut people might not recognize today,” said Sweeney.

She notes that his pictures have been used “very little” so far. But she hopes that will change “and [the photos will] provide new insights that researchers can take advantage of.”

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