19th-century gospel written in Inuktitut syllabics added to UNESCO register

·4 min read

Rhoda Kokiapik remembers that as a child, she visited an old "tin" church in Kuujjuarapik, Nunavik in northern Quebec.

That was years ago, and at the time, she recalls, it had real Inuit artifacts from an earlier time, including genuine Inuit clothing.

Long before her visit to the church, the region of northern Quebec had once been a place where some Inuit were first introduced to a writing system — and a new religion — by Christian missionaries in the mid-1800s.

Now, that history will be preserved in after a 19th century artifact — and the only known copy left to exist — was added to Canada Memory of the World Register, maintained by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.

It's an eight-page mini bible known as Selections from the Gospels in the dialect of the Inuit of Little Whale River.

Held by Library and Archives Canada, it captures a glimpse of earlier contact between Inuit and European settlers in the Nunavik region. It was published in 1855 and 1856 in Moose Factory, Ont., and was later distributed to Inuit in Nunavik by Christian missionaries.

It's the first publication to have been printed in Inuktitut using syllabic characters, making it particularly unique.

Catou MacKinnon/CBC
Catou MacKinnon/CBC

For Kokiapik, who is a descendant of Little Whale River, it highlights the change Inuit faced that would have a lasting legacy.

"It's quite significant for me," Kokiapik said. She was a reference for the nomination to the register.

"The fact that Inuit didn't have any writing system and that we use it today … I cannot tell if we would be introduced to another writing system."

She says neither the small bible, nor the writing system itself, is "original" per se, as Inuit never had textbooks, historically speaking.

"We are oral tradition people since 4,000 years back," Kokiapik said, "so in that sense, it was an imposed, foreign thing to us."

"Inuit had their own spiritual world, like shamanism. And then being imposed, or introduced, to this new religion … it impacted Inuit a lot because Inuit back then, in early days, were kind of intimidated by non-Inuit."

Kokiapik says at the time, Inuit travelled "hundreds and hundreds of kilometres" by dog sled to go to church, possibly marking the bible's influence.

At the same time, it seems Inuit had an influence on the churches too.

"I remember the environment I felt in that church," Kokiapik said recalling the one she visited as a child. "I didn't see it as a church oriented feeling but more like culture … because all these artifacts were there and they were original."

Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada

The 11 cm by 16.5 cm book is made up of three sheets of brown paper folded in half, bound to brown paper covering and held together with string. There are no page numbers on it, nor does it have a title, according to Arctic historian Kenn Harper. The inside has a syllabarium and on the front, written in "longhand," reads "Eskimo Manuel."

Last book left

For years, Harper says it was believed that there weren't any surviving copies of the short publication.

Then in 1993, Canada's national library acquired a copy from an antiquarian book dealer in Saskatchewan.

Harper, who helped do the documentation for the book for its nomination to the registry, explained that the writing is more of a transliteration instead of a direct translation, and it borrowed from the Cree writing system.

He says the writing in the book is unique from current, standardized Inuktitut syllabics. He says the writing system, even in its early stage, should be preserved.

"In recent years syllabics have been controversial," Harper said, adding there's debate about whether its use should be scrapped.

"I think it's important that the history of syllabics be recognized and understood."

It's not likely there are any other copies of the small bible that have yet to be discovered, Harper added.

Added among other historic documents

The register keeps a list of other tangible "heritage documents" that offer a glimpse of significant history for a country.

Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada

It includes items such as the Marshall McLuhan collection and short films by Norman McLaren, one of Canada's most celebrated filmmakers, known for his innovative approach to animation.

The register also lists works such as the Gutenberg Bible, the original manuscript of the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, the German silent film Metropolis and The Wizard of Oz.

Among the first Canadian entries on the registry include the Hudson's Bay Company archival records and the Quebec Seminary Collection, from 1623 to 1800.

"We have a collective memory that is way more diverse than people believe," said Chantal Fortier, chair of the Canadian Advisory Committee for Memory of the World.

Fortier says the organization emphasized Indigenous languages and cultures in one of its more recent calls for nominations. Two other new inscriptions added to the Canadian entries include Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and Shingwauk Reunion fonds and The Archives of the Augustinians of Canada.

"They are treasures on their own," Fortier said.