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Vast photo collection depicts life in Nunavut from the 1950s-’80s

Gabriel (Gabe) Gely played a pioneering role in the development and promotion of commercial Inuit art throughout the Arctic for more than 25 years.

Although an artist himself whose portrayals of life in the Arctic were quite popular, his passion for photography is really not all that well known.

Collectors Kathyrn Knowles and Susan Howe took an interest in Gely’s art, photographs and life history and, in 2014, donated images of his they had acquired to the Archives & Special Collections Department at the University of Manitoba (UMA).

Elizabeth Nootaraloo performs a drum dance to commemorate the return of the Ennadai Lake project in 1985. It’s one of hundreds of photographs in a collection of Gabriel Gely’s work from his time living in Nunavut, which was part of the Northwest Territories at that juncture.
Photo courtesy Gabriel Gely

According to retired curator emeritus for the Manitoba Museum and independent researcher/volunteer for the UMA Katherine Pettipas, Gely, 96, had his interest in Inuit art begin with a chance viewing of an Inuit artifact display in Paris, France, following his military service in World War Two.

Pettipas said that by 1952, the veteran had the funds necessary to travel to Canada. Shortly after his arrival, Gely was working as a cook with the Department of Transport (DOT) at a weather station in Clyde River (Kanngiqtugaapik) on Baffin Island.

She said from 1954 to 1955, Gely aided starving families by providing food stored at his workplace while working at the DOT weather station at Ennadai Lake, where he lived among the Ahiarmiut.

“The locals knew him as Taraami (downstairs), the location of DOT supplies,” said Pettipas. “Gabe finished his tour as a DOT cook at Sachs Harbour (Ikaahuk) on Banks Island.”

Pettipas said in the 1960s, Gely worked as a craft supervisor and area administrator for the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources.

She said Gely was based at Baker Lake (Qamani’tuaq) in 1963-64; in Ottawa from 1965-66; and Arviat from January to May in 1966 and again in 1970-71.

“He also assisted other communities on term contracts as a technical officer and arts-and-crafts adviser for both the federal and territorial governments.

Gabriel Gely, from left, Annie Sewoee (Alikaswa), Atasluk and her husband, Yaha, view carvings in Arviat in 1967.
Photo courtesy Gabriel Gely

“In 1971, Gabe contracted with the Alaskan Shismaref Community Enterprise Development Corp. and, by the early 1980s, managed the co-ops at Hall Beach (Sanirajak) and Clyde River (Kanngiqtugaapik) before returning to Arviat in 1984 to re-activate the arts-and-crafts initiative.

“1985 was particularly significant for Gabe and the Ahiarmiut after he raised funds, including a grant from the Canada Council Exploration Program, to document a visit by Arviat families to their Ennadai Lake homeland.

“He also received a grant from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife in exchange for a number of his oil paintings.”

From 1988 to 2008, with the exception of two years spent at Goose Bay, Labrador, Gely and his family resided in Nova Scotia before relocating to Selkirk, Man.

Michael Shouldice of Rankin Inlet, a past president of Nunavut Arctic College, once remarked in a 2017 interview that Gely “was always wearing a camera which he called his ‘petit jou-jou’ or little toy.”

Speaking with Kivalliq News this past week, Shouldice said he still speaks regularly with Gely through social media, although Gely is losing much of his strength these days.

Shouldice said he met Gely the first day he arrived in Arviat in the mid-1970s.

He said, with tongue firmly in cheek, that one would think Gely was a French priest.

“He would say in a thick French accent, ‘Hello, I’m father Gabe Gely,’ and he was a father because he had two sons,” laughs Shouldice.

“Gabe has a wild sense of humour, is a real people person and just loves Inuit. To walk down the street from one end of Arviat to the other with Gabe took forever because everybody knew him and wanted to stop and talk with him. He knew everybody and teased them all. To me it’s not that his photography was that exciting, but more his whole life being so amazing.

“We were sitting out one summer evening in the early ’80s, I think it was, and he told war stories until about four in the morning. I was just gobsmacked by these stories from a guy who, at the time, didn’t expect to live.

“They walked over the Alps from France into Italy countless times. He found himself at a Red Cross station at the end of the war, where he was fed and bathed, but, when they tried to take his clothing, Gabe didn’t want to give them up. When they rolled back the lapel on his jacket it was just full of body lice.”

Shouldice said Gely loved developing his own photos in a darkroom.

He said it’s incredible how much he learned about a darkroom from Gely.

“He told me so many times later on how much he missed the smell of a darkroom.

“We had a light table in the darkroom where I was working in Arviat at the Inuit Cultural Institute. After he’d washed the negatives up and was waiting for them to develop, he’d say, “Ah, here comes the magic.”

“He was just a fabulous human being and he painted or took pictures of everything he saw. His portraits were just unbelievable. They have some of his portraits hanging in the Co-op here in Rankin, and I don’t think they really realize what they have in them.

“He always had his paints, a camera and a short-wave radio. He was a guy whose whole life would go in a suitcase. He had no material possessions other than those paints, cameras and a little radio. If I had to have a second dad for whatever reason, he’s the guy I would pick. He’s just that wonderful a human being.”

Pettipas said Gely’s photos are valued for their artistic appeal, with some being sold to publications such as The Beaver magazine, which has since been renamed Canada’s History.

She said his large collection of images span the years 1954 to 1987. The photos are primarily of people and scenes from various periods of time in the communities of Arctic Bay (Ikpiarjuk), Arviat, Baker Lake, Clyde River (Kangiqtugaapik), Ennadai Lake, Gjoa Haven (Uqsuqtuuq), Grise Ford (Ausuittuq), Hall Beach (Sanirajak), Lake Harbour (Kimmirut), Pangnirtung, Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik), Rankin Inlet (Kangiqliniq), Naujaat, Sachs Harbour (Ikaahuk) and Spence Bay (Talurjuaq).

“In total, there are 671 slides, approximately 2,125 negatives, 125 proofs and 597 photographs in both black and white and colour,” said Pettipas.

“In addition, Gabe documented the Return to Ennadai Lake project through his photography.”