Curator’s Comment:

Eskimo or Inuit?
For much of the DEWLine’s existence (1955-93), aboriginal workers were referred to as Eskimos. While the term “Eskimo” was in no way derogatory, it is now considered unacceptable by most aboriginal peoples who prefer to be known by the names they use in their own language. Around 1977, the term “Inuit” began to replace “Eskimo,” and “Inuit” is now the common term used in Alaska and across the Arctic when referring to aboriginal peoples. [Note 1]

Construction Days – 1955-57.
The two primary contractors were encouraged to use Inuit labour whenever possible and they proved themselves to get quick learners and excellent workers. There are no formal records as to how many Inuit were involved during this phase of the DEWLine’s life.

Operational Period – 1957-93
During the DEWLine’s 35-year operational life, before it morphed into the unmanned North Warning System, every DEWLine station had at least one, and often more, Inuit’s employed on site. They lived there, with their families, in housing provided for them.

Once again, they proved to be excellent workers. They were primarily engaged in outside work, mainly as labourers, but some became heavy equipment operators keeping the site’s roads and airstrip in useable condition, while others became mechanics and welders. Most proved to be quick learners and reliable workers.

While the number of Inuit employed at any station was not large, they did represent a fair percentage of the site’s population. For example, an Inuit employee may have represented 15% of an Intermediate Site’s population, and while that percentage seems large, a typical I-Site may only have had a staff of 4-5 non-Inuit. An Auxiliary Site usually had 15-20 non-Inuit making the percentage of Inuit employees (usually 2) about 10% of the site’s personnel complement.

The Government, for several reasons, forbade non-Inuit site personnel to have contact with the Inuit beyond those employed on the site. While documents refer to risk of disease, Government officials had legitimate concerns about contractors and military personnel having sexual relations with Inuit women. [Note 3]

DEWLine Clean-up – 2000-18.
The Inuit, many of whom were involved in the construction of the Line were also involved in the massive clean-up phase. In fact, Inuit-based corporations led much of the clean-up effort on their own lands.

DEWLine’s Cultural Impact.
It is difficult to gauge the DEWLine’s impact the Inuit culture. That culture has been undergoing change since the Inuits first encountered Europeans in 1822-23. Certainly, the twentieth century brought major changes where rifles replaced harpoons, snowmobiles replaced dog teams, and a preponderance of store-bought items (clothing, outboard motors, etc.) entered the culture. [Note 2] Just how big an impact the DEWLine made on the Inuit culture is still open for discussion.

1: Inuit or Eskimo: Which name to use?
2: Eskimo | Definition, History, Culture, & Facts.
3: Final report – The Qikiqtani Truth Commission (Download the PDF)

Additional Resource

NORAD and DEW Line Defence

The following is an excerpt from report titled: Canada’s Relationship with Inuit: A History of Policy and Program Development. Dated 2006.

Download a PDF of the complete report. (15 Mb, 259 pages).

Historical Discussion
Prior to 1939, the Canadian Government was not concerned about its lack of defence infrastructure in the Arctic, as attacks from that direction would have to be made by boat or overland, and would be virtually impossible given the distance and weather involved. Northern defence became an issue during the Second World War, however, with the technological development of intercontinental bombers and long-range missiles, and with the threat of Japanese attack. Later, with the Cold War threat of attack by the Soviet Union, the Canadian and American governments were anxious to ensure adequate defence mechanisms in the Arctic, and hence developed common defence organizations.

Program and Policy Development
Since purchasing Alaska in 1867, the Americans were an active presence in the North and, in most joint defence agreements with Canada, provided the majority of funding and personnel. [Note 123] Although the United States was likely to have been the main target of attack during the Cold War, incoming bombers or missiles had to cross Canadian airspace before entering the northern United States, requiring the construction and administration of defence projects in Canadian territory. The first agreement was the Permanent Joint Board of Defence, established through the 1940 Ogdensburg Agreement, which included the creation of the Alaska Highway, the Northwest Staging Route, and the Canadian Oil (Canol) pipeline. [Note 124]

Between 1940 and 1943, 30,000 American service people were stationed across the Arctic, from Alaska to Greenland, to construct and carry out northern defence projects. [Note 125] Although these projects received approval from the Canadian and American governments, they were largely carried out by Americans and under American authority. Inuit in the Northwest Territories and northern Quebec were not consulted about the construction of defence infrastructure in the territories that they traditionally inhabited. In 1943, the British High Commissioner to Canada toured the Arctic to review project construction. He expressed concern regarding American intent to construct roads and airport infrastructure that would serve commercial interests after the Second World War. Concern for Arctic sovereignty prompted the Canadian government to initiate a greater presence in the North. This was accomplished by increasing the number of civil servants stationed in the North, and by developing programs to improve Inuit welfare and create sedentary communities. [Note 126]

Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union required that Canada maintain an interest in its Arctic defence infrastructure. In 1946, Canada and the United States agreed to construct a series of weather stations across the eastern Arctic to assist pilots crossing the Atlantic Ocean. By actively negotiating this agreement, Canada attempted to demonstrate its sovereignty over the terrestrial Arctic, providing context and precedent for future agreements of northern defence with the United States. [Note 127] In 1955, Canada and the United States agreed to construct a chain of 63 radar stations—the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line—with 42 stations located along the Canadian Arctic coast, and designed to give at least four-hour warning to protect North America against airborne attacks from the Soviet Union. The stations were American built and operated, but on sites requiring Canadian Government approval, subject to Canadian law, and operated from the outset with provisions for eventual Canadian control. By the late 1950s, intercontinental missiles with thermonuclear warheads, rather than the bombers, which the DEW Line was designed to protect against, had become the major threat to North America, rendering the DEW Line technology obsolete. Although these sites were no longer particularly useful for defence, they continued to operate as training and technology-testing facilities until quite recently. [Note 128]

In 1957, another agreement, the North American Air Defence Agreement (NORAD), was struck between Canada and the United States to develop a system of continental air defence. [Note 129] This agreement provided infrastructure to alert the Strategic Air Command of impending attack, and hence according to a House of Commons Special Committee report on defence, opportunity for “the United States to use its maximum power to destroy the enemy territory should he decide to attack by air the North American continent.” [Note 130] An example of NORAD’s defence strategy is the 1959 Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) agreement. This agreement utilized missile detection radar technology that was able to provide immediate warning of long-range attacks. “The detection role of NORAD [was] of very great importance in enabling Air Defence Command and Strategic Air Command to secure early warning of any possible air attack on North America,” and Canada’s membership in NORAD created a continental system for defence of the North. [Note 131] By 1963, NORAD provided employment for 14,700 Canadians (including Inuit) at stations in the North and throughout Canada. [Note 132] Security of the North remained a priority for Canada and the United States throughout the 1960s, and defence project sites were maintained.

Defence project sites, including Iqaluit, Broughton Island, Kivitoo and Ekalugad Fiord, attracted Inuit to congregate nearby for access to employment opportunities and medical services, creating sedentary communities over time. Although defence project sites were initially expected to provide temporary employment for Inuit, various cultural differences, such as concepts of work time and levels of training, created difficulties. The long-term effects of the sites on the development of housing, transport, communications, infrastructure, education and healthcare have been much more significant to community development. For example, American criticism of Inuit housing conditions was a factor in prompting the development of a large-scale construction and home rental program in many northern communities during the 1960s. [Note 133] The construction of defence project sites created some employment for Inuit through the development of programs like the Canadian Rangers, which has continued to the present. This program uses traditional Inuit survival skills and knowledge to assist Canadian and American defence personnel in Arctic operations. [Note 134]

Ongoing Concerns
In 1980, aging DEW Line technology was replaced with the North Warning System (NWS) and thirteen minimally attended radars (MARs). The cost of upgrading defence technology was again shared by Canada and the United States who continue, through agreements such as NORAD, to co-operate on common defence initiatives in the North. [Note 135] Although such programs have not provided sustained or large-scale employment for Inuit, they have brought Canadian and American service people into northern communities, thereby contributing to the economy. Inuit were not consulted about the construction of defence projects in the Arctic or the selection of site locations. These projects have created much environmental damage and attempts to clean up the sites have been recent. Such projects, however, have also contributed to community infrastructure, including airports and runways, roads, buildings, and hydro and sewage disposal systems. [Note 136] Based on the initial American construction and operation of the DEW Line sites, the United States Government has contributed $100 million over the past ten years under the Canada-United States Military Installations Clean-Up Agreement to Canada’s clean-up projects. The total cost of cleaning up the 42 Canadian DEW Line sites is estimated between $320 and $500 million. [Note 137]

124: Kenneth Coates, Canada’s Colonies: A History of the Yukon and Northwest Territories (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, Publishers, 1985), 167-180; and Kenneth C. Eyre, “Forty Years of Military Activity in the Canadian North, 1947-87,” Arctic 40.4 (December 1987: 292-299), 292.

125: Morrison, 177.

126: These projects also served Cold War defence needs. Morrison, 177. For a detailed discussion of North American defence in the Canadian Arctic see: Joseph T. Jockel, No Boundaries Upstairs: Canada, the United States, and the Origins of North American Air Defence, 1945-1958 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987).

127: Twenty-one DEW Line sites in Canadian territory were decommissioned in the early 1960s and turned over to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development for their use in the administration of Inuit affairs. The Department of National Defence operated the remaining 21 sites until they were decommissioned in 1993, and replaced by the North Warning System. N.D. Bankes, “Forty Years of Canadian Sovereignty Assertion in the Arctic, 1947-87,” Arctic 40.4 (December 1987: 285-291), 287; and R.J. Sutherland, “The Strategic Significance of the Canadian Arctic,” The Arctic Frontier, R. St. J. Macdonald, ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966: 256-278), 263.

128: Bankes, 287; Arthur Charo, Continental Air Defence: A Neglected Dimension of Strategic Defence (Lanham, Maryland: Centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, 1990), 2-3; Coates 210-211; Duffy, 32-33; Eyre, 294-295; and Sutherland, 269-271.

129: The NORAD agreement was initially specified for a ten-year period and is now revised at five-year intervals. This regular review “has served to keep NORAD relevant despite the dramatically changing strategic landscape.” D.F. Holoman, NORAD In the New Millenium (Toronto: Canadian Institute of International Affairs and Irwin Publishing, 2000), 12

130:  Maurice Sauve, Interim Report of the Special Committee of the House of Commons on Matters Relating to Defense (Ottawa: House of Commons, 1963), 20.

131:  Sauve, 21.

132:  These included the Mid-Canada Line and the Pine Tree Line stations, as well as stations located in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and British Columbia. The Pine Tree Line (also called the Continental Air Defense Integration North (CADIN) Line) was located along the northern boundary of the United States and stretched into Newfoundland. The Mid-Canada Line (also called the McGill Fence) was built and operated by Canada along the fifty-fifth parallel. The DEW Line sites were built along the seventieth parallel. They started in Alaska at Cape Lisburne and ran eastward along the coast, crossing to the Arctic islands, then to the Boothia and Melville peninsulas, then to the southeast corner of Baffin Island at Cape Dyer. Duffy, 33; Bankes, 286; Jockel, 2; Morrison, 178-179; and Sauve, 20-21.

133: For example, many of the airport runways constructed for defence projects have since been turned over to community administration, facilitating the movement of people between northern communities and southern Canada, as well as the delivery of items, like mail and fresh foods. Thomas and Thompson, 10-11.

134:  Duffy, 33; and Eyre, 295-296.

135:  Morrison, 170; and Charo, 7.

136:  Eyre, 292.

137:  National Defence, 31 August 2001, Backgrounder: The Distant Early Warning Line Clean up Project, [5 June 2006]; San Francisco Chronicle, 3 November 2001, Heated Arctic Dispute Greenland. Alaska Natives Balk at New U.S. Military Plans, [14 June 2006]; and Lexum, 4 October 1999, Canado-American Treaties, [14 June 2006].