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The man who challenged the Hudson’s Bay Company

The amazing story of Renatus Tuglavina, remembered in northern Labrador as a folk hero

  • Published Feb 04, 2019
  • Updated Jun 15, 2022
  • 2,004 words
  • 9 minutes
The Tuglavina family at Okak, 1915, right to left: Arnatuk, Renatus (Kuttaktok), Josef and Jonas Expand Image
Renatus Tuglavina who carried the mail from Hebron [Labrador] appears to be a very particular and independent sort of person for an Eskimo. Today he refused point blank to carry any mail in return, unless the contents were made known to him, and further, only if he saw fit to do so by his judgement of what it did contain.

So wrote the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trader at Port Burwell (Killiniq) in April 1927. Renatus was 31 years old at the time, the first son of the shaman Tuglavina and his second wife, Arnatuk. Renatus had been born and raised in Killiniq (now part of Nunavut) but had moved to Hebron in the early 1920s with his wife Loida (Kupa) Semigak, his two brothers and their families. 

Renatus’ given name was Kuttaktok but he took the name Renatus, which means “born again,” when he joined the Moravian church. He was a prolific hunter and many HBC journal posts in Hebron mention him packing trout, taking seals and trapping foxes. 

When the HBC leased the Moravian-owned and operated trading stores in Labrador in 1926, they reversed the traditional Moravian system that had outfitted Inuit against future earnings and instead instituted a strictly cash and barter system. The Moravians had also sold necessities like tea, flour and sugar at a discount while keeping the price of luxury items high, but the HBC calculated a full price with equal rates on all goods. The Mission reported that “in the minds of the majority of our people there has been a great deal of dissatisfaction with the new order of things.” 

Inuit in Hebron were required to balance the Moravian goal of saving souls with the HBC’s goal of bringing in trade goods, like fox furs. Inuit were often caught in the middle between traders who refused to offer food aid or made disparaging comments about the Inuit who lived near the Mission to attend church activities rather than hunt. 

Not only did the HBC have a virtual trade monopoly in Northern Labrador, they served as the distributor of government food aid. As such they were inclined to reward Inuit who they considered good investments, i.e. those that brought in the most trade goods. They believed Inuit ought to be out hunting rather than relying on the HBC for flour, tea and tobacco. In a Hebron post journal entry dated January 2, 1942, an official reported, “A native in good standing in the church asked me today to give him enough wood to enable him to stay here till January 6 [Old Christmas]…naturally, I refused.”


Renatus makes a stand

The worldwide depression in the 1930s led to the collapse of the cod, skin and craft markets. Inuit found themselves in the untenable situation of not being able to earn the necessary cash to purchase ammunition, which they needed to put food on the table. The sealing harvest had largely failed and only the unexpected appearance of caribou along the coast had kept them from starving. 

The situation became intolerable during the winter of 1933-34. Renatus, along with seven other men, decided to break into the HBC store at Hebron to get clothing and ammunition. The first time, in December 1933, they climbed through the molasses storeroom window and the next two times, both in January 1934, they used a key they had fashioned for the lock. 

A few weeks later, HBC officials from Nain and Nutak posts contacted a young officer in the Royal Navy, Lt. Cmdr. E.H.B. “Buck” Baker, and asked him to go up to Hebron and “quell the disturbances” by arresting Renatus, “known as being a rascal and the instigator of all the trouble up there.” Baker, who was leading a wintering-over survey party charged with updating the hydrographic charts along the Labrador coast near Nain, told the HBC men that he had survey work to do and that he had no authority to do as he was asked. He did agree to go up in a week or so to take a look around and “lend moral support to Massie.” (The Scottish trader was just 23 years old and had been with the HBC in Rigolet for four years; Hebron was his first posting with Inuit.) Baker refused to be accompanied by either HBC men or by F.M. Grubb, the Moravian missionary in Nain. 

It was a harrowing 240-kilometre trip from Nain to Hebron, made worse by the fact that when Baker’s camera fell off his komatik (sled), his large flask of brandy broke at the same time and cut his hand, which “bled like a stuck pig.” The surveyors had no experience making such a long trip, never mind one over the Kiglapait Mountains. They had trouble keeping their sleds from outrunning the dogs and were, at times, up to their chests in snow fighting to right an overturned komatik. But they made it.

Lt. Cmdr. E.H.B. “Buck” Baker, the man sent to Hebron to investigate Renatus’ activities, pictured here in Nain, Labrador in 1933. (Photo: Collection of the family of E.H.B. “Buck” Baker, Devon, England)
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Baker’s team stayed in the Hebron mission house —“a great barn of a place … as cold as charity,” he recorded in his journal — while he interviewed the men who had taken part in the break-ins. They all agreed that Renatus was their leader. When he finally interviewed Renatus, Baker held up his fingers in a gesture that indicated he was third in line behind God and King George. Renatus told Baker that he “knew he was doing wrong but that he did it in order that something might come of it and that the matter would be investigated over the heads of both Parsons, the district manager, and also the HBC post manager.” 

Baker then told Renatus that he and his family would have to return to Nain. Renatus agreed to go once he learned he would not be jailed — but not until the HBC had outfitted him with more clothing and ammunition. The return trip was more enjoyable for the surveyors as the experienced Renatus led the teams, with Baker riding with Renatus’ family. Baker found housing for the family, required Renatus to hunt for his living, and put Renatus to work on the survey crew. 

Baker then typed a five-page memo to the British Admiralty outlining the trip and the actions he had taken. He requested that a competent high authority undertake an extensive examination of the relationship between Inuit and the HBC, “for it is my opinion that there are faults on both sides and only a thorough investigation can clear up the matter and make for future tranquility, as it appears that the trouble is one of long standing in which no attempt seems to have been made to give the natives a reasonable hearing.”

Seven months later, in August 1934, the SS Kyle arrived in Nain and two burly policemen escorted Renatus from the survey camp to the ship, where he was to stand trial for stealing $190 worth of goods. Abram Kean, the Newfoundland sealing captain who had been morally implicated but legally cleared in the deaths of 77 men whom he had left on the ice in what has become known as the 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster, was to be the judge.

Baker was leaving on the same ship and spoke to Kean before the trial, arguing that Renatus should not be sent to jail as he had only been trying to cause an investigation into the injustices perpetrated by the HBC in Hebron. Baker also spoke on Renatus’ behalf during the trial. The only evidence against Renatus was his guilty plea. He did not have defence counsel. The trial was held in English with Grubb, the Moravian missionary, serving as interpreter.

Kean had no time for Baker’s arguments and later wrote in his autobiography that while his sentencing of Renatus to two months of hard labour in the Twillingate gaol had met with dissatisfaction among many of the Kyle’s passengers, the “laws and constitution of the English Government are the best in the world because they approach nearest to the laws God has established in our natures.” As far as Kean was concerned, Renatus’ actions constituted a violation of heaven itself.

Renatus Tuglavina and his family making their way to Nain under house arrest
After confessing to coordinating the break-ins, Renatus was ordered to Nain to await trial. Meanwhile, Baker requested that the British Admiralty investigate the relationship between the HBC and the Labrador Inuit. (Photo: E.H.B. Baker, 1934. Collection of the family of E.H.B. “Buck” Baker, Devon, England)
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Baker thought differently, calling the trial farcical, “Gilbertian,” and totally unorthodox. The next day he went to Newfoundland’s Commissioner of Justice, William R. Howley, to argue Renatus’ case. Howley also ignored Baker but within a short time Baker’s earlier memo to the British Admiralty requesting that the treatment of Inuit by the HBC be investigated found its way to the Secretary of State for the Dominions, which requested a reply from the Newfoundland Commission on Government.

The Chairman of that commission, D. Murray Anderson, replied to the Dominion Office query that Renatus had been released shortly before his term was over so that he could make his way to Labrador before the winter set in. Renatus returned to Hebron and received a hero’s welcome, much to the consternation of Anderson, who later wrote, in all seriousness, that “transportation to a place in Newfoundland by steamer, and imprisonment in a gaol with adequate dietary, presents itself to them not as a punishment but as an attractive trip to a centre of civilization, the making of which adds to their prestige among their neighbors when they return home.”

Nevertheless, within a year’s time, the Commission of Government created the Newfoundland Ranger Force to take over the distribution of relief payments, enforce hunting regulations and serve as a police force in Labrador and augment the Newfoundland Royal Constabulary when necessary. The HBC shut down its Labrador operations in 1942.

“A good leader to his people”

Renatus lived for another 12 years after returning to Hebron. His earlier acts didn’t seem to be held against him and, according to post journals, he was well regarded by traders. His hunting and boating feats were featured in many stories by the HBC manager and writer, Len Budgell. 

Budgell writes of Renatus and his brothers’ efforts to get back out to the sealing station Illuilik with a “hopelessly broken” engine: “Renatus left today for sealing station, expect he arrived safely but if his old engine gave out again he will have arrived at his eternal home by morning.” 

In a telling commentary, Budgell also wrote that “it took a bit more to make me realize just how self-reliant and tough these men were … The north Labrador was not a cold, inhospitable place to them; it was home. They knew how to deal with it and it never got tough enough to beat them.

“They were a happy people at Hebron,” he added. “I’d been told that they were a tough gang but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. They were independent and didn’t like to be ordered around, but, if one minded his own business, they were a great bunch to work with.”

Renatus also served as a church elder for a number of years and upon his death, the missionary Siegfried Hettasch wrote in his annual report that Renatus “was quite a good leader to his people, and a man with whom one was able to talk reason. We are all sorry to lose him.”

The story of Renatus Tuglavina only came to light when Woody Belsheim, a radio operator who served at the secret American weather station in Hebron during the Second World War, showed me a model sealskin kayak that Renatus had made for him. Woody had kept the kayak hanging on the wall of his California home for 65 years. On the bottom of the kayak he had written in black ink: Made by Rayanastrus (sic) Tuglavina, Hebron Labrador, 1944. Sealskin.

Johannes Lampe, President of the Nunatsiavut Government, and Rozanne Junker with Renatus' kayak
Johannes Lampe, right, President of the Nunatsiavut Government, and Rozanne Junker with Renatus’ kayak, which he gifted to an American radio operator stationed at Hebron during the Second World War. (Photo: Dave Lough)
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It was Renatus’ kayak that not only led to the uncovering of his life’s amazing story but also the uncovering of the secret weather station in Hebron. Renatus cut a wide swath in his 50 years on Earth, with his exploits appearing in more than five published books, numerous journals, newspapers and Moravian periodicals.

The Killiniq trader in 1927 was right: Renatus was indeed “a very particular and independent sort of person.”

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