Her quest for justice started early - thestar.com
(Paul Watson/The Toronto Star, 30 November 2009) -- IQALUIT–A child resisted.
The white people running things on the journey to exile expected quiet submission from the Inuit and usually got it. There were no translators, so there was no use complaining. That wasn't how Inuit preferred to do things, anyway.
When they were herded into a damp, dimly lit hold and told to sleep on the steel floor, they made the best of the accommodations.
When medical staff told exile families to strip down in groups for their health exams, they suffered the humiliation in silence.
They did as they were told.
But calling out "Martha E9-1900," the number on a 5-year-old girl's government-issued ID tag, was like cocking a loaded pistol.
"If they had to give needles to us children, I was always the last one," Martha Flaherty remembers. "Five men had to hold me by each arm. And I've been fighting ever since."
Like many child exiles, Martha's life is a constant struggle with the trauma of being uprooted, dumped in a polar wasteland and then shifted from one residential school to another in a government effort to drain the Inuit from her.
"They didn't think that we have feelings too," she says, disgusted. "We were like prisoners up there."
Dredging up the memories, she cries hard, like a little girl, lost. Then a nervous twitter of a laugh snaps her back, and the fire is in Martha's eyes again.
Martha's mother, Rynee Flaherty, says her daughter was the most unruly kid on the ship that moved the second wave of High Arctic exiles in 1955 from Inukjuak, in northern Quebec, to Grise Fiord.
The C.D. Howe's crew only knew Martha was cute. They gave her candy or coins to pose for pictures with them. She thinks they liked her locks, longer and more flowing than other Inuit girls' coarse black hair. Martha guarded hers closely.
When the ship's doctor, Otto Schaefer, decided all children would have their heads shaved to prevent a lice infestation, Martha wasn't going to stand for it. Suspecting he'd have a fight on his hands, the doctor left her till last.
Pursued by Schaefer with a pair of scissors, Martha scrambled under the bed of a sleeping girl, but the doctor's hand grabbed for her.
"I kicked him and went through the other end," Martha says. "I ran upstairs with my mother to the toilet and (we) locked ourselves in, crying." For the rest of the voyage, Martha was the only child with hair.
The ordeal only got worse. The ship steamed north through storm season and "all night and day, it was dark, rainy and stormy," Rynee says. "Everyone was throwing up."
The ship rocked back and forth so hard, the top of a steel tower almost disappeared in waves that crashed over the foredeck, Martha recalls.
"I remember them telling us to put on our life jackets because they thought we were all going to drown," she says. "I thought we were going to be dead for sure because the water was black."
For years, she has relived the storms in nightmares, waking up to the howl and whimper of terrified sled dogs lashed to the listing deck, and the Arctic wind and waves battering the ships' moaning steel hull.
One of the worst memories draws her eyes to the window, and she is back at the ship's railing, in the large hands of an RCMP officer.
"He hung me out over the water," she says, wiping away a tear. "Well, it was a joke for the RCMP. He probably was teasing me. But it was very scary for me."
Some of the most upsetting thoughts are of her father, and how hard the betrayal hit him.
Following what seemed a request from his adoptive father, Josephie Flaherty defied his instinct and brought the family to Grise Fiord. When he got there, his father was dead and Grise Fiord a nightmare.
"After a few years, he would walk back forth, back and forth, thinking so hard," Martha says. "My mother had to snap him out of it. He wanted to go back (home) so bad."
The RCMP eventually told Martha's parents to give her up. She was sent to residential schools, then to a foster home in Carcross, Yukon, where she attended public school. She was mute for a year until the system gave up and sent her home.
Aboriginal healing has helped her speak of horrors she spent a lifetime keeping locked in her mind.
But the anger of exile is always with her, at times self-destructive, at others channelled into an endless struggle for justice.
She has hosted an Inuktitut-language CBC television show, worked as an MP's aide on Parliament Hill, and been a fierce advocate of women's rights as president of Pauktuutit, the Inuit Womens' Association Of Canada.
Making so much of a broken life is like emerging from a long freeze.
"They wanted us to disappear," she says. "But we refuse to disappear. We're like dough. Every time you press us, we rise. We're not going to disappear–especially me.
"I'm just thawing out now."