The irritation of the Parks Canada ranger was obvious when she exclaimed to her tour group, “Oh my gosh, knock that thing over!” The pile of stones, artfully built beside the trail, seemed innocent enough to a couple American tourists, but the 36 other visitors on the hike, all Canadians, appeared to know what the fuss was about. Two stones near the top of the small pile were balanced vertically on flat ends, holding up a cross piece like a lintel. Someone kicked over the rock sculpture.
Then she spotted another 20 feet away. “I know we’re not supposed to disturb anything in a Canadian national park, but would someone in the back of the crowd PLEASE destroy that one too!” Her voice was on edge, a contrast to her otherwise pleasant and informative manner during the rest of the nature walk. Before the visiting American couple could take a single photo of the Canadian folk art, both had been reduced to random rocks lost among thousands of others on the Tablelands, the ancient plateau section of Gros Morne National Park.
The American couple, during three weeks of hikes in Newfoundland and Labrador, had seen several similar stone piles along other trails in the province. Their meaning had been unclear—hikers doing their thing, presumably. But a nearby Canadian on the July 7th Gros Morne hike explained that the stone pile was an Inukshuk, an Inuit symbol. Inuksuit (plural of Inukshuk) were sprouting up in natural areas and remote trails all over Canada.
The background, it turned out, was that the Inuit Inukshuk was adopted in April 2005 by the Vancouver Winter Olympics Committee as the symbol of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Controversy sprouted, of courses, as it always does when major symbols are proposed. When the Olympics symbol, called “Ilanaaq”—meaning friendship in Inuktitut—was revealed, it was immediately criticized by numerous Canadians. Peter Irniq, a former commissioner of Nunavut, said that the Inukshuk is an important symbol of the Inuit, used for marking directions, noting sites of important resources, and at times for herding caribou. But Irniq maintained that the Inuksuit did not normally imitate the human form the way the Ilanaaq did.
The Vancouver Olympics symbol, a colorful drawing created by artist Elena Rivera MacGregor, consists of five artistically-rendered blocks that form a figure like a human, the head of which has a mouth quite reminiscent of a Pac-man figure. Some of the West Coast First Nations criticized the fact that one of their own symbols had not been chosen. Other patriotic Canadians protested that the maple leaf on their flag was a perfectly fine symbol of the country. It should have been chosen to represent the Olympics.
Supporters of the symbol gushed about how the Inuksuit “have become a vital part of Canada’s northern culture.” The strange, Pac-man like mouth on the top stone of Ilanaaq, “gives it a happy and welcoming human characteristic,” states one promotional website. That site continues, with unrestrained enthusiasm, “with traditional Inuit inukshuk markers, each stone relies on each other for support of the overall structure. The new Winter Olympics symbol also shares this value. ‘Ilanaaq above all is a team player,’ said John Furlong, chief executive officer of the Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee.”
Whatever controversies Canadians may have read about and listened to in their media, it is possible that simple piles of rocks along trails have come to signify a reverence for the landscape, or a special appreciation for the Inuit, or perhaps just the fun of building stone piles. Ordinary Canadian hikers have been voicing their opinions with their structures wherever and whenever they wanted.
As the Gros Morne hike continued, the American visitors commented on the other Inuksuit seen in the province, and the Canadian tourist replied that they were quite common throughout the country. Others nearby nodded affirmatively. Why was the naturalist so tense? The Canadians shook their heads. Who knows.
The Gros Morne naturalist may have viewed them as a plague on the landscape, or perhaps she just felt they were inappropriate in a major national park. Gros Morne’s exotic landscape was about as far away from Vancouver as one could get and still be in Canada. The Inuit and Winter Olympics symbol had obviously traveled far, stirring strong feelings along the way.