2009-01-08 14:50:45 UTC
Hudson's Bay Company post manager was a legend of the
One of the last HBC apprentices, he went North at 17 and
stayed there all his life, becoming a heroic figure among
Inuit elders. He later founded a successful hunting and
January 8, 2009
KUUJJUAQ, QUE. -- Bob May was one of the last Hudson's Bay
Co. boy apprentices. At 17, he left the comforts of the
South to become, in the original wording of the company's
1670 royal charter, a "gentleman adventurer." He remained in
the North for the rest of his life and is considered a hero
among many Inuit elders in the Quebec Arctic.
After leaving the HBC, he became an outfitter and was widely
recognized for his contribution to tourism in northern
Quebec. Visitors to Kuujjuaq, Que., formerly known as Fort
Chimo, often stopped by hoping to hear adventures or view
the huge trophy caribou antlers hanging on his walls. He was
hospitable, but would remain first and foremost modest. For
a man who once saved a community from starvation, he shared
his good deeds and generosity only in the intimacy of his
diaries - and sparse details, even then.
The son of a park ranger, he was born in Manitoba's Riding
Mountain National Park, where, as a boy, he so disliked his
given name of Robert that he insisted on always being called
Bob. He came by his wilderness interest willingly, however.
His parents were both committed naturalists. His father,
John May, was an entomologist who put together one of the
world's most impressive collections of insects and
butterflies. About 1930, he accompanied his parents on a
long drive across the Prairies to spend a summer exploring
the backcountry of Banff National Park on horseback and
collecting mountain invertebrates.
While he embraced his parents' values on nature, he was
mesmerized by notions of the Arctic and the visions of
adventure, mystery and exploration its vastness then
suggested. No one was surprised when, at 17, he joined the
Hudson's Bay Co. After spending 1935 training in northern
Saskatchewan, he found himself on a ship bound for the
company's mostly northerly outpost: Arctic Bay on northern
Baffin Island. He arrived three months short of his 19th
The HBC post contained the only permanent buildings in the
community, as the Inuit lived a traditional hunting life in
tents and igloos. Despite his age and being the only
Qallunaq (white man) in the region, he accepted the
responsibilities of trader, teacher, doctor and nurse.
Mr. May quickly adapted to Inuit life, becoming fluent in
Inuktitut and developing the skills necessary for Arctic
survival and success. He hunted, trapped, handled dog teams,
learned igloo building and, above all, embraced Inuit values
He became so skilled and dependable that the company once
lent him out as a guide and interpreter for a McGill
University research party. The team leader, Duncan Hodgson,
later wrote to HBC officers (in the terminology of the day)
to declare that "Bob May can out-Eskimo the Eskimo."
For all that, disaster can occur at any time in the Arctic
and he experienced a number of narrow escapes. In early
winter, 1939, he and three Inuit hunters nearly perished
when their small schooner was battered and tossed for 12
hours in a violent storm about 30 kilometres off the east
coast of Hudson Bay. They lashed themselves to the deck and
prayed the engine would continue running, as Bob later wrote
in the Hudson's Bay Co. publication The Beaver.
"The small engine room was constantly awash, and the bilge
pump barely big enough to pump out the seawater that was
constantly breaking across the deck," he said. "At one
moment the craft was half submerged, but a moment later it
was at the crest of wave where the wind would catch her and
tilt us on a precarious angle."
Almost miraculously, they saw the snow-covered cliffs of an
island not 50 metres away, and were able to steer the ship
to an anchorage on the lee side.
Two months later, Mr. May was hunting caribou with two Inuit
friends and 10 dogs some distance inland from the settlement
of Puvirnituq on Hudson Bay. They had provisions for 14
days, but surprisingly, found no caribou. They ran out of
food and were soon close to starvation. Also, Mr. May was
not well. His skin had broken out in painful boils and,
fearing infection, it was decided that he would stay with
the exhausted dogs while the others continued the hunt on
Left alone, his prospects seemed poor. The starving dogs had
to be untied because they were eating their walrus-hide
harness traces. Later, he spent half a day chopping through
more than a metre of ice with a butcher knife in a desperate
effort to hook a fish. The yield was one small trout. It was
the "best meal he had ever had," he wrote.
Three days later, four caribou came within range. Meat, at
last. However, the dogs, hungry and loose, immediately tore
after them. The caribou scattered and ran, and Mr. May
managed to get off four shots. He brought down two, but had
to fight off the ravenous dogs. Eventually, he prevailed and
fed both himself and the huskies, storing the remainder of
the meat under hefty snow blocks.
The next day, one of his Inuit companions returned after
walking about 15 kilometres with meat and the news that they
had shot seven caribou. With new provisions, and revived by
food, they were able to undertake the return journey to
Puvirnituq. Not once in his account did Mr. May mention the
cold, which must have been about -35 Celsius with constant
Besides writing for The Beaver, he also kept a series of
notebooks. His handwritten ledgers provide more than one
account of long trips by canoe or dog team in severe
conditions with the sick or injured. A number of times, he
travelled hundreds of kilometres across Ungava Bay to get
help at the old Fort Chimo airbase in what is now Kuujjuaq.
In the early 1950s, he took an Inuit child suffering from
appendicitis 230 kilometres by dog team across the Ungava
Peninsula in bitter cold and heavy snow to rendezvous with a
Royal Canadian Air Force crew. Reaching Fort Chimo, they
were put aboard and flown to Halifax, where surgeons saved
the boy's life.
In Kangirsualujjuaq and Inukjuaq on the eastern shores of
Hudson Bay, he is credited with saving entire communities.
Elders there still recall how more than a half century ago,
Mr. May provided rations when the population was facing
starvation and illness. As manager of the company post, he
had broken open the store's inventories of food.
He also served as part of the military. As an original
member of the Canadian Rangers, the Arctic militia unit
established during the Second World War, he helped provide
information on air or sea movements as well as weather
observations. Northern weather information was vital for
transatlantic military flights and he was officially rated
as essential to the war effort.
Around that time, Mr. May fell in love with a beautiful
young Inuit woman named Nancy. Their first encounter had
occurred years earlier, on one his first Arctic voyages,
when his ship had stopped at Port Burwell on the northern
tip of Quebec. Among the youngsters who greeted the visitors
was a young girl whom he thought very striking. He offered
what would have been a big treat in that time and place - a
stick of gum.
Several years later, he moved to the post at
Kangirsualujjuaq, where he asked around for a reliable cook.
Arrangements were made to hire Jeannie Annanak, and she
arrived with her daughter. It was the same beautiful girl he
had given the gum to so many years before. It was love at
At the time, HBC rules forbade employees from marrying
Inuit, but he was defiant. Mr. May stood his ground and said
he would marry Nancy or quit. He got his way and, over the
years, they lived at a series of HBC posts in the Eastern
Arctic, all the while raising eight children.
Life could be dangerous, even for the family of an HBC
manager. Twice, Mr. May had to cross Ungava Bay by boat to
save the lives of his own children.
In 1950, four-year-old Johnny developed a severe infection
from a dislocated shoulder. The crossing took two days,
through early winter ice, in a small fishing boat with a
single-cylinder engine. Reaching the other side, they found
a U.S. Air Force plane that rushed the boy first to Goose
Bay, Labrador, and then to Montreal for surgery.
In 1959, his oldest daughter, Mary, was hit in the jaw by
ricocheting shotgun pellets. Mr. May bundled her in
blankets, placed her in the bow of a canoe powered by a
small outboard motor and again set off across Ungava Bay in
rough water and stiff winds. The trip to the hospital at
Kuujjuaq took 11 hours. Mary was given immediate attention
and soon fully recovered.
All the while, Mr. May hunted and trapped to supplement the
family larder. His diaries concentrate mostly on insights
into daily life and record such events as the freeze and
breakup of the George River each season between 1943 and
1953. He also jotted down the number and species of animals
trapped or shot to feed the family and his sled dogs: "153
seals; 96 caribou and more than 5,000 ptarmigan." He paid
careful attention to weather, and noted whether the children
played outdoors. Generally, they did - even at -30.
Most of his accounts were brief: "Shot three seals - three
foxes in the traps ... new addition to the family - a girl.
Nancy is fine."
Eventually, however, the HBC sought to transfer the family
south into what Mr. May called "Indian country," which he
knew would not be the life for Nancy. He decided to leave
the company, although the parting was on excellent terms.
All at once, he had to find some other way to support his
family. By then it was the early 1960s, and demand had
developed for tourist outfitters and facilities. The Mays
built Pyramid Mountain Fishing and Hunting Camp about 150
kilometres upstream from Ungava Bay on the spectacular
Beginning in the spring of 1960, the family spent a year in
the bush living on their land and preparing the lodge. Mr.
May built a small log cabin for Nancy, himself and the
younger children. The older children and their grandmother
lived alongside in a tent.
It was a lonely Christmas that year, "so far away from
civilization that even Santa couldn't find us," daughter
Mary recalled. Christmas morning arrived without presents,
but her father strangely insisted on going out about once an
hour to walk in a big circle on the frozen river.
Finally around noon, he said: "Listen, do you hear it?" They
rushed outside in the cold and looked skyward to see a small
single-engine bush plane. It circled and then landed. To the
children's joy and surprise, the pilot was Phil LaRiviere,
an old family friend. He stepped out of the plane laden with
presents, fresh oranges and candy for all. Mr. May had made
the arrangements months earlier; his hourly treks in the
snow were to show his friend where to land.
In the 1950s and 1960s, schooling presented unique northern
challenges for the Mays. At one point, they moved the family
to Kuujjuaq so that the children could attend primary
school. Beyond Grade 7, however, there were only boarding
schools and, because he was white, the government excluded
his children from the education system of the day - the
now-controversial residential schools.
Instead, the Mays relied on home schooling and
correspondence courses. Although money was tight, Mr. May
managed to send each child to high school in Colorado for
one or two years. His parents had relocated there with their
insect collection in the 1940s and opened the May Natural
History Museum, which is still a major attraction in
Through the years, the Mays instilled both Inuit and
Qallunaq cultures into the children. He always spoke English
to them; Nancy spoke only Inuktitut. Occasions were always
observed in the proper cultural context. Thanksgiving and
Christmas were turkey dinners, with all proper etiquette
honoured. Inuit traditions, such as eating a seal - correct
only when done sitting on the floor - were equally
The children all became successful in their own fields.
Johnny and Billy are well-known bush pilots. Peter is a
biological technician, guide and businessman. Bobby is a
video producer and director. Madge Pomerleau is the
executive director of the regional hospital in Kuujjuaq.
Sarah Tagoona is executive director of the women's shelter
in Kuujjuaq. Annie Probert is a consultant and former
executive director of the regional school board in northern
Quebec. And oldest daughter Mary Simon is a former Canadian
ambassador to Denmark and current president of Inuit
Tapiiriit Kanatami, the national organization representing
By 2002, Pyramid Mountain had become a thriving concern and
the Mays decided to turn it over to Peter. They retired to
Kuujjuaq where Nancy became ill and died the following year.
Characteristically, Mr. May carried on alone. Until he was
hospitalized a year ago after losing the use of his legs, he
was still working on his woodpile - if only with the aid of
In Inuit terminology, he was a Qallunaq, yet the preachers
who said his deathbed prayer and presided over his funeral
spoke only in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.
Robert Mardon May was born Sept. 7, 1918, in Sandy Lake,
Man. He died Nov. 11, 2008, in Kuujjuaq, Que. He was 90. He
is survived by daughters Madge, Sarah, Annie and Mary, and
by sons Johnny, Billy, Bobby and Peter. He also leaves 94
grandchildren, 49 great-grandchildren and four
great-great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife,
Nancy, who died in March, 2003.