Author, poet and residential school survivor born on Baillie-Hamilton Island (Nunavut) in 1930 – died in Souris (Manitoba) in 2013.
Alice French, also known as Masak (literally “wet snow falling”) in Inuvialuktun, the Inuit language in the Western Canadian Arctic, was born in 1930 on Baillie-Hamilton Island, in today’s Nunavut. Her father Anisalouk was a trapper. When Alice Masak French was six years old, her mother Sanggiak contracted tuberculosis, a very widespread disease in Inuit communities. Alice Masak French and her brother Ayounik were sent to an Anglican residential school in Aklavik, a hamlet located in the northwestern corner of the Northwest Territories, on the banks of the Mackenzie River Delta. Alice Masak French’s mother died from her illness shortly after her children arrived at the residential school. Alice Masak French’s childhood was disrupted when she was uprooted from her family and culture. She ended up spending seven years at the residential school and had few opportunities to visit her family during this time. When she returned to her father, stepmother, and the other members of her family, they were living an Inuvialuit traditional nomadic way of life, rambling across Nunavut, guided by the seasons and resources. Alice Masak French had to relearn how to follow this path, and it was her grandmother who passed on traditional skills and knowledge. Her influence plays an important part in Alice Masak French’s autobiography My Name is Masak (1976). Alice Masak French recovered her family and cultural roots, in spite of having a few difficulties achieving linguistic skills. As an adult, she married twice and had five children. She married Dominick French, her second husband, in 1960, spending seven years in Ireland, where she wrote most of her second book, The Restless Nomad (1992).
Alice French Masak became motivated to write her autobiography by her children’s questions and curiosity about her past, in a time and way of life about which they knew very little. Aware of the differences between the lives of her descendants and her own, Alice Masak French decided to bequeath to her children, her descendants and her community a part of her personal history which is inscribed in the history of the Inuit of Canada. Alice Masak French’s first book My Name is Masak was published in 1976, and reprinted in 1977 and 1992. It was also issued in two audio book editions in 1984 and 1990. The book was translated into French under the title Je m’appelle Masak (1979). In this book, Alice Masak French depicted the first fourteen years of her life, including and ending with her residential school years. Alice Masak French did not plan to have this book published, neither to have it distributed widely: she only wanted to pass on her story to her children. She chose to write her book in English, and not in Inuvialuktun, so that her children could understand it. Alice Masak French’s second book, The Restless Normad, was published in English in 1992. It deals with her life following the residential school years: family reintegration, the learning process of a long-forgotten life, a first wedding, the birth of her children and meeting her second husband. The story in this book concludes just before Alice Masak French moves with her second husband to his native Ireland, (UK). In 2000, in an interview by Christina Watson, published in the journal Canadian Literature, Alice Masak French describes the writing of her second book as a healing process. Several excerpts from both of Alice Masak French’s autobiographies were published in journal articles, literary anthologies, and short story collections. Her residential school experience was included in volume 2 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report Canada's Residential Schools: The Inuit and Northern Experience (2015).
Alice Masak French’s autobiographies are important to her family. In My Name is Masak, she addresses family members by name, explains filial relationships and helps them understand how each is related to one another. This family history has unified generations in spite of disruptions caused by colonialism. Alice Masak French’s autobiographies have important social, historical, anthropological, cultural, and literary significance. She tells her story, that of her family, but also that of her community, presenting a concrete example of the many changes experienced by the Inuit in Canada between the years 1940 and 1980.
When she returned to Canada from Ireland, Alice Masak French moved to Medicine Hat, Alberta, where she resided in the 1990s and in the beginning of the 2000s. She spent the last six years of her life in Souris, Manitoba. She died in 2013, surrounded by her husband, her children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.