OTTAWA - As celebrations Wednesday marked the 100 years since Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole, a Montreal filmmaker said the Norwegian explorer has a living Canadian legacy at the opposite end of the earth.
Amundsen fathered a Canadian with an Inuit woman from his historic first crossing of the Northwest Passage in 1906, a child he likely never knew he had, according to George Tombs, a Montreal filmmaker who plans to explore the connection in a documentary film due out next year.
Amundsen lived for two years among the Inuit in what is now the Nunavut town of Gjoa Haven during his three-year Canadian Arctic expedition. He fathered a child, Luke Iquallaq, who spawned generations of Canadian descendants, said Tombs.
Tombs said he has interviewed several descendants of Amundsen and Iquallaq for his upcoming film. They told him Iquallaq kept the secret of his famous father from them until shortly before he died in the late 1970s.
"What they're saying is: This is the positive effect that you can get from having a very healthy, happy interaction with a white person," Tombs said in an interview Wednesday.
"They're saying: look what we can do together. This represents one of our best interactions with a European ever. And we helped this person to achieve great things."
The story adds what Tombs says is a positive new chapter to Canada's troubled history with its aboriginal people.
Amundsen's own journals credit the two years he spent living among Canada's Inuit between 1903 and 1905 as crucial to his historic accomplishment six years later — beating British explorer Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole.
Amundsen learned valuable lessons from Canada's aboriginal people — how to run dog teams, how to dress, how to avoid scurvy — that enabled him to survive and win the epic race on Dec. 14, 1911.
In 1906, Amundsen was also the first explorer to cross the Northwest Passage in Canada's Arctic, a body of water that is poised in future years to transform global trade if the warming northern climate melts more of its ice and makes it a permanent link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
According to Tombs, Amundsen and his small crew had to move fast in late 1905 when the ice of the passage began to melt, opening up the waters for further exploration. They pulled up stakes and left behind their new northern lives.
Tombs said he believes Amundsen had no idea that the woman named Quleoq was already pregnant with his child — who would be born the following spring.
With no telegraph lines, no satellite phones, "there was no way for him to keep in contact with these people that he'd come to know and to really respect and to love, for two years, other than to start up a new expedition altogether."
Tomb said he is working with a distributor to help him market the film. He is to travel to Norway in early March because there is lots of interest there.
Joanni Sallerina, a former mayor of Gjoa Haven, said the film could be good for his tiny hamlet's future economic prospects. Gjoa Haven is currently negotiating with the Norwegian government to repatriate artifacts from Amundsen's stay in Canada that are currently housed in Oslo's Fram Museum.
"I think it's going to bring back memories for elders who know some stories about Amundsen," Sallerina said Wednesday.
"Movies are to entertain people, so I don't really have any negative or positive thing to say about the movie."
Sallerina said he has been told that one of two men from his community identified as Amundsen's grandsons had a DNA test in recent years and was found not to be related to the explorer. The other man has not been tested, he added.
Tombs said he interviewed one granddaughter, two grandsons, one great grandson, one great granddaughter, and one great-great grandson.
"I believe that this story is true," said Tombs, adding that he has done everything he can to corroborate his account with living sources.
As for DNA testing, he said: "It's not my job to do that; someone could do it I suppose."
Tombs said he has no doubt that Amundsen had a romantic link to an Inuit woman.
"Inuit society was more sexually free than Norwegian society at the time," he said, adding that Amundsen wrote in his diary, 'I know if you ask permission you can sleep with a woman."
Else Berit Eikeland, Norway's ambassador to Canada, said she doesn't think the new revelations about Amundsen should overshadow the accomplishments of her country's national hero.
"What happened, happened. If he had children or grandchildren up in Gjoa Haven, that's ok," she said. "I hope the film will be a success."
Tombs said Amundsen cared deeply for Canada's aboriginal people and feared for their future if they had more contact with white Europeans. In his writings, Amundsen predicted many of the social problems that have since come to afflict communities across Canada.
"He had his own ethics. He didn't want to exploit them or dominate them, but he said other people would come, who would give them brandy and firearms and exploit them," said Tombs.
"He couldn't have imagined the residential school situation in the 1950s, but he could see that the best option for these people would be for them to be on their own and not have contact. Was that realistic?"