Nunavut, meaning “Our Land” in Inuit, is the result of a very long process that started many years ago.

Map of the territory of Nunavut

The territory of Nunavut

Nunavut has supported a continuous indigenous population for approximately 4,000 years. Most historians identify the coast of Baffin Island as being the Helluland described in the Norse sagas, so it is possible that the inhabitants of the region had occasional contact with Norse sailors and Vikings. Speaking historically, it was quite late that outsiders or white people came to this area.

Since about 1550 there were some whalers or explorers, such as Frobisher (1576), Hudson (1607-08) and Franklin (1845) that came to Nunavut. These were courageous men who were in search of fame and fortune by trying to discover and chart the fabled Northwest Passage.

Portraits of Sir Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson and Sir John Franklin

Sir Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson and Sir John Franklin
“No portrait of Hudson is known to be in existence. What has passed with the uncritical for his portrait — a dapper-looking man wearing a ruffed collar — frequently has been, and continues to be, reproduced. Who was this unknown man? That he was not Hudson is certain.” – Thomas A. Janvier, biographer of Henry Hudson. The illustration featured here comes from the (presumably uncritical) Cyclopaedia of Universal History, 1885

Later on, there was an influx of missionaries, mainly Anglicans from England or Roman Catholics from Belgium and France. For decades, missionaries and fur traders set up small outposts in and around the Hudson’s Bay area and parts of what is today, Nunavut.  The North-West Mounted Police was formed in 1873 by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to protect the Northwest Territories. Nunavut, however, covers a huge area and is only sparsely populated. Therefore, this force was merged, in 1920, with the Dominion Police Force to become what we know today as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

There were not that many outsiders that came as it was very difficult to make one’s way there. It was very cold with lots of snow and ice, and no efficient means of transportation or communication.

Many outsiders, who came from Europe, preferred to settle in the more southerly parts of Canada where they had ready access to transportation and to forests for building materials as well as fertile land for agricultural use.

The Inuit who did live here were mainly left to their own devices and they lived as nomads, that is they moved from place to place, usually seasonally in order to follow the herds which they used as food sources. In other words, they might live by a river in the summer to catch fish and then move in the winter to follow and hunt the caribou. Throughout Nunavut, many Inuit lived as nomads until well into the early 1970’s.

However, things began to change in the 40’s and 50’s. It was the time of the Second World War and the Cold War. The Americans believed that the Russians would attack the USA by using the shortest route, which is directly over the North Pole. As we now know, this attack never came. However, the Americans, along with the Canadian army, built several bases and airports in the Canadian North, such as in Resolute Bay, now known as Qausuittuq, Frobisher Bay (Iqaluit) and Fort Chimo (Kuujjuaq) in Nunavik.

The Americans also built what was known as the Distant Early Warning line (DEW) which was a series of radar outposts which were built in the Arctic and included the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. It was built to alert the Americans to incoming attacks from the Russians.

Map of Modern and Historical Inuit settlements in Canada

Modern and Historical Inuit settlements

These airports helped to breach the isolation of the Inuit as new people and goods arrived to these areas, even though it was a slow process.

The first large town of notice was Rankin Inlet (Kangiqliniq), a mining town, which was built on the western shores of the Hudson’s Bay. It introduced the Inuit to paid labour. Until then, the Inuit had lived a subsistence lifestyle, meaning they lived off the land taking only what they needed to survive.

Nowadays in many places throughout the Arctic, the Inuit have a mixed economy, which is to say that some still live the traditional way with hunting, fishing and gathering but they also have paid employment.

In 1953, the Canadian government wanted to assert sovereignty over the Arctic and to do so it relocated a group of Inuit from Nunavik to Resolute Bay and Grise Fjord (both are now settlements in Nunavut). This move has become known as the High Arctic Relocation.

Map of Canada showing the High-Arctic Relocation of Inuit

High-Arctic Relocation of Inuit

The government thought that such a move was for the Inuit’s own good, as there was supposed to be more wildlife in those areas to hunt. The Inuit, on the other hand, believed that this move was a political gesture from the government because many of them were moved to the northern side of the Northwest Passage, which would indicate to the world that this was Canadian territory, thereby establishing sovereignty over the region.

Some of the young Inuit who were moved, such as John Amagoalik and Martha Flaherty, came to believe that this was unethical and the time had come for the Inuit to have their own territory from which they could never be moved. So, together with many other Inuit they went on to fight for the creation of their own territory, which is today known as Nunavut.

John Amagoalik is now often referred to as the father of Nunavut. Martha Flaherty went on to produce a film called Martha of the North, relating her experiences.

The Inuit used to be known as Eskimos, which is an Indian word for “eaters of raw meat”, but that name has been dropped and the word Inuit is used which means “real people”.

It is important to briefly note some other influences. Many, but certainly not all, of the outsiders treated the Inuit like second-class citizens, which to say that they weren’t supposed to be as good or as smart as white people. This may be called colonialism and it created many hardships.

The Canadian government, in order to provide certain services to the Inuit, thought it would be a good idea to move them into villages instead of living in camps as they had for centuries. In this way, the government could provide them with schools and medical care. This process was known as centralization. It seemed like a good idea at the time – but in practice it did not turn out well in most instances. The Inuit were not used to living in villages; this was a great disruption to their traditional way of life and a loss to their culture. Some say this was one of the main reasons for the social problems that resulted, such as drinking and suicides. However, it also brought the benefits of schooling and medical care.

What do you think? And why?

With all of these changes, the Inuit began to think differently about their future. Maybe they learned from the American Civil Rights movement which they could now see on television, as television was slowly being introduced into the Canadian North.

The Inuit started to have their own Inuit television, first with the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) and now with APTN (Aboriginal People’s Television Network). For further information and reading, please see the section on Important Inuit Organizations.

The Inuit started to find their own voice and express their own ideas. Not just in Nunavut, but throughout the Arctic. So they established political and cultural organizations to fight for their rights and to express their ideas.

In Canada, the Inuit formed regional associations in the 70’s and 80’s and also created a major national organization, known as the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), whose goal is to promote Inuit values, language and culture.

The area that is now the Nunavut territory used to be part of Northwest Territories, an area of Canada larger than India but extremely sparsely populated.

In the 1970s, when talk about Nunavut began, it became important to look at how to divide the Northwest Territories. It took many years of negotiations because the border also divided who could extract the mineral riches, oil and natural gas. There were also many negotiations about where the new capital should be placed and what would be its name.

The Inuvialuit, the Inuit who live in the northwestern part of the Northwest Territories, decided to stay within the Northwest Territories and not to become a part of Nunavut. It was decided that Iqaluit, on Baffin Island, should be the new capital.

At last, after years of negotiation the long-awaited Nunavut Act and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement were passed by the Canadian government on July 9, 1993. This day is celebrated every year in Nunavut as Nunavut Day.

The Nunavut land claims agreement in the Nunavut law established the new territory and, in addition, gave the Inuit more autonomy and a degree of self-governance with its own legislative assembly. Furthermore, the Inuit received many very important rights to their resources, for hunting and fishing, the land as well as compensation.

In terms of size, Nunavut constitutes 1/5 the total area of Canada, but it only has 32,000 inhabitants of which 27,000 only are Inuit.

There are four official languages: English, French, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.

That Nunavut territory officially came into being on April 1, 1999.

Since Nunavut was established, there have been enormous changes. Have the changes been too great or too fast? How is Nunavut doing now? What is the future for the new territory?

There are still many problems to be solved and it all parts of the Nunavut land claims agreement have not been fully implemented yet. There is also a wish, by many in Nunavut, to one day have Nunavut become a full-fledged Canadian province.

In 1975, an international Inuit organization called the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) was formed. It works tirelessly for Inuit rights in the circumpolar regions around the world – so not just for Canadian Inuit but also for Greenlanders, Alaskan Inuit (Inupiaq and Yup’iq) and the Chukotkan Inuit, amongst many.

Inuit have been extremely successful on the international front and have become a model for other indigenous peoples around the world.

The Inuit now also play a significant role in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues where they had the UN adopt a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous  Peoples – a document which supports human rights and equality for all indigenous peoples.

As Nelson Mandela showed us, racism is not only immoral, it is also ignorant and outdated.

You may also see:
Website of the Office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut discussing in detail the official languages of Nunavut
Homepage for the government of Nunavut.
PolarNet’s introduction to Nunavut and their land-claims agreement with the federal government.
Isuma production’s homepage, including lists and explanations of their productions.
Encyclopedia Britannica’s introduction to Nunavut, including facts and figures.
Nunatsiaq news online.  Local coverage of current events in Nunavut and across Canada.
Website for the legislative assembly of Nunavut.
Homepage for Parks Nunavut.
Homepage for Nunavut Tourism.  Shows interactive map, services, and tourist locations.
Homepage for Nunavut Tunngavik (Inuit economic, social and cultural well-being through the implementation of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement).
CIA world factbook information for Greenland, including interactive maps, geography, energy, government, transportation, and military.
A Feature on Nunavut on Mapleleafweb.
CBC article on the creation of Nunavut.