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About The History  |  Nunavut Map  Interesting Facts

The History of Nunavut, the Inuit | Eskimo who inhabit this cruel environment and the amazing  Inuit Art | Eskimo Art they have created is deep and rich and filled with stories of legends, the white mans invasion of their space and the success they have had as a people in rising above adversity to become thier own Nation within a Nation.  This summary by Kenn Harper is a good read!.

The History

by Kenn Harper

In 1999, Canada's newest territory becomes a reality. Yet it already has a history, rich and colorful.

It is the history of the Inuit who originally inhabited this land, by turns rich and sparse, and of the qallunaat who arrived in their changing quests — for a sea route westward, for whales, for furs and other natural resources, and finally, to stay. It is a history of culture contact and cultural conflict. It is the history of the three regions of Nunavut.

Baffin Region

Historians identify the Baffin coast with Helluland of the Norse sagas, and there may have been sporadic contacts between Norse and Inuit. But the recorded history of Baffin Island began in 1576 when Martin Frobisher, on an expedition in search of a Northwest Passage, discovered what he thought was gold in the bay that bears his name. The ore was worthless and Frobisher's encounters with the Inuit were not friendly. He seized four Inuit in 1576 and 1577 and took them to England where they quickly died. In 1585, John Davis, also in search of the Northwest Passage, explored Cumberland Sound; unlike Frobisher, his relations with Inuit were cordial.

Henry Hudson, in 1610, followed the south coast of Baffin Island into Hudson Bay, and five years later, William Baffin and Robert Bylot mapped that coast. But Baffin Island itself was, at best, only a landmark and, at worst, an obstacle in the path of those searching for a Northwest Passage. Its coastline remained largely unexplored.

In 1616, Baffin and Bylot sailed north as far as Smith Sound and discovered the entrances to Lancaster and Jones sounds. Returning south, they mapped a good deal of the Baffin coast, but after this voyage, northern Baffin Island was ignored for two centuries.

In the early 19th century, the search for a Northwest Passage came in vogue again. John Ross entered Lancaster Sound in 1818 and concluded erroneously that it was a bay rather than a strait. The next year his second in command, Lieutenant William Edward Parry, travelled through Lancaster Sound; the following summer he discovered the entrances to Admiralty and Navy Board inlets. In 1821, under Admiralty orders, Parry passed two winters exploring and mapping the Igloolik area, and established good relations with the Inuit.

In 1845, John Franklin, commanding a large expedition in search of the passage, sailed through Lancaster Sound and into oblivion. His failure to return ushered in a new era in Arctic exploration, that of the Franklin searches. It lasted until 1880 but, again, explorers generally considered Baffin Island an obstacle. One notable exception was Charles Francis Hall, who explored Frobisher Bay from 1860 to 1862. Hall was one of the first to use Inuit clothing and travel methods. His Inuit friends, Tookoolito and her husband Ebierbing, accompanied him as interpreters and assistants for over a decade.

While the Franklin searches were under way, the last migration of Inuit from Canada to Greenland was also taking place. The shaman Qillaq (known later in Greenland as Qitdlarssuaq) led a group of Inuit from the Pond Inlet area to northwestern Greenland in the 1850s and 1860s, in search of new land and perhaps to avoid retribution for murders he had committed. Descendants of this group live there today.

British whalers reached northern Baffin Island by 1817, in their hunt for the bowhead whale, prized for its oil and baleen, which was used in corset stays, buggy whips, and other products requiring elasticity and flexibility. In 1840, William Penny, a whaling master from Peterhead, Scotland, with the help of a young Inuk, Eenoolooapik, rediscovered the entrance to Cumberland Sound, lost since Davis last entered it over two centuries earlier; it proved to be rich in bowhead whales. Its rediscovery marked a turning point in Baffin Island whaling. Whalers began wintering in Cumberland Sound in the 1850s to get an early start on whaling the following spring. American and Scottish companies established shore stations at Kekerten Island on the north shore of the sound and at Blacklead Island on its southern coast. The Americans sold their stations to the Scots in 1894, the same year that Reverend Edmund Peck established an Anglican mission at Blacklead. The mission remained open until 1926, by which time whaling had ended. A shore whaling station was also established by Scots at Albert Harbour near Pond Inlet in 1903. Everywhere, whaling had a profound impact on Inuit; it changed settlement patterns and provided Inuit with metal, tools, guns and whaleboats.

By the turn of the century, bowhead whale stocks were severely depleted and whaling had evolved into what was known as free trading. Small trading companies, all British, bartered with Inuit from shore stations or ships that called in summer. From 1900 until 1913, a Dundee company also operated a mica mine near Lake Harbour (now Kimmirut). In 1912, three expeditions, two Canadian and one from Newfoundland (then not part of Canada), visited Pond Inlet in search of gold. Each party subsequently returned to open a trading post. The Sabellum Company operated sporadically in southern Baffin from 1911 until 1926, using native traders and a small ship that arrived from Scotland in the summers. The only white employee of the company, Hector Pitchforth, died in 1924 at his lonely post near Clyde River.

Scientific research played a major role in Baffin history. In 1882-83, a German meteorological expedition overwintered at Sermilik Bay in Cumberland Sound as part of the International Polar Year. The following year, the pioneer geographer and ethnographer, Franz Boas, passed one winter in the sound; the extensive report that he published, The Central Eskimo, was the first major ethnographic study of Canadian Inuit. In 1909, Bernhard Hantzsch, an ornithologist, travelled with Inuit to Foxe Basin, where he died in 1911, probably of trichinosis. The geologist, prospector and filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, overwintered at Amadjuak Bay in 1913-14. (His film, Nanook of the North, made in northern Quebec, is an ethnographic classic.) Between 1921 and 1924, Knud Rasmussen and his Fifth Thule Expedition conducted ethnographic research in the Igloolik area, and Peter Freuchen and Therkel Mathiassen explored much of northern Baffin Island, Freuchen accompanied by the Greenlander Nasaitdlorssuarssuk and the Baffinlander Mala. Inland southern Baffin Island was explored and mapped by Burwash, Soper, Weeks and Haycock in the 1920s. Between 1936 and 1940, the British-Canadian Arctic Expedition completed most of the geographical investigation of Foxe Basin.

The Arctic Islands had been transferred from Britain to Canada in 1880, but it was not until 1897, when William Wakeham erected a cairn at Kekerten, that Canada took any active interest in exerting its sovereignty. In 1903, an official expedition under A. P. Low visited the High Arctic and Cumberland Sound. Between 1906 and 1911, the Canadian government dispatched Joseph Bernier on three official voyages to the High Arctic, to show the flag and collect Customs duties from whalers.

Canada became increasingly concerned over the activities of foreigners in the High Arctic — the Norwegian Sverdrup from 1898 to 1902, Robert Peary on his many attempts on the North Pole, Donald MacMillan's Crocker Land Expedition, and Rasmussen's interest in the Arctic Islands. Its response to these perceived threats was to establish Royal Canadian Mounted Police posts in the High Arctic. Pond Inlet was opened in 1921, and Craig Harbour on Ellesmere Island the following year. Dundas Harbour opened in 1924, Bache Peninsula in 1926, and Lake Harbour in 1927.

The Hudson's Bay Co. established its first post on Baffin Island at Lake Harbour in 1911. Cape Dorset was opened in 1913, Pangnirtung and Pond Inlet in 1921, Clyde River two years later and Arctic Bay in 1926. The Bay provided a more reliable supply of goods to hunters than had the earlier free traders, whom they displaced. The Bay trade was for fox pelts, later shifting to sealskins. In recent years, since the decline in the sealskin market, the trading posts have been transformed into modern department stores.

The Second World War and the Cold War that followed it forcibly opened the Canadian Arctic. The United States Air Force built an airfield at Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) during the war to handle aircraft transporting war materials to Europe. In 1955, construction began on the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a joint project of Canada and the United States to create an early-warning radar chain across the Arctic to warn of any Soviet incursions. With this, Iqaluit became the supply and administrative centre for the Baffin Region. A weather station was established at Resolute in 1947, and in the early 1950s, Inuit were relocated from northern Quebec to Resolute and Grise Fiord. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, federal schools were built in most communities. A mammoth housing program was undertaken in the mid-1960s, and Inuit in general abandoned traditional camp life as a permanent lifestyle.

Keewatin Region

In 1610, in search of a Northwest Passage, Henry Hudson explored what others had thought was a gulf between Baffin Island and Labrador. Following its shores, Hudson reached the great inland sea that bears his name. Other explorers followed, and the Hudson's Bay Co. established a fur trading post at Churchill in 1717 to open trade with Indians farther west. Inevitably, this led to contact with Inuit in the Keewatin.

In 1719, James Knight's expedition in search of the elusive Northwest Passage disappeared north of Churchill. Nothing was known of its fate for almost 50 years, until the remains of a house and two ships were found at Marble Island, near Rankin Inlet. The crew had perished of scurvy and starvation, despite the efforts of local Inuit to keep them alive.

As in Baffin, so in Keewatin, the whaling industry had a major impact on the lives of Inuit in the mid-19th century, attracting many to live near the whaling stations, providing trade goods which made life easier, but also introducing diseases to which the Inuit had no immunity. The first whalers to visit Hudson Bay wintered at Depot Island in 1860, losing many men to scurvy, but securing a fortune in baleen. In the remainder of that decade, over 40 American whaling voyages went to the Keewatin coast. The three most popular wintering sites for whalers were Repulse Bay, Depot Island and Cape Fullerton, and Marble Island, a place of legendary importance to the Inuit; when they visit they crawl the first few feet onto the island out of respect for an old woman whose spirit is said to reside there.

After 1870, the industry declined rapidly. As elsewhere, the whalers diversified into trading for "scraps" — whaler jargon for furs, skins, and ivory — and even mining. Scholars estimate that there were 146 whaling voyages to Hudson Bay between 1860 and 1915; 105 of these voyages overwintered, trading with and employing Inuit. Between 1899 and 1903, a Dundee firm operated a shore station on Southampton Island, manned by three Scots and Inuit relocated from Baffin Island. In 1903, the company sent its vessel, the Ernest William, to Repulse Bay, where it acted as a floating station until 1910. The decline of whaling quickened after the turn of the century; the last whaler into Hudson Bay, the A. T. Gifford, burned and was lost with its entire crew in 1915.

The most famous American whaling captain in Hudson Bay was George Comer, who made six whaling and trading voyages there. Aside from running profitable trips, Comer was an untrained scientist who, under the tutelage of the anthropologist Boas, made important contributions in anthropology, natural history, cartography and exploration.

While whaling activities dominated the Keewatin coast, other forces were at work in the interior. In 1893, Joseph and James Tyrrell, employed by the Geological Survey of Canada to survey the Keewatin interior, travelled from Lake Athabasca to the Dubawnt River, and from there to Chesterfield Inlet and along the coast to Churchill. The following year, Joseph Tyrrell explored and mapped more of the southern interior of the Keewatin.

In 1899, the naturalist David Hanbury travelled from Churchill north to Chesterfield Inlet and via Baker Lake to Great Slave Lake, making important contributions in geology, anthropology and natural history. The following year, James W. Tyrrell explored some of the same area. In 1901, Hanbury made an epic journey, from Great Slave Lake to Chesterfield Inlet and Marble Island, returning to Baker Lake to winter with Inuit. The next spring, he travelled to the mouth of the Coppermine River, where he sought information from the Inuit on copper deposits. He made contributions in geology, natural history, meteorology and anthropology.

In 1903, the Canadian government, concerned about Canadian sovereignty and the unchecked activities of whalers in Hudson Bay, established the first Arctic detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Fullerton Harbour, north of Chesterfield Inlet, intending to gradually enforce Canadian laws and exert "supervision and control."

In the forested areas to the south, the Hudson's Bay Co. faced increased competition from rival traders. So, after 1912, the company made a concerted effort to move north and promote white fox trapping among the Inuit. They opened a post at Chesterfield Inlet in 1912 and an inland post at Ennadai shortly thereafter. In 1916, a post was opened on the south side of Baker Lake and another one at Repulse Bay, at Arviat (then known as Eskimo Point) in 1921, and at Southampton Island in 1924.

Father Arsne Turquetil, an Oblate priest, established a Roman Catholic mission at Chesterfield Inlet in 1912. From there, Catholicism spread to Eskimo Point, Southampton Island, Baker Lake, and even to Baffin Island. The RCMP relocated its Fullerton post to Chesterfield Inlet in 1922. A doctor was resident there by 1929, and the Oblates built a hospital and established a Grey Nuns convent in 1931 and an old folk's home in 1938. In 1951, they built the first school in the eastern Arctic; from 1954 until 1969, they also operated a large residential school. In 1970, the present government of the Northwest Territories assumed responsibility for education; by that time most communities had their own schools. That, combined with the rise in importance of Rankin Inlet, contributed to the decline of Chesterfield Inlet.

The Anglican Church also established missions in the region. Luke Kidlapik, a catechist from Blacklead Island, started a mission at Coral Harbour, and Donald Marsh established one at Eskimo Point in 1926, two years after the Roman Catholics had established there. Both churches were established in Baker Lake in 1927.

Knud Rasmussen's Fifth Thule Expedition, in the region in the early 1920s, was of profound importance to our understanding of traditional Inuit culture. Pioneering studies in ethnology, archeology, linguistics, botany and zoology were conducted in the Keewatin and other regions. Rasmussen's and Kaj Birket-Smith's monographs on the culture of the Caribou Eskimos are classics of modern anthropology.

In 1955, a nickel mine was developed at Rankin Inlet, an area previously of little importance and never a major site of Inuit occupancy. North Rankin Nickel Mines operated until 1962 and became a major employer of Inuit, resulting in the most major population shift since the whaling days. In 1958, at the height of the mining operation, the federal government established a settlement at Itivia, half a mile from the mine, as a rehabilitation project for Inuit from the interior, whose living conditions had deteriorated with major shifts in caribou migration patterns. In the 1970s, the government of the Northwest Territories moved its administration offices out of Churchill and made Rankin Inlet the administrative centre of the Keewatin Region, a role it holds to this day.

Kitikmeot Region

In 1770 and 1771, Samuel Hearne, with a Chipewyan guide, Matonabbee, travelled overland from Churchill to the Coppermine River, becoming the first white man to reach the Arctic Ocean. To his horror, his Indian companions massacred a group of Inuit, their traditional enemy, near the mouth of the Coppermine River at the site known since as Bloody Falls. Hearne's amazing trek proved that no Northwest Passage would be found from the low latitudes of Hudson Bay.

The Arctic coast was mapped between 1819 and 1846. Franklin mapped 900 kilometres of coastline east from the Coppermine River to Coronation Gulf; in 1826, Dr. John Richardson mapped from the Mackenzie River to the mouth of the Coppermine. The British government's objectives were to promote geographical exploration, scientific research, and to confirm its territorial claims. Mapping was continued by George Back in 1834, by Thomas Simpson and Peter Warren Dease from 1836 to 1839, and finally by Dr. John Rae in 1845-46.

Important sea expeditions were also carried out. In 1819, Parry sailed through Lancaster Sound to Melville Island where he wintered. Ten years later Captain John Ross, in the Victory, became icebound in Prince Regent Inlet and remained there for three years. He and his crew got on well with local Inuit who hunted with them, supplied them with food and taught them Inuit travel techniques.

In 1846, the ships of the Franklin Expedition got caught in the ice northwest of King William Island. The crews abandoned the ships after 18 months and made a futile effort to reach the South; all 105 men died of starvation and scurvy. Beginning in 1847, numerous search expeditions visited the Arctic, producing a wealth of information on the area. In 1854, John Rae, having heard Inuit tell stories of the expedition's fate, took the news back to England. Countless books have been written on the Franklin story and the subsequent searches, and the fate of Franklin has passed into northern mythology.

In 1903, the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, seeking to locate the North Magnetic Pole, passed two winters on King William Island in the harbor that he named Gjoa Haven after his vessel. The Gjoa reached Nome, Alaska, in 1906, becoming the first ship to complete the Northwest Passage.

The westernmost reaches of Nunavut were the last to be explored by non-Inuit. Whalers based at Herschel Island gradually extended their whaling grounds east, and one, a Dane named Christian Klengenberg, passed the winter of 1905-6 trading off Victoria Island. Between 1908 and 1912, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, intrigued by Klengenberg's stories of fair-complexioned Inuit on Victoria Island (later sensationalized by newspapers as the "Blond Eskimos"), explored in the area. In 1913-18, Stefansson returned to Coronation Gulf and Victoria Island with a large multi-disciplinary scientific party on the Canadian Arctic Expedition. A New Zealand-born anthropologist, Diamond Jenness, accompanied this expedition and in 1922 produced a classic of northern ethnographic literature, The Life of the Copper Eskimos, which many scholars considered the best description of a single Inuit group.

Independent fur traders wasted no time in establishing posts in the central Arctic. Christian Klengenberg established a post near the mouth of the Coppermine River in 1916 and, in 1919, another one on Victoria Island. In 1920, he wintered his schooner at Bathurst Inlet. His descendants today live in Kugluktuk (Coppermine) and Holman Island. Other traders gradually moved into the area overland from Great Bear Lake, and were soon followed by geologists and trappers.

In November of 1913, two Oblate priests, Jean-Baptiste Rouvire and Guillaume LeRoux, were murdered by Inuit near Coppermine. The crime, caused by misunderstanding on the part of the Inuit and insensitivity on the part of the priests, was investigated and two Inuit were taken to Edmonton in 1917 for trial. They were sentenced to life imprisonment at Fort Resolution, but were released in 1919. An inevitable result of this case was the establishment of new police posts and the undertaking of regular patrols in the region.

The Hudson's Bay Co. opened a post at Bernard Harbour in 1916, Cambridge Bay in 1921, and King William Island in 1923. The Coppermine post was established in 1927 and Bathurst Inlet in 1934. The latter closed in 1964 and the buildings are now a naturalist's tourist lodge. Pelly Bay is the only place in the region where the Hudson's Bay Co. never established a post. In 1935, Father Pierre Henry built a famous stone church there. The community remained very isolated until 1961, when a school was built.

As elsewhere, missionaries arrived at about the same time as the traders. An Anglican mission was established in Coppermine in 1928, and both Anglicans and Roman Catholics built churches in Cambridge Bay in the 1920s.

Knud Rasmussen of the Fifth Thule Expedition travelled through the area in 1923 and 1924 with his Greenlandic assistants, Miteq and Arnarulunnguaq. Rasmussen produced detailed ethnographic monographs on the Netsilik and Copper Eskimos.

Spence Bay (now Taloyoak) has a curious history. In 1934, the Hudson's Bay Co. moved Inuit from Cape Dorset, Pangnirtung and Pond Inlet to Dundas Harbour on Devon Island to trap foxes. Two years later, the post was abandoned and the Inuit were moved to Arctic Bay, and from there to Fort Ross. That post proved difficult to resupply because of ice conditions, and in 1947 it closed. Most of the Inuit relocated to Spence Bay.

As elsewhere in the Arctic, Inuit largely abandoned camp life and moved into communities in the 1960s in conjunction with government housing programs and the construction of schools. In 1981, the territorial government designated Cambridge Bay as the regional administrative centre, and the community has grown steadily since.

Toward Nunavut

In this decade, the Nunavut land claim has been settled and the Nunavut Act, proclaiming the advent of the new territory of Nunavut, passed. Inuit are a majority in their homeland. Today Inuit and qallunaat approach the millennium determined to create a vibrant new territory, aware of both its past and the promise of its future.


*Reproduced from the Nunavut Handbook


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