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About Iqaluit  |  Nunavut Map About Baffin Island | Return    

Iqaluit * [pop: under 7,000]

by Alootook Ipellie and Carol Rigby

If Mexico City is the largest city on earth, then Iqaluit easily gets the same designation within the new territory of Nunavut.

When you arrive at the bustling Iqaluit Airport, you might feel as though you've entered a frontier town. In several ways, you have. Iqaluit is the transportation hub to other Baffin Island communities, as well as to Greenland. And in December 1995, it was selected in a Nunavut-wide plebiscite to be the capital of the new central and eastern Arctic territory. That historic day arrived on April 1, 1999.

The main portion of Iqaluit [pronounced "ee-ka-loo-eet"] overlooks Koojesse Inlet, which has some of the country's longest stretches of exposed area at low tide. At one time, these beaches were dotted with clusters of Inuit huts. Later as modern houses, shops, and public buildings were constructed, this little village grew to reflect it's increasing population and impending importance as a government town. A decentralized government that will add jobs to almost half of all Nunavut communities is expected to bring hundreds of jobs to Iqaluit alone, and private enterprises built around this public sector growth are burgeoning as well. An unrelated but interesting side industry is the southern movie business; actors and directors have dropped into town from time to time to film authentic Arctic location shots. Iqaluit's population to is a mix; a mix of cultures [less than two-thirds of the resident here are Inuit, compared to other communities that are more than 90%  Inuit] and languages. Iqaluit, due north of the province of Quebec, is also home to about 400 francophones and a French-language radio station.

The United States airbase to the north of town used to be separate from the main village, with a road lining the two sites. What was once wide open country is now one large urban development. About eight kilometres to the south lies the small suburb of Niaqunngut, or Apex as it's officially called. Built by the Canadian government as a model community in 1955, it used to be the main centre of activity, with a public school, nursing station, community centre and fire hall. The Hudson's Bay Co. store and warehouse were also built nearby.


Thousands of years ago, when Iqaluit, like the rest of the Arctic, was still uncharted wilderness, the ancient explorers of the Dorset and Thule cultures hunted and camped on this pure and silent land.  The lands and waters here were prime hunting and fishing grounds; local vegetation provided edible plants and berries in season. These nomadic hunters would remain as long as there was game, then move on to other areas where animals were more plentiful.

In 1942, during the Second World War, the U.S. Air Force, with the blessing fo the Canadian government, selected Iqaluit as an ideal site to build an airstrip. It was to be long enough to handle large aircraft transporting war materials from the United States to its European allies. During this time, many Inuit from surrounding hunting camps were recruited to help construct the airstrip, aircraft hangars and related buildings.

These hunters and their families had no choice but to begin building year-round huts on the beaches of Koojesse Inlet, using wood discarded from the airbase and the local dump. The Inuit referred to the little village that grew here as Iqaluit meaning "fish" [plural]. Fish, especially arctic char abound here in spring and summer, after their swim down the Sylvia Frinnell River, two kilometres west of the village. They reappear in droves in Autumn, when it's time for them to swim back up to Sylvia Grinnell Lake for the winter.

Before long, the village, together with the airbase and Apex Hill [it's previous name], appeared on official government maps as Frobisher Bay. And this is how it came to be known to the outside world. The name was in honor of Martin Frobisher, the English sailor who "discoverd" the bay in 1576. while searching with his crew for the Northwest Passage to the Orient. Frobisher made three voyages to the bay, mainly to mine black ore from Kodlunarn Island at the mouth of the bay. Frobisher believed the island contained gold. Several skirmishes with local Inuit ensued; in one incident Inuit took five of Frobisher's men hostage. They were never heard from again. In other instances, Frobisher captured four Inuit whom he took back with him to England, presumably to display to the Royal Family and the curious English public. The Inuit did not live long in that strange land.

    In another clash he was stabbed in the buttocks with an arrow, becoming the first Englishman known to have been wounded by an Inuk. The precious ore he had found turned out to be Fool’s gold on his return home, ending his explorations of the area that bears his name today.

    In the 18th and 19th centuries European and N. American whalers visited and the impact of western culture intensified when the missionaries arrived, spreading the Christian religion that would replace centuries old Inuit shamanistic rituals and beliefs. Like other communities, Iqaluit couldn’t escape westernization of its culture and heritage. Hudson’s Bay Co. arrived in 1950 and in 1955 supplies and workers came to build the eastern section of the DEW Line. By 1963 the Americans had gone, turning over the airbase to the Royal Can. Air Force and Iqaluit became the government administration, communications and transportation centre for the eastern Arctic.

   Since its early days Iqaluit has been home to many strong Inuit leaders. Simonie Michael a carpenter by trade, became the chairman of the Sisi Housing Co-op in Apex Hill, he was one of the first community leaders to make decisions affecting both Inuit and Euro-Canadians. By the mid-60’s he became president of Inook Ltd., the first Inuit owned company in Canada, he was also president of the Frobisher Community Council and a member of St. Simon’s Anglican Church Council.

    Abraham Okpik (chairman of the Apex Hill Comm. Assoc., 1963) was the first Inuk to be appointed to the Northwest Territories Territorial Council, the Ottawa based forerunner to the areas legislative assembly. He also served as the head of “Project Surname” a plan that required all Inuit families to select a surname to replace the disk numbers previously assigned to them as ID by the federal government. Okpik was awarded the country’s highest honour, the Order of Canada.

    Simonie Alainga was an inspirational hunting and traditional games instructor to many young Inuit. He was the thread connecting many community dwellers to the land and their hunting traditions. In the early 60’s he was among the first to encourage those having difficulty with community life to return to the land if they chose. His memory has endured as a comfort to Inuit caught in the clash between traditional and western values.

    Anakudluk was another traditionalist who became a lay reader in the Anglican ministry. He was always a source of great spiritual strength to a community in transition. Another lay reader, Arnaitok Ipeelie, was among the first Inuit to teach youngsters to read and write Inuktituk syllabics as well as being a respected orator and powerful singer.

    Inutsiaq was one of the first of Iqaluit’s leaders to organize Inuit games during festival seasons. A deeply spiritual man, he was a wonderful storyteller who often told his tales over the radio. He was also famous for his childbirth carvings, sought by collectors across Canada and abroad.

    Iqaluit has also had some eccentric Euro-Canadians like Scotsman Bill MacKenzie who came here as a Hudson’s Bay Co. clerk and will be remembered as the first, perhaps the last farmer in eastern arctic.   The late Fred Corman, as an art dealer and business man, contributed much through his entrepreneurship and volunteer work over many years. Former mayor and GNWT legislative assembly member Bryan Pearson (known as Salluq, the skinny one) could be a pretender to Frobisher’s fame in these parts. If you want to hear a good yarn from the past, ask Salluq. Gordon Rennie, the smiling, long-time former manager of the Northern store and is fluent in Inuktitut is another respected resident.

Iqaluit: Land & Wildlife

    Iqaluit sits in the surrounding Koojesse Inlet. Although the local hills may be less spectacular than Pangnirtung’s mountains, they are blessed with a wide variety of arctic wildflowers which start appearing in late June and bloom through early August. Even the disturbed areas by roadsides are bright in July with the hot pink of broad-leaved willow herb.

    Raven, the trickster of the north, is the one bird that you will encounter all year round. The antics of this extremely intelligent bird are always fascinating to watch as they soar in the updrafts over Iqaluit’s highrises or tease dogs away from their food dishes. When summer arrives you may also spot snow buntings, ptarmigan, seagulls, the odd phalarope and, if you are lucky, peregrine falcons. Winter expeditions to the outskirts of town may result in glimpses of large groups of caribou, in the summer shy arctic hares and lemmings. You are not likely to encounter any dangerous wildlife in the area except for the odd arctic fox, which should be avoided in case of rabies. Seals are often found in the inlet when the ice is gone, but it’s rare for the larger marine mammals to come in this far.

    There are day hikes in the vicinity of the town and on your walks you may discover an inuksuk or two – those legendary stone markers that Inuit built as landmarks on the tundra. Some inuksuit were built to resemble humans, to help hunters lead caribou into lakes where they could be more easily killed from a qajak (kayak).

*Reproduced [with modifications] from the Nunavut Handbook