* [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 Fools 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 couldnt escape
westernization of its culture and heritage. Hudsons 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
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-60s 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. Simons 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 countrys 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 60s 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
Inutsiaq was one of the first of Iqaluits 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 Hudsons 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 Frobishers 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
sits in the surrounding Koojesse Inlet. Although the local hills may be less spectacular
than Pangnirtungs 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
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 Iqaluits 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 its 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