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Sanikiluaq *        [ pop: under 800 ]

by Miriam Fleming

Nunavut’s southernmost community, Sanikiluaq, is located on the Belcher Islands in southeastern Hudson Bay, about 150 kms. Off the coast of Quebec. Although more than 1,000 kms. South of the Arctic Circle, the islands are distinctly arctic. No trees grow here and, except in the valleys, only a thin layer of soil covers the ground. The islands’ peak is 155 metres above sea level, some cliffs rise from 50 to 70 metres.

   Fly on a clear day into Sanikiluaq via Umiujaq, Quebec, and you’ll see the immensity of the Belcher Islands. Spread out over 3,000 square kilometers, they consist of about 1,500 islands – many of which are very small – and form the largest group of islands in Hudson Bay. The main group of the archipelago forms an S-shaped pattrern whose long, narrow peninsulas are separated by clearly defined channels.

   Although Sanikiluaq (pronounced “san-ee-kil-u-wak”) is the only permanent settlement in the islands, many Inuit live and camp throughout the archipelago during spring and summer. Sanikiluaq, namede after a local Inuk man, lies on the main group of islands, on a narrow piece of land near the north end of Flaherty Island, bounded by Eskimo Harbour to the north and Sanikiluaq Lake to the south.

   In a world tha’s being resculpted by industrial developments, residents have worked hard to ensure that traditional knowledge has a place in modern environmental management.

   A recent community-conducted study has amassed traditional knowledge from 28 Inuit and Cree communities around Hudson Bay, James Bay and Hudson Strait for use in the regions environmental assessment in the face of northern Quebec’s Great Whale hydro-electric project. The research has resulted in a book, Voices from the Bay: Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Inuit and Cree in the Hudson Bay Bioregion. Sanikiluaq received a 1995 award from the Friends of the United Nations citing it as one of 50 exemplary communities, worldwide, committed to building a sense of common unity. The study’s headquarters are in the Hudson Bay Office in Sanikiluaq.


    Inuit have inhabited the Belcher Island for centuries. While some ancestors of present-day inhabitants migrated here from northern Quebec, others came when the Thule culture was declining between AD 1200 and 1400. Earlier occupation is evidenced in the archeological sites of the Dorset culture from 500 BC to AD1000.

    The islands came to the attention of outsiders after Henry Hudson spotted them in 1610. More than 230 years later Thomas Wiegand, a servant of the Hudson’s Bay Co., led an exploration party from Fort George (Chisasibi, Quebec) to the area. It was another 60 years before Robert Flaherty and his crew became the first qallunaat (white people) to winter here. In 1915 he and his men survived the winter by using the wood from their ship for fuel.

    Inuit survived Belcher Islands through their ingenuity. In the late 1800’s when the caribou disappeared from the islands, women began sewing winter parkas from eider duck skins. The men were renowned for their knowledge of the ice fields and their dogs were popular trade items during annual trips to mainland posts. They were respected as well for their kayaking skills and the two person kayaks that they navigated adeptly around the island and the bay.

    A Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post opened in 1928 and operated sporadically until the 1950’s. It was relocated from Tukarak Island to Eskimo Harbour in 1961.

That same year the federal government built a school in the southern part of Flaherty Island.

    The community of Sanikiluaq was established in 1971 when the government centralized its services, moving the buildings and inhabitants of South Camp (where the school was) to North Camp (where the trading post was). Today Sanikiluaq is a growing, modern settlement whose economy is based on subsistence hunting, fishing, tourism and soapstone carving..

Sanikiluaq: Land & Wildlife

    Most of the small islands in the archipelago provide breeding grounds for several species of ducks & geese (including eider, merganser, Brant & Canada). Rock crevices, lakes and ponds are summer home to many other migrating birds. Most of the species that nest or visit are water birds including red-throated, common & arctic loons, black guillemot, arctic tern and gulls. There are also a few land birds like rock ptarmigan, rough legged hawk, peregrine falcon, snowy owl, horned lark, Lapland longspur and snow bunting.

    Arctic char and whitefish are found in the rivers and lakes.  Coastal waters are a source of cod, capelin, lumpfish and sculpin. They are also home to ring, bearded and harbour seals, beluga whale, walrus and Polar bear. On the tundra fox, arctic hare and lemmings can be found along with reindeer that were introduces in 1978, about 100 years after the caribou disappeared.

    Sanikiluaq has weather that can be blustery and unpredictable. The islands are surrounded by open sea and high winds and storms can arise suddenly. Information on daily temperatures and wind conditions can be obtained from the local observer/communicator at the local airport.

 *Reproduced from the Nunavut Handbook