Nunavut — History and Culture
Nunavut’s vast size and harsh climate enabled its sparse Inuit population to preserve their traditional nomadic lifestyle as hunters and fishers for centuries after Europeans settled in southern Canada. Nunavut’s Inuit have also managed to maintain their intricate carving skills, unique music, and Inuktitut language, the mother tongue of about 65 percent of Nunavut’s population.
Nunavut may have always been a vast land with a small population, but the Inuit have called the area home for at least 4,000 years. Originally whale hunters, the Inuit adopted their current seal and caribou hunting lifestyle about 500 years ago. The Nunatta Sunaqutangit Museum (Building Number 212, Iqaluit) is the best place to learn more about Inuit culture, especially on days when resident elders share firsthand stories.
Although some people believe the Viking explorers who briefly settled in northern Newfoundland made it as far north as Baffin Island around the year 1000, this has yet to be officially confirmed despite archeological discoveries of European artifacts at Cape Banfield in 2008. Nunavut’s first documented European visitor was English explorer Martin Frobisher, who believed he discovered gold ore near the bay which now bears his name during his 1576 Northwest Passage quest.
Robert Bylot, Henry Hudson, and William Baffin also ventured into the far north during the 16th century in an attempt to find the elusive Northwest Passage leading to Asia’s riches. However, no European would successfully sail across until Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s voyage between 1903 and 1905. Visitors can learn more about Amundsen and his relationship with the local Inuit at the Northwest Passage Trail (Gjoa Haven).
The Inuit continued to live their traditional lifestyle for centuries until the early 1950’s, when the Canadian government forcibly relocated several tribes from northern Québec to two isolated High Arctic communities called Grise Fiord and Resolute. Many of these people starved and had great difficulty adjusting to their permanent new homes. The government formally apologized for their involvement in 2010.
Although discussion of a separate Inuit territory began in 1976, official agreements were not finished until 1992. The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act officially became law in 1993, and Nunavut became Canada’s newest territory in 1999. Although Nunavut suffered some growing pains during its first decade as a separate territory, its people have always been proud and its future has never looked brighter.
Nunavut’s Inuit have done a tremendous job of preserving their culture throughout the centuries. Inuktitut is Nunavut’s dominant language and the territory has its own Inuit Broadcasting Corporation. Traditional arts such as soapstone carving, throat singing, and dancing to the beat of ancient drums are all very much alive in Nunavut.
However, Nunavut’s Inuit have also branched out into more modern media. Fiddles, accordions, and other European instruments have been mixed into musical performances. The Nunavut Animation Lab offers animation training workshops in three Nunavut communities, while Igloolik’s Artcirq circus troupe has performed at the 2010 Winter Olympics and countless other venues around the world. Throat singer Tanya Tagaq has collaborated with the likes of Björk and the Kronos Quartet.