Map Of Arctic Ocean

Our Land: Nunavut

1 April 1999 is possibly the most historic date in the history of the Inuit. On that date an area of land, bigger than Western Europe, changed hands. The first new Canadian territory since the Yukon was formed in 1896. Canada has willingly given back to the Inuit nation, after 15 years of reasonably amicable talks, the 350,000 square kilometres of territory now called Nunavut (meaning Our Land). It stretches from the Hudson Bay almost to the North Pole and is eight times the size of Britain. It includes the Kitikmeot, Keewatin and Baffin regions and most of the Arctic islands including those in James Bay, Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait and Ungava Bay. Nunavut comprises 60 per cent of the original North-West Territories. This immense territory was taken some 300 years ago by British and French explorers, before then becoming part of Canada. Also, an amount equivalent to 400 million pounds (650 million US dollars) is being passed over to help with the new administration and arrangements. The total territory governed will amount to 2 million square kilometres of pristine wilderness almost totally unspoilt environment with an abundance of wildlife.

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Initially there will be approximately only 23,000 Inuit in Nunavut and then a further 4,000 people of mixed nationalities including the Canadians. There needs to be a rapid expansion of Inuit to people greater tracts of this immense region. They will be scattered over 28 communities throughout this huge land mass. This wise and open action on the part of the Canadian Government and all its peoples has given a sense of real worth and understanding to the entire Inuit nation but particularly to the Inuit children. They really have something to believe in and strive for. ‘Nunavut gives us responsibility and a sense of pride in our history and our people. It is truly our land.’

The real beauty of Nunavut lies in its almost totally pristine open spaces and wilderness. It also has an abundance of wildlife and reveals a raw and natural environment that is a real joy to behold. The land is generally flat although there are large mountains, cliffs, fiords and vast valleys. In the words of the Japanese philosopher, Prince Shotoko (574-622), ‘Harmony is the most precious thing’. Nunavut is an unspoilt territory that must be protected and the harmony that exists between the land, the wildlife and the Inuit should always be nurtured.

There is a particularly urgent need to obtain from Inuit elders as much information as possible about past Inuit culture. In Africa there is the saying, ‘When an old man dies, a library burns down’, the same could be expressed here as the older Inuit pass away. A century ago the Inuit were virtually living in stone-age conditions, in hunting camps, semi-nomadic, using weapons just of rock or perhaps the bones of the animals they killed. Fifty years ago they moved, or were moved, to settlements funded by the administration and conditions deteriorated as this hunting nation tried to fit into surroundings which didn’t take account of their nomadic backgrounds and traditions. Now everything has the capability to change as they will self-govern one-fifth of overall Canadian land. The Inuit writer, Mary Carpenter Lyons, emotionally expressed the our land: nunavut feelings this wonderful action has created within the nation, ‘Nunavut speaks to the soul of the Inuit.’

The weather of Nunavut is predictable in that it is unpredictable. That’s a Zen koan if ever I’ve heard one. Nunavut has the coldest weather in Canada; winter lasts about nine months and there are absolutely chilling winds even in June, July and August. Not the usual place to go for your summer holidays! Residents are often weathered out and it’s not difficult to understand what that means. The extraordinary fact to realise is that much of this area has minimal precipitation, most places receive less than 300 millimetres each year the north-western part of the Arctic Archipelago is a polar desert and receives less moisture than parts of the Sahara.

The earliest Paleo-Eskimo cultures date back in these arctic regions some 4,000 years and were formed by hunting tribes moving across the Bering Straits, the present Inuit descended from the most recent of these tribes, the Thule. Iqaluit, my original point of entry to this vast territory, is the capital of Nunavut. The population is about 4,000 and it’s nearer to London than Hollywood but still manages to obtain the latest films before London does. There’s only one cinema theatre to show them though. Iqaluit is more heavily populated than other Inuit towns or settlements. There’s Pangnirtung with a community of 1,200, its single hotel the Auyuittuq Lodge and Arctic Bay with only 650 inhabitants, where the Enokseot Hotel is the only place to stay. Most communities are what they would have called in the Wild West days, ‘one horse towns’. The Arctic and the Inuit communities are the new ‘Wild North’ towns where a few people live and die and the rules are often still being worked out. Everyone knows everyone else and their business, and isolation is the name of the game.

From Pangnirtung it’s possible to take a perilous boat ride to Cumberland Sound and up the fiord to the Auyuittuq National Park, providing spectacular views of ice-capped, granite walls, capable of tempting the hardiest of rock climbers who are prepared to risk all. The Inuit names are very descriptive and full of strangeness and humour. One of the peaks has a name which translates as ‘Cold peak doubled up like woman with period pain holding belly’. Try telling that to a stranger from out of town without starting a fight. Here every place and often the people have strange and ancient names. One of the tracks out of Iqaluit is called the Road To Nowhere as it is just that. Once an American army base was at the end of it, long ago it was abandoned and closed down but they still keep the road. That’s part of the enigma of this region.

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