Not just home to ice and snow, this gigantic and often-ignored part of Canada has long been a theatre of human drama, deep and rich culture, and international politics. We’re putting faces to the names of these incredible islands.
For the birds
Undisturbed rocky terrain is found in abundance throughout the High Arctic. It’s the ideal breeding ground for countless species of birds. Here are some of their favourite spots.
Bylot Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary: The island’s steep cliffs provide the ideal setting for migratory birds like murres and kittiwaks to build a nest and raise their young after thousands of miles of flight.
Southampton Island: Snow geese congregate here each spring. They seem to have picked up some destructive habits in their travels—giant flocks have been known to gorge on grassy areas, leaving mud exposed which can hamper regrowth.
Belcher Islands: The eider duck calls these islands home year-round. Their down, collected from nests, is the staple of a growing Sanikiluaq industry. –HM
A journey through The Arctic seas
Around 1850, a Pond Inlet shaman and 39 followers set off from Baffin Island, across Ellesmere Island and Smith Sound.
There are various accounts of the leader Qillaq’s motivation: he was on the run after killing his hunting partner during a dispute; he was told in a vision to go find the Inuit living in the North; or two white explorers searching for Franklin told him of Inuit in Greenland. Whatever the reason, Qillaq led the group by dogsled and umiak (open boat) on a more than five-year journey to eventually reach the northwest coast of Greenland. Many would abandon the journey, but the remaining 15 came upon an isolated Inughuit community near the now-abandoned settlement of Etah.
Qillaq lived among the Inughuit for about six years, teaching them to build qajait using skin and bones, and to hunt with a bow and arrow. The two groups intermarried.
They lived well together, but Qillaq and his followers gradually became homesick. Once again, they packed there belongings and looked ahead to a long journey. Some accounts have survivors of the trip home, but Qillaq was not among them. –EA
Last fuel stop
From promise to reality. Somewhat, at least.
True to his ‘use it or lose it’ Arctic trope, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced some grand plans on a chilly summer day in Resolute Bay in 2007.
Two new projects were proposed: an army training facility for Resolute (opened in 2013) and a deepwater port to be refurbished into a naval station at Nanisivik, the former mine site near Arctic Bay. The latter was planned for a 2015 opening, but in the end, ground wasn’t broken until that year. Completion has now been pushed back to 2018.
Before work even started, the government began curbing its ambitions. It will no longer operate year-round. Now, the site will mainly serve as a fuelling station for government and navy ships who will ‘use it’ for four months a year, when the water is open. –EA
A pirate, kidnapper and fraudster
The sordid legacy of Martin Frobisher
Martin Frobisher was many things. After two decades on the seas, where he’d served as a pirate and privateer, he set sail for the Northwest Passage in 1576.
On August 10, he reached Baffin Island—which he called the North Foreland—before heading west into the bay that today bears his name, believing it led to Asia. There he met and traded with Inuit, but after five of his men went ashore and didn’t come back, Frobisher assumed the worst. So when an Inuk man later approached the ship in his kayak to trade, Frobisher pulled him from the water and kidnapped him. (Inuit oral history tells that the five men lived with them for years.)
Upon return in England, speculation grew that some rocks, haphazardly collected during the voyage, contained gold, so a larger 1577 trip was organized to bring back more ore. More than 200 tonnes was mined while others searched for the missing five men, taking more hostages and murdering six Inuit in an ambush.
The ore from this trip (assayed by experts with an incentive to show good results so they would be considered for a contract to refine the ore) was said to be high-grade, so another expedition was organized for 1578. With 15 ships and more than 100 men—including 30 miners and a group of miscreants to be dropped off to establish a settlement—they returned with more than one thousand tonnes of ore that turned out to be worthless iron pyrite.
Frobisher’s is a story of pirating, kidnapping and fraud. But he did put English boots in the Arctic first, as Robert McGhee notes in The Arctic Voyages of Martin Frobisher, setting in motion a series of events that would eventually establish the British
Canada’s claims—to the territory. Frobisher didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. - HM
Art in the eastern Arctic
It was the need to hunt with a sharp spear-point, to heat oil in a small dish (a qulliq) that taught so many Inuit across the Arctic to carve. Now, their pieces—from whimsical to historical depictions—sell for hundreds of thousands at southern markets.
Communities: Baker Lake, Pangnirtung, Clyde River, Cape Dorset
In the 1960s, printmaking was introduced by artist James Houston, as a way to build local economies and have artists earn an income by selling to a southern audience. The craft is relatively new to the Arctic, but it lends well to other forms like engraving or tattooing, which have longer histories.
Communities: Baker Lake, Pangnirtung, Taloyoak
Around the 1950s, a decline in caribou hides saw Baker Lake sewers turn to southern fabrics, blending some European techniques with their own style, resulting in the unique tapestries, dolls and trimmings that are now common.
Communities: Iqaluit, Cape Dorset, Kimmirut
Ivory, bone, leather and copper have been used for centuries as adornments among Inuit, but in the 1970s jewellery workshops opened as a result of a government craft competition that saw metalworking and other materials incorporated. – EA