INUVIK (“the place of man”) is the farthest north you can drive on a public highway in North America – unless you wait for the winter freeze and follow the ice road carved across the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean to the north. Canada’s first planned town north of the Arctic Circle, Inuvik is a battered spot begun in 1954 as an administrative centre to replace Aklavik, a settlement to the west wrongly thought to be doomed to envelopment by the Mackenzie River’s swirling waters and shifting mud flats. Inuvik is an interesting melting pot of around 3500 people, with Dene, Métis and Inuvialuit living alongside the trappers, pilots, scientists and frontier entrepreneurs drawn here in the 1970s when a boom followed the oil exploration in the delta. Today, the local economy also relies on government jobs, services, tourism and the town’s role as a supply and communication centre for much of the western Arctic. Wandering the town provides an eye-opening introduction to the vagaries of northern life, from the strange stilted buildings designed to prevent their heat melting the permafrost (which would have disastrous effects on the piles or gravel pads that serve as foundations), to the street-level “utilidors”, which carry water and sewage lines – again, to prevent the permafrost melting.
The influence of Inuvialuit people in local political and economic life has increased, to the extent that the Western Claims Settlement Act of 1984 saw the government cede titles to various lands in the area, returning control that had been lost to the fur trade, the Church, oil companies and national government.