Home to only 32,000 people, Nunavut (meaning “Our Land” in Inuktitut, the Inuit language) covers almost two million square kilometres – a fifth of Canada’s land surface and an area five times the size of California, stretching west from Hudson Bay then north through the great “Barrenlands” of the interior to the Arctic islands in the north. From its western edge to the tip of Baffin Island in the east is 2000km (the distance from Washington DC to Denver). From north to south it’s even more of a span – 2500km, the distance from London to Moscow.
Long an amorphous political entity administered by the federal government, the Northwest Territories was formally divided on April 1, 1999, by a land treaty which split the old territories in two and created a new central and eastern Arctic territory termed Nunavut. The signing followed fifteen years of low-profile but effective negotiating and campaigning and produced the largest land deal in Canadian history, in which the Inuit regained possession of their homeland (valued at $1.15 billion) in return for renouncing all their claims to the remainder of the NWT. One practical effect has been the renaming of most of its 28 settlements with Inuit names, though in many cases English-language names have continued to stick.
Nunavut is the land of musk ox, polar bears, vast caribou migrations, millions upon millions of migrating songbirds and endless horizons of fish-filled lakes and rivers. The region is also home to ten-thousand-year-old glaciers, deep fjords, impressive mountain ranges and endless kilometres of open tundra. Besides the wildlife and breathtaking landscapes, there are a host of activities, including fishing and high-adventure outdoor pursuits. Add to these the wide spectrum of living cultural treasures, from Inuit printmakers and carvers to traditional drummers and “throat” singers.
Most of the region’s communities are formed of indigenous Inuit and lie in the Kivallliq region on the arc of Hudson Bay’s western coast, and encompassing Baker Lake, Nunavut’s only inland community. In these settlements you will find that the Nunavummiut, or Inuit of Nunavut, continue to honour their traditional lifestyle, culture and ancestors. The remainder of Nunavut’s population live even further north in the scattered communities dotting Baffin Island and its surrounding archipelago. The capital, at Iqaluit on Baffin Island, is home to nearly one-fifth of the territory’s population.
Although you’ll find an old way of life and stunning Arctic landscapes, don’t be alarmed by the physical appearance of most villages; housing here is at a premium and many buildings and infrastructure suffer the effects of the Arctic’s harsh and changing environment. Houses are built on stilts and sit high above the permafrost layer, while some are even cabled down to prevent them from blowing away during the fierce arctic winds. All building supplies, canned grocery goods and supplies must be shipped in by sealift, which arrives once or twice a year during the brief ice-free months between July and early October. Despite the rundown appearance of these places, it is the warmth and generosity of the Inuit who live there that make staying here an unforgettable experience.