Nunavut is one of the world’s most desolate and least populated areas, but it also one of the most breathtaking and beautiful parts of the planet. Arctic snows blanket the land for most of the year, while giant glaciers left from the last ice age bob peacefully offshore. The vast and unexplored Arctic Ocean teems with wildlife and the few outposts of humanity that exist here try to live in perfect harmony with their harsh climate.
Canada’s newest territory is also Canada’s largest. Nunavut was formed on April 1st 1999 by an Act of Parliament that separated a portion of the Northwest Territories and northern Quebec to form a new semi-autonomous territory. This was the first change to Canada’s map since Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949.
Nunavut has the honor of being the fifth largest territorial subdivision in the world and also being the least populated land in the world. Roughly 30,000 people live here, spread out across more than 2 million square kilometers of rock and ice. The vast majority of Nunavut’s population are Inuit (82%) and these communities are spread out. The largest town in the territory is the capital, Iqualuit, with 6,699 inhabitants according to the 2011 census.
Small groups of Inuit peoples have been living in Nunavut and Baffin Island (Nunavut’s largest island) for more than 5,000 years. It is generally agreed by archaeologists and anthropologists that the Nunavut Inuit are descended from ancient Siberians who crossed the Bering Straights. Many of the linguistic and cultural practices that are found in Nunavut are also found in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Alaska and northern parts of Siberia!
European contact with the Nunavut Inuit began in 1000 AD on Baffin Island, when Norse (Viking) explorers set up trading posts and lived a generally peaceful life alongside the Inuit for several centuries. More recent archaeological finds show that earlier Europeans, possibly dating back to the Celts, may also have settled on Baffin Island prior to the Vikings! Nevertheless, written documents and maps prove that English explorers made contact with the Inuit in this land in 1576.
During the Cold War the area encompassing modern-day Nunavut became the front lines in the global battle of ideology. Under the aegis of NORAD, Canada began establishing a chain of radar sites and army outposts to guard against Soviet attack. The Inuit people who lived in these areas were forcefully relocated further inland and off their traditional hunting lands. Many of the Inuit tribes that were relocated depended on beluga whales and seals for their existence, and the forced relocations deprived them of this. In 1993 a commission of enquiry into the relocations was held and the government paid out $10 million to the survivors of the relocations, but these tribes have never been able to resettle the disputed areas.
In 1999, to give the Inuit greater autonomy over their own affairs while remaining under the protective umbrella of the federal government in Ottawa, the territory of Nunavut was created. The plans had been in the making since 1993, so there was little surprise when it actually did happen.
Today, Nunavut’s economy is growing by about 8% per year thanks in part to the discovery of diamonds in the far north and new resources being discovered as the ice caps melt. The territorial government in Iqualuit has also been promoting Arctic tourism as a revenue stream and more and more people from across the globe are travelling to this remote place to be wowed by the grandeur of the true Arctic.
Since 2004 tensions between Canada and Russia have been growing over sovereignity of the Arctic. Since the UN’s founding in 1945 every nation in the world, including Russia, recognized the Arctic as belonging to Canada. Now, with the melting of the polar ice caps and the vast resource potential of the area being recognized, Russia is claiming that the Arctic actually belongs to them, including large parts of Nunavut. The people who live there swear their allegiance to Canada, and the federal government is once again beefing up a military presence at the top of the world. Russian aggression, including flying bombers over the region and using submarines to plant flag under the ice in Nunavut have only helped to inflame tensions. In 2010 Prime-Minister Stephen Harper announced the construction of a new era of purpose-built military warships for the Arctic. These will be the first ice-breaking, Arctic-going frigates and destroyers in the world and they send a clear message to the Russians: Nunavut is Canadian, so back off.
Despite the tensions, Nunavut continues to grow and remains one of the most powerful and awesome natural places in the world today!