Article | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

The Brave and Shameful History of High Arctic Sovereignty in Canada

The High Arctic is neither lonesome nor empty. Rather, it’s downright busy—bustling with human histories, mysteries, and dramas. Learn more about the government of Canada’s quest for authority over the Far North and the far-reaching impacts it had on Inuit.
Landscape dundas harbour

© Dennis Minty

Dundas Harbour, Nunavut

The High Arctic Islands

Way up at the top of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, far beyond the Arctic Circle, north of the Northwest Passage, is a cluster of mountainous, ice-bound, nearly uninhabited islands. They go by various names: the Queen Elizabeth Archipelago, or Inuit Nunangata Ungata (“the lands beyond the Inuit lands”)—or, the High Arctic Islands.

This is nearly the farthest north land in the world, and certainly the northernmost in Canada. But it almost wasn’t in Canada. How it came to be so is a tale of both the best and worst of the country—of heroism, racism, partnership, misunderstanding, and ultimately of bittersweet endurance.

The story starts way back in the Medieval Warm Period, when Inuit thrived in the High Arctic Islands. We know this because they left behind houses made of sod and whale ribs, qajaq (kayak) stands, even ingenious polar bear traps fashioned out of stone. It must have been a remarkable existence, making a livelihood in a place where a winter’s night lasts for months, where water is almost always solid, and where even the Northern Lights lie to the south.

Chris wolfe gives onshore archaeological interpretation dundas harbour

© Martin Lipman

Archaeologist Chris Wolfe provides onshore interpretation at Dundas Harbour, Nunavut.

By the time the first Europeans arrived—aboard two Royal Navy ships captained by William Edward Parry in 1819—the climate had cooled, Inuit had migrated to more habitable Arctic regions, and there was no longer anyone living in the High Arctic Islands. Parry and his crew wintered on Melville Island, utterly isolated. As was the British habit, they claimed the region for the King.

Six decades later, in 1880, the map of the High Arctic was still mostly blank. That’s when Britain ceded the northern mainland, plus “all islands adjacent,” to the young country of Canada. Canada had no idea what it was getting and didn’t much seem to care. No Canadian had ever been to the High Arctic, nor would they for decades to come.

Canadian Sovereignty Claims

It’s no wonder, then, that “ownership” of the place became contentious. American adventurers, including polar rivals Frederick Cook and Robert Peary, and later Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Donald MacMillan, used the High Arctic as a staging ground for well-publicized expeditions.

The Danish-Inuk trader and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen considered the area a no-man’s-land open to Greenlanders. Norway’s Roald Amundsen visited en route through the Northwest Passage, while his countryman, Otto Sverdrup, explored the region for several years, mapping new ground and urging Norway to claim it.

Map of Sverdrup explorations appeared in The National Geographic Magazine 1902 NGS

© National Geographic Society

A map of Otto Sverdup's explorations appeared in The National Geographic Magazine in 1902.

Finally, in the early 1900s, Canada decided it needed to stake out its turf—whatever that might turn out to be. Leading the charge was Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, a Québécois sea captain and one of the first Canadians to show much interest in Arctic journeys. On various expeditions over the next two decades, Bernier criss-crossed the Far North, issuing permits to Scottish and American whalers and laying plaques everywhere he went, identifying the land as Canadian.

It was during these journeys that Bernier learned that Greenlandic Inughuit were crossing to Ellesmere Island to hunt. (In fact, they had done so for centuries.) Aggrieved, Canada embarked on an even more ambitious claim staking effort. In the 1920s, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) stations were established at Dundas Harbour on Devon Island and at Craig Harbour and the Bache Peninsula on Ellesmere Island. Their purpose was to fly the flag and, during the spring months, to go on sovereignty patrols, informing anyone they encountered that they were on Canadian soil.

Season osborne gives onshore history lesson Dundas Harbour

© Martin Lipman

Historian Season Osborne provides onshore interpretation at Dundas Harbour, Nunavut.

Staffing these stations were young Mounties—some destined for fame, such as A.H. Joy, celebrated for his months-long patrols, while others of them were doomed, including William Stephens, who accidentally shot himself at Dundas Harbour, and Victor Maisonneuve, who died by suicide there.

Also staffing these stations were Inuit special constables. Ironically, these constables were mostly Greenlandic Inughuit, the same people the RCMP was supposedly defending against. Yet without the partnership of Inughuit, the Mounties would never have survived in the Far North. Some constables became famous in their own right, such as Nukapinguaq, lauded as the greatest-ever Arctic guide.

The Darkest Chapter

In the 1930s, with the Great Depression underway and Norway having renounced any possible claims to the High Arctic, Canada sought a cheaper way to assert its northern claims. One way was to commercialize the Far North. To this end, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) was given control of Dundas Harbour to operate it as a trading post. But trading posts need people with whom to trade. And so began the Inuit relocations, the darkest chapter in the annals of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.

The first Inuit to be encouraged to move north (or forced, or tricked—the truth is disputed) were fifty-two people from Baffin Island in 1934. After they endured two years of terrible ice conditions at Dundas Harbour, the trading post was closed. A few Inuit were taken back home, but others were moved to a succession of further HBC posts in the central Arctic. Some found themselves relocated four times in a dozen years.

Martha Flaherty Putulik Hat Island Nunavut

© Mark Edward Harris

Martha Flaherty, an Inuk who was forcibly moved from Inukjuak to Ausuittuq (Grise Fiord) through Canada’s High Arctic relocation program, visited Putulik (Hat Island), Nunavut—a former DEW Line radar station and now considered a contaminated site—on a Northwest Passage expedition.

Then, in the early 1950s, came the most infamous relocations. It was during the Cold War, and the United States had established Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radar stations, as well as military weather stations, throughout the Arctic. Canada was once again concerned about its authority. And, once again, it determined the best solution was to populate the region with Inuit.

For bureaucrats, this was imagined—or at least rationalized—to be a win-win. Around Inukjuak, in northern Québec, it was reported that local game had become scarce, leaving many Inuit dependent on welfare. Moving them to the High North, the bureaucrats reasoned, would return them to self-sufficiency while bolstering Canada’s claims. Two birds with one stone! What could go wrong?

A lot, of course. In 1953, seven families from Inukjuak were placed on a northbound ship. They were told they could return in two years. The vessel collected three additional families, from Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) on northern Baffin Island, who were supposed to help the “southerners” adapt. Half were dropped at the US weather station at Qausuittuq (Resolute Bay). The Arctic Exiles, as they came to be known, have testified that this was done without respect for familial ties. As divided relatives cried and frantically waved, the ship pulled away and continued to Craig Harbour on Ellesmere Island, where the rest were offloaded. Soon they were moved again, this time to Ausuittuq (Grise Fiord).

Panorama Grise Fiord Nunavut

© John Huyer

Ausuittuq (Grise Fiord), Nunavut

Both at Ausuittuq and Qausuittuq, life was nearly impossible. The High Arctic Islands were unpopulated for a reason—game was rare, winter was black, and the weather was cruel. Housing and supplies were, at best, substandard and, at worst, nonexistent. In Qausuittuq, the relocatees scavenged from the US military dump. Despair and suicide became commonplace. In both locations, when the people asked to return home after two years, the government instead vowed to bring more of their family to them. In 1955, thirty-four more people, mostly from Inukjuak, arrived at Qausuittuq, and four more at Ausuittuq.

In the mid-1980s, the Canadian government was, for the first time, publicly called to account. Some officials conceded the move had turned Inuit into “human flagpoles.” In 1989, forty Inuit, mostly older folks, were returned to their home communities. Many in the younger generation, having known no other place, chose to stay. In 1996, $10 million was paid out to the surviving Arctic Exiles and their descendants. In 2010, the government issued an official apology.

Grise fiord monument

© Scott Forsyth

Public art monuments at Ausuittuq and Qausuittuq face one another, symbolizing the separated families who yearned to see each other once again.

High Arctic Sovereignty Today

Ausuittuq and Qausuittuq remain Canada’s two northernmost inhabited towns. Some have made a good life there; for others, a sense of betrayal lingers. Meanwhile, today Canada’s strongest claim to Arctic sovereignty is not considered to be the presence of those towns, but rather the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, signed in 1993. Rather than Inuit Nunangata Ungata, the region is now officially part of Inuit Nunangatthe Inuit homelands within Canada.

By achieving a modern treaty, providing Inuit of the region with a cash settlement, rights, and self-government powers, Canada has finally become, in the eyes of international law anyway, the legitimate state authority in the High Arctic.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.