Nunavik: A Land, Its People See more of the Virtual Museum of Canada Introduction The Land The People Culture Accounts Gallery Site map Credits Français Inuktitut
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The People



Over the past four millennia, Nunavik has been occupied by successive waves of human populations. From the Pre-Dorsets to the Inuit, the Nunavimmiut have lived off the land by developing unique adaptive strategies. By creating their own tools, dwellings and everyday objects, they have been able to fully use the land’s resources. Settled today in 14 communities, the inhabitants of Nunavik are gradually taking important steps towards eventual self-government.

Photo of tundra after a storm
Tundra after a storm

The Pre-Dorsets (4 000 to 2 500 years BP)

The human occupation of the Eastern Arctic began about 4 500 years BP. The migration of populations from Beringia occurred in a period when the climate was warming. Groups of hunter-gatherers, apparently coming from Siberia, settled in Alaska to begin with, but then spread out over the Arctic’s vast territories, from Devon Island to the fringes of coastal Labrador.

These populations occupied continental land to the south of open water, as well as certain islands of the Lower Arctic, from the northern areas of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Nunavik to the shores of the straits of Hudson and Labrador.

The Pre-Dorsets mainly hunted caribou, seals and walruses. Their flaked stone implements, made in the Arctic Small Tool tradition, consisted essentially of scrapers, microblades, finely worked projectile points, knives and burins. In addition to stone, these people used bone, wood and antler to make bows, arrows, harpoon heads and spears.

Pre-Dorset dwelling structures were of two types. In some cases they were oval or circular tents made of caribou or marine mammal skins, with storage pits nearby, while in others they were semi-subterranean houses built in boulder fields. The interior of both these types of houses, which were associated with cold season use, generally had food caches, work areas and two sleeping areas separated by a passage way with a central hearth in the middle. In contrast, the dwellings used in summer were simpler and lacked interior divisions.

The transition between the end of the Pre-Dorset period and the beginning of the Dorset period continues to raise many questions. Around 3 000 BP, the populations of the Eastern Arctic and Nunavik were subjected to a series of fluctuations in the climate. This climatic instability seems to have brought about changes in the distribution of animal resources, which meant that the human populations living in the territories had to adapt their technology and economy to new conditions. Two hypotheses are proposed at present to explain how the Dorset culture replaced that of the Pre-Dorsets. According to the first hypothesis, there was a certain cultural continuity between the two cultures, while, according to the other, the Pre-Dorsets disappeared before new groups arrived and recolonized the territory around the Hudson Strait about 2 900 years BP. The results of recent archaeological research conducted in Nunavik should shed some light on these questions.

Photo of miniature ivory mask
Miniature ivory mask
Canadian Museum of Civilizations Collection

Tuniit (Dorsets, 2 500 to 600 years BP)

The earliest archaeological evidence attributed to the Dorset culture was discovered at Cape Dorset, on Baffin Island, whence the designation “Dorset” used by archaeologists. The Dorsets, referred to as the Tuniit in Inuit legends, excelled in seal and walrus hunting. They obtained oil from these animals and burned it in soapstone (steatite) lamps as a source of light.

The first signs of the Dorset culture appeared during a period of climatic cooling that began about 3 000 years BP. The Dorsets – or Tuniit, as they are termed by present-day Inuit – were well adapted to a colder climate and soon occupied the greater part of the Eastern Arctic, even reaching the Lower North Shore of Quebec and the southeast coast of Newfoundland. In Nunavik, the oldest occupations are associated with the Tuniit date to around 2 500 years BP.

The Tuniit hunted a variety of marine animals (seals, walrus and belugas), as well as animals found inland (caribou, small mammals, migratory birds and river fish). Like their predecessors, the Tuniit people used tools fashioned out of diverse raw materials. Their stone tools consisted mainly of small triangular projectile points, biface points, burins, scrapers, side scrapers, adzes and microblades (little stone artifacts, twice as long as they are wide, with two parallel cutting edges).

The Tuniit also developed an impressive tool-making industry using organic material such as bone, antler, ivory and wood. These implements ranged from harpoon heads and barbed projectile points to snow knives for building igloos, sled runners, ice-creepers and bone needles.

Soapstone lamps and dogsleds appeared for the first time during the Dorset period. Various forms of artistic expression developed within the Tuniit culture, and Dorset sites reveal tiny carved figurines representing animals, humans and human-animal combinations. Rock engravings representing anthropomorphic faces are also associated with the Tuniit.

Although they were nomads, the Tuniit led more sedentary lives than their predecessors had. This reduced mobility is reflected in the traces they left – the remains of their constructions are more elaborate, there is more material uncovered on archaeological sites and their dwellings are more permanent. While they continued to use tents in summer, they also built semi-subterranean houses in boulder fields and on ancient beaches. The fact that they had snow knives suggests that the Tuniit built igloos in the colder months. Longhouses made their appearance near the end of the Dorset period. These rectangular houses, measuring from 15 to 35 metres in length by 4 to 6 metres in width, could easily shelter eight to ten families. Tuniit dwellings are often associated with various secondary structures, such as caches for food, material, traps or hunting gear and inuksuit.

Photo of Thule blade, 1000-1700
Thule blade, 1000-1700
McCord Museum Collection, M5832

The Thule (750 years BP to contact with Europeans)

The Thule arrived when a new wave of immigration occurred around 1 000 years BP, originating in Alaska and spreading across the Eastern Arctic to reach Nunavik about 750 years BP. There was a climatic warming trend in this period and it is thought that the layer of sea ice must have been greatly affected, thus necessitating the development of new techniques for hunting on open waters.

Different scenarios have been proposed by archaeologists to account for the transition from Tuniit to Thule cultures. Recent archaeological research tends to support the hypothesis that the Thule, being better adapted to hunting marine mammals, were able to displace the Tuniit throughout the Eastern Arctic. Some Tuniit groups may have simply disappeared, while others probably adapted by assimilating elements of Thule technology to the point that they lost their Tuniit “identity.” According to some hypotheses, the Tuniit continued to live on Southampton Island at the entrance to Hudson Bay right up to the beginning of the 20th century.

The Thule were expert whale hunters and travelled over water in great boats, called umiaks, measuring up to 9 metres in length by 2 metres across. These boats, covered with seal or walrus skins, were light and could carry as many as 20 people as well as large quantities of material.

Thule technology is characterized by stone tools that are ground rather than chipped into shape. The newcomers also made greater use of bone and ivory. Soft stone, schist in particular, was utilized to make semi-circular knives (ulus) and pointed blades. The Thule hunted on land with bows and arrows; on the sea, they captured marine mammals, including whales, with harpoons and spears. Recipients and oil lamps were made in various shapes but always out of soapstone. The technological innovations introduced by Thule populations include the bow drill (which made a continuous rotating movement possible), dogsleds, umiaks and kayaks for travelling over water and hunting marine mammals, throwing boards to increase the range of harpoons and spears, and goggles to protect the wearer’s eyes from the intense reflection of the sun on snow.

Like the Dorset people, the Thule used tents as dwellings in the summer months. In winter, they built igloos for shelter as they travelled on the sea ice. They also developed a new type of semi-subterranean house with an ingenious feature consisting of an entrance tunnel that dipped in the middle, so that cold air was prevented from flowing into the interior. These dwellings had one or two areas for burning fuel and a sleeping platform built over storage compartments. The upper structure of the house was erected with whale bones or driftwood and covered with skins or turf.

Photo of Ulu knife, 1900-1909
Ulu knife, 1900-1909
McCord Museum Collection, ME930.39.15

Inuit in the historic period

Contemporary Inuit are the direct descendants of the Thule and, despite occasional contacts with Norse explorers and fishermen in the second half of the 16th century, their way of life differed little from that of their Thule ancestors. The first fairly regular contacts between the Inuit of Nunavik and Europeans dates to the first half of the 19th century, after a Moravian mission was established in 1811 at the mouth of the Koksoak River, where the village of Kuujjuaq stands today.

Although there is evidence of a sporadic European presence in Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay during the 16th and 17th centuries, it was not until the 19th and early 20th centuries that permanent posts were established. The Ungava Bay region was first visited by Europeans only in the early 19th century and more permanent posts did not open until the beginning of the 20th century.

A period of more sustained contact and exchange with the Inuit of Nunavik began when the Hudson’s Bay Company and Revillon Frères opened their first trading posts. Nunavik’s first Hudson’s Bay post, established in the Guillaume-Delisle Lake region in 1750, was transferred to Kuujjuarapik in 1759. Another trading post was set up at Kuujjuaq (formerly known as Fort Chimo) in 1830, followed by seasonal posts at Tasiujaq in 1833 and at Kangiqsualujjuaq (formerly George River) in 1838. All these posts closed around 1842 for lack of a regular clientele. It was not until 1866 that activities started again at the Fort Chimo post, which remained the sole permanent trading post in the Ungava Bay region until the early 20th century. At that point, trading posts began to proliferate in Nunavik with the arrival of new companies, including Revillon Frères, which was eventually acquired by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1937. The establishment of these posts meant that the Inuit became increasingly sedentary, since they now had direct access to consumer goods that could be obtained in exchange for furs.

While there are few known Inuit archaeological sites dating from the historic period, the remains found on them correspond to those from the Thule period. Tools made of bone, antler and stone continued to be used, but iron gradually began to replace certain materials traditionally associated with the making of everyday implements, such as spearheads and semi-circular knives. Firearms eventually took the place of traditional hunting weapons. Dwellings (tents, igloos and semi-subterranean houses) remained very little changed until tents began to be made out of canvas instead of skins. The last semi-subterranean houses are thought to have been built towards the end of the 19th century.

Photo of Puvirnituq on a spring day
Puvirnituq on a spring day

The Inuit of today: the goal of Nunavik self-government

The region of Nunavik, formerly called Nouveau-Quebec, was ceded by Great Britain to Canada as part of Rupert’s Land at the time of Confederation, in 1867. In 1912, the Canadian parliament passed the Quebec Boundaries Extension Act, by which the district of Ungava was transferred to Quebec, thus extending the province’s borders to Hudson Strait and Ungava Bay. The federal law of 1912 stipulated that the province of Quebec was to recognize Indian rights and settle Native land claims.

In 1939, a judgement by the Supreme Court of Canada officially placed the Inuit of Nouveau-Quebec under the jurisdiction of the federal government. This population was now entitled to the “rights” conferred by the Indian Act of 1876. It was not until 1950 that the federal government offered communities in Nouveau-Quebec services in education, health and regional development. The following period saw the establishment of the first Inuit co-operatives in Nouveau-Quebec, with co-ops started at George River in 1959, at Great Whale River in1961 and at Inukjuak in 1967. The 1950s was also the time when the government of Quebec began to exploit the immense economic development potential of Nouveau-Quebec through mining and hydroelectric projects.

In 1970, the Neville-Robitaille Commission was set up to study various conditions for transferring the federal government’s responsibilities for Northern Quebec to the provincial government. The first proposal for Inuit self-government was presented to the Commission when it toured the villages of Nouveau-Quebec. The same year marked the founding of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association.

Following a legal dispute in which the Crees and Inuit contested the La Grande hydroelectric construction project, the government of Quebec agreed to respect the clauses of the Act of 1912. In November of 1975, an agreement in principle led to the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). This agreement was signed by the Northern Quebec Inuit Association and the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec, on the one hand, and, on the other, by the government of Quebec, the James Bay Energy Corporation (JBEC), the James Bay Development Corporation (JBDC), the Commission hydro-électrique du Quebec (Hydro-Quebec) and the government of Canada. The Inuit of Puvirnituq, Ivujivik and Salluit refused to ratify the agreement and formed a dissident movement called Inuit Tungavingat Nunaminim (ITN) in 1975.

In 1978, the Quebec government took a series of legislative measures to support the implementation of several provisions in the JBNQA. To begin with, it passed An Act respecting Northern Villages and the Kativik Regional Government. It then passed a law that led to the creation of the Makivik Corporation, an agency responsible for managing the funds obtained as a result of the signing of the JBNQA, protecting Inuit rights under the terms of the JBNQ and taking a leading role in the political, social and economic development of Nunavik. These measures were followed by the establishment of the Kativik School Board, the Kativik Regional Government and the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services.

In 1984, following the presentation of Inuit demands at a special National Assembly commission, a committee was formed to develop concrete proposals for instituting an autonomous government in Nunavik. Five years later, the Nunavik Constitutional Committee (NCC) began its work on behalf of the communities of Nunavik. As of 1990, wide-ranging negotiations were undertaken with the aim of establishing a Nunavik government. In 1997, the prime minister of Quebec approved the idea of setting up the Nunavik Commission. An agreement was signed in 1999 and the Commission, entrusted with the task of making recommendations for the establishment of a Nunavik government, tabled its report in 2001.

The Makivik Corporation first organized a tour of Nunavik communities to offer information and then hosted a conference on the Nunavik government attended by over 70 delegates from every community. Given a mandate to negotiate the creation of a new form of government, the Makivik Corporation approached the governments of Canada and Quebec. This led to the working out of a Negotiation Framework that defined the overall process through which the autonomous government of Nunavik would be established.

After several years of effort and negotiation, the Agreement-in-Principle on the Government of Nunavik was signed at the National Assembly on December 5, 2007.

While awaiting the ratification of a definitive agreement, the signing of the Agreement-in-Principle represents a crucial step towards an autonomous government for Nunavik. The governments of Canada and Quebec have finally accepted the reality of a Nunavik government. All that remains to be done now is to define the legal mechanisms for putting this new institution in place.

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