Cape Dorset Community History
Note on Place Names: The current official names of places are used here except in direct quotations from historical documents. Names of places that do not have official names will appear as they are found in the source documents.
Note: Currently, the histories are only available as drafts. These histories will change in response to evidence (oral and documentary) found during the work of the Commission.
The settlement of Cape Dorset is located on Dorset Island, one of a group of small islands connected at low tide to Baffin Island’s Foxe Peninsula. The Inuit name for the area is Kingnait, which describes the high, rolling hills surrounding the community’s small, protected harbour.
Cape Dorset is known to have been inhabited for almost 2,000 years, originally by Dorset people, and later by Tunlit and then Inuit people. The community is an important centre for Inuit art production and for tourism. Its Inuit art program, begun in 1959 as the West Baffin Co-op, and managed for almost 40 years by Terry Ryan, is a core theme in the history of the community.
The area was mapped by Europeans in 1631 during the voyage of Captain Luke Foxe. He commemorated Edward Sackville, Earl of Dorset and Lord of the Admiralty, in his naming of places in the region.
Although sparsely populated during the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trading post period, many families moved to the hamlet permanently in the 1950s and 1960s following government pressure to access all social services in the settlement. Until the 1950s, all services to Inuit in Kingnait were supplied through Kimmirut (previous named Lake Harbour.)
Source: Statistics Canada (2006).
For centuries, Inuit along the south coast of Baffin Island lived in small groups in order to access country food (primarily caribou, whales, seals, ducks, arctic char, shellfish and berries). Mainland settlements were usually occupied in winter. In summer, the camps were moved to offshore islands. There were, however, at least 10 permanent winter camps that hunted seals in the islands between Andrew Gordon Bay and Amadjuak Bay in the 1940s and 50s.
Hunting in Cape Dorset followed seasonal patterns of game and environmental conditions. Important animals harvested in the Cape Dorset area included walrus, caribou, whales, bearded seals, harp seals, Arctic hares, polar bears and wildfowl.
Early Contact Experiences and Trading
Other than a few encounters with Arctic explorers, contacts between Inuit and non-Inuit in the 19th century were limited to seasonal trade with whalers at Big Island. This changed when an HBC trading post was established in 1913 at Cape Dorset. Inuit in the area recall building an inukshuk (a stone figure used as a marker) at the Cape Dorset inlet to help mark the passage for the boats supplying timber and supplies to the HBC post (Eber, 1989).
Inuit Camps in the Cape Dorset Area. Source: Higgins, 1968, page 63
In 1950, a very limited number of Qallunaat institutions were present and functioning at Cape Dorset. They were:
The 1950s and 60s were an important period of transition for Inuit in Cape Dorset. Many families moved from migrated from the camps to live in the settlement. They continued to hunt for food and trap for income, but they also found seasonal and year-round employment and received income support through the federal government.
Cape Dorset between 1950 and 1980
The area around Cape Dorset was rich in wildlife, but changing weather and ice patterns could lead to times of hunger. In May 1950, for example, the RCMP reported that there had been little fresh meat available for families since winter 1949. Inuit in most of the camps were eating food that had been saved for the dogs, while the dogs were dying of starvation. The RCMP reported that “a drop of fresh meat and dog food is absolutely necessary” (Larsen, 1950). A supply of meat was delivered to the Cape Dorset in 1950. The following year the RCMP expressed their concern that similar hardships would occur. By 1952, however, conditions had improved. The RCMP reports stated conditions had improved because of: improved cache system; increased handicraft sales; fewer dogs; and the distribution of relief (Scott, 1952).
The annual routine still incorporated many long-standing features of post-contact life, although other annual routines were introduced in the 1950s. The re-supply ship C.D. Howe arrived in late summer, bringing with it supplies and health inspections, as well as influenza that infected many Inuit. Outpost camps were increasingly located closer to the main settlement of Cape Dorset. Because most Inuit had adopted Christian doctrine and ritual, visits to the settlement were common, especially during holy-day (Christmas and Easter) gatherings in the settlement. Fox furs were also traded at these times.
The community used the arts initiatives of the 1950s and 1960s, initially led by James Houston, to develop broader services for the settlement. In 1959, the first collection of Cape Dorset prints was released to critical acclaim and the beginning of an art boom was born. The same year a petition was submitted to the Department of Northern Affairs to incorporate the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative (WBEC). The WBEC established an elected board of Inuit members that guided its development and to some extent, the communities as well. The WBEC would test many commercial artistic ventures, globally market the artwork and prints of Cape Dorset artists and inherit the sewing centre that had been begun by Alma Houston. Most importantly, in the early years, the cooperative eased the transition for Cape Dorset people moving to the settlement from the camps. Those who could not hunt could earn an income through artistic production or working for the WBEC. The cooperative structure also provided Inuit in Cape Dorset with a model for local government.
The 1960s saw growing numbers of southerners arriving in the community to service its growing population, and a large drop in the number of Inuit men identified as “eligible hunters”. Only a few outpost camps were active. Hunting, however, was still an important economic activity that was also important to Inuit identity in Cape Dorset and elsewhere.1 Terry Ryan, the manager of the West Baffin Co-op, which became the Arctic’s most important art development and promotion organization, arrived in 1960. He settled in Cape Dorset and managed the program for 40 years.
In 1974, Cape Dorset’s population was 690 people, and there were about 70 hunters living in the hamlet. The community was served by an airstrip and twice weekly flights from Iqaluit, a primary school (grades one to seven), an adult education centre, a nursing station, an RCMP detachment, a church, a community hall, telephone service, a post office and five general stores, including a cooperative.
By the mid-1960s, the community had over three kilometres of roads, a public bath house, a community freezer, a power house and heavy equipment to haul sewerage, water and fuel. The community received a landing strip in 1973. Satellite telephone service began in November 1974. In 1974, Cape Dorset formed a local juvenile court with the support of a social worker.
A school building was delivered to Cape Dorset in summer 1950 and classes began in September for three students. Instruction was suspended in 1952 until 1954 when a new Welfare teacher arrived to teach at the federal day school. (Welfare teachers were federal employees who taught classes, but were also trained in social work. They provided support to individuals, developed community programs, and worked with health authorities.)
Formal education was limited to children living in the settlement or coming into the community for extended periods. In the 1960s, the federal government introduced hostel schooling into the community of Cape Dorset. Three hostels were built in the first half of the 1960s. However, they were never popular among students and families.
By 1967, a three-room school house was operating and four teachers were employed full time. Classes, however, only went to grade seven. Students wishing to attend high school had to leave the settlement.
Adult education began informally in 1954, but was formally established sometime after 1960. In the 1970s, education became the responsibility of the territorial government in Yellowknife. Under pressure from aboriginal groups, including the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC), across the territories, better schools were built and new learning materials were developed.
Inuit leaders in Cape Dorset were also committed to teaching youth traditional skills needed to hunt, fish and travel over land and ice. In 1977, a group of Cape Dorset residents made plans to live at an outpost camp and to invite youth to stay there for extended periods of time “to learn about traditional camp life” (“Outpost camp,” 1977). According to the Nunatsiaq News, youth chose the outpost camp over building a new recreation centre in the settlement.
Year-round health care began in 1950 when a small nursing station was established at Cape Dorset in 1950 by the federal government. Until then, most health services were provided by the RCMP and by doctors and nurses visiting the area during the annual Arctic patrols of the C.D. Howe, the government supply and medical vessel. Annual visits from the C.D. Howe, were awaited with anxiety because it took patients to hospitals in the South, often in quite large numbers and with very short notice, for treatments for infectious diseases, especially tuberculosis, and for surgical procedures.
A dedicated nursing station, staffed by a husband and wife team, was constructed in 1960 with four beds and a refrigerated storage area. Patients with more serious illness were evacuated to Frobisher Bay or sent south on the C.D. Howe.
In the late 1950s, officials in Ottawa acknowledged that housing conditions in Eastern Arctic settlements were contributing to a high infant mortality rate and to increases in the frequency of tuberculosis among the Inuit population (Duffy, 1988). In the 1950s, the federal government developed low-cost housing units that could be shipped to the Arctic. These houses were 16 feet square. They were one-room homes without toilets, stoves, baths or porches. These houses were offered as an expedient solution, but no clear standards were set for the future.
In 1964, a sub-committee of the Federal Committee on Social Adjustment released a condemning report on the government’s response to the housing crisis in the Arctic. In response to criticisms from Inuit, nurses, politicians and local government officials, the Canadian government announced in 1965 the Eskimo Housing Program. The program ambitiously aimed to build 1,600 rental homes equipped with a heater, sink, water storage tank, electric fixtures and basic furniture to replace the existing matchbox homes.
Cape Dorset received 25 of these new units in 1965 and another 24 the following year (Higgins, 1968). Anthropologist David Damas reported that this new housing was an important factor in encouraging more Inuit to settle in the community. While the new house designs represented improvements on the one-room houses, they still were not specifically designed for the Arctic environment or Inuit lifestyle. Not until the late 1970s would housing be designed and erected in the North that met the basic needs of the Inuit by including rooms or outbuildings for processing country food and maintaining hunting equipment and vehicles. In the late 1970s, the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation collaborated with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the ITC and the Dene Housing Group to promote the Rural and Remote Housing Program. The program gave individuals an opportunity to plan, build or buy homes.
Churches and Religion
As early as 1915 Anglican missionaries travelled to the Cape Dorset region from northern Quebec performing marriages and baptisms and instructing the camp leaders on becoming catechists. An Anglican Church was built by the area’s Inuit in 1953, though the church did not have a minister until 1961. A Catholic mission house had been established in the settlement in 1938, but was forced to close in 1960 because it was unable to attract a following.
“Adults help juveniles in court” (1974, 10 April). Inukshuk, page 4.
“Armed Forces Programs in Eastern Arctic this Summer” (1973, 1 June). Inukshuk, page 18.
Blodgett, J. (n.d.). In Cape Dorset we do it this way: Three decades of Inuit printmaking. Kleinburg, Ont: McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
Damas, D. (2002). Arctic Migrants, Arctic Villagers. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens.
Eber, D.H. (1989). When the whalers went up north. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Government of Canada (1966). Settlements of the Northwest Territories, Descriptions prepared for the Advisory Commission on the Development of the Northwest Territories. Vol. 1, .
Higgins, G. M. (1968). The south coast of Baffin Island ; an area economic survey. Ottawa: Industrial Division, Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
Kemp, W. B. (1976). Inuit Land Use in South and East Baffin Island. In Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project Vol. 1: Land Use and Occupancy. Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
Larsen, H.A. (1950, 8 April). Letter to Deputy Commissioner of the Northern Territories. LAC, RCMP FONDS, RG 18-F-1, Acc. 84-86/048. Box 57, File TA-500-8-1-10. Conditions Among the Eskimos – Lake Harbour.
Lewis, B.W. (1970). Education in Cape Dorset to 1967. [S.I. : s.n.]
“Outpost camp” (1977, 23 February). Nunatsiaq News, page 11.
Regional Hunter’s-Trapper’s Conference ( 1973). Unpublished meeting minutes. Held by the Canadian Circumpolar Library, University of Alberta, 26.
Scott, T. (1952, 03 August). Letter to Officer Commanding “G” Division. LAC, RCMP FONDS, RG 18-F-1, Acc. 84-86/048. Box 57, File TA-500-8-1-10. Conditions Among the Eskimos – Lake Harbour.
Scott, T. (1953, 20 March). Letter to Officer Commanding “G” Division. LAC, RCMP FONDS, RG 18-F-1, Acc. 84-86/048. Box 57, File TA-500-8-1-10. Conditions Among the Eskimos – Lake Harbour.
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