Kimmirut Community History
Note on place names: The current official names of places are used here except in direct quotations from historical documents. Thus “Kimmirut” and “Iqaluit” are used even for the period when these places were officially called Lake Harbour and Frobisher Bay. Names of places that do not have official names will appear as they are found in the source documents, until a more accepted Inuktitut spelling can be found.
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.
Kimmirut is located at the head of a tidal inlet of the Kuujuaq (the Soper River). The community site is at the upper end of a valley that is surrounded by hills and has poor drainage. Despite these physical obstacles, the community has an airstrip and is home to over 400 people.
Initially, only a few Inuit families moved to Kimmirut to work for Qallunaat institutions – such as HBC, the Church or the RCMP – that were established there in the early 20th century. Other Inuit came on a seasonal basis for supplies and social activity, staying for a period and then returning to their camps along the coast. Following government pressure regarding schooling, health care and social assistance services, many families took up permanent residence in the community during the 1950s and 1960s.
Tourists visiting Kimmirut are attracted by the beauty of the surrounding landscape and Katannilik Territorial Park, which includes the Soper River (a designated Canadian Heritage River). Each year, canoeists and hikers travel down the river system that leads to the community.
Source: Statistics Canada (2007).
For seven months each year, ice blankets the major bays and inlets in the region. An ice strip extends up to 16 kilometres seaward. It blocks shipping, but makes travelling in the area easier. Travel and sealing are more difficult on the belt of rough ice that runs along the shores. These activities are also more difficult during freeze-up in October and November and break-up in May and June.
The land in general is rough and boasts many small lakes and streams. Vegetation is sparse in most of the region, except in the Soper River valley, where a warm microclimate favours vegetation. The few big river valleys in the area shelter animals and wild fowl.
For centuries, Inuit lived in small groups at widely separated points along the south Baffin Island coast in order to access a continuing supply of country food. Around 1910, there were about 15 year-round camps in the area. The major concentrations were along the coast, close to the present community of Kimmirut. However, from the 1950s onwards families left the camps and moved to settlements such as Kimmirut and Iqaluit.
Status of Lake Harbour Area Camps in 1966
(Source: Higgins, 1967.)
Inuit along the north shore of Hudson Strait “lived along the water route into Hudson Bay and experienced contact with passing ships for two centuries before being incorporated into a dependable trading system” (Ross, 1975). This early contact began with the annual supply ships of the HBC and changed very little until American whalers began entering Hudson Bay in 1860. Around 1900, Scottish whalers started working a small mica mine in the area. The establishment of the mine led to regular summer contact, trade, and employment for up to 90 men per season.
Finding a sheltered harbour, the Anglican Church established a mission in the region in 1909. A Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) post followed in 1911, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) opened a detachment in 1927.
In 1950, the people around Kimmirut were at the beginning of a new period of rapid change. Although the settlement provided services to approximately 300 persons, most of them lived in the all-Inuit settlements or “outpost camps.” The locations of these camps shifted occasionally, but they were concentrated on the coast and on inshore islands.
The annual routine perpetuated many long-standing features of traditional life, including the movement of populations toward the floe edge in spring and inland in late summer to meet caribou herds around Amadjuak Lake.
In 1950, a very limited number of institutions were present and functioning at what was still called Lake Harbour:
In the 1970s, development of a co-op and of community institutions and infrastructure would resolve this situation. By 1980, almost everyone lived in one of 13 hamlets, where Inuit were increasingly involved in managing their own affairs. However, gains in autonomy often came at the cost of considerable cultural change.
The decade opened with camp life under stress because the fox fur market slumped and because the government, declaring a health crisis, removed six or more Inuit each year to tuberculosis hospitals in the south. In 1952, measles swept through the camps, killing some and infecting nearly everybody. Modest economic growth came with a boat-building program that employed up to five men seasonally. Dramatic changes came in 1956 with a sudden boom in government and defence spending in the nearest neighbouring community, Iqaluit. The population of the Kimmirut camps decreased by half as people moved away to look for work. By 1959, Kimmirut’s population had fallen from 300 to 100. With the population in decline, the Anglican missionary moved to Cape Dorset, and the HBC talked openly of closing its money-losing post in the settlement.
The stabilization of the population in the 1960s encouraged agencies to maintain services in Kimmirut. The services offered by these agencies were part of a system that provided southern goods and assistance (rifles, ammunition, tea, flour, medical treatment, church, etc.) that Inuit incorporated into their daily lives.
In the mid-1970s, the federal government turned numerous programs over to the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT), including programs aimed at encouraging citizen participation in local affairs. Kimmirut saw a steady increase in public involvement in the 1970s. For example, the Kimik Co-operative was created in 1973 to market artistic production and furs. The formation of the co-op also signalled an increased reliance on the income generated by carvings and handicraft.
In 1974–1976, local workers achieved what had seemed impossible: installing a landing strip on rough ground above the settlement thanks to the initiative of members of the community.
During these decades of transition, Kimmirut was low on government lists for most development. Until the late 1960s, it lacked such basic things as a settlement administrator, a community freezer, and trained nursing staff. The RCMP constable or corporal in charge was assisted by a Special Constable, and they were also responsible for Cape Dorset.
Kimmirut was served by radiophone until 1978 when the first home telephones were installed to connect to satellite telephone service. Television arrived by 1980.
Although the mission or nursing station sometimes offered basic instruction for a few months of the year, the first government teacher was a summer seasonal appointment in 1960. Year-round education was successfully established in 1965 in cramped conditions, and for several years the younger and older children took turns using the tiny classroom. Adult education classes in English also attracted students. By the 1970s, Kimmirut had established the Aqigiq School, which offered classes up to Grade 8. Students seeking further education traveled to Iqaluit Bay.
In 1976 the Kimmirut advisory committee expressed concern over the southern-oriented education system being delivered in the schools. They stated that they wanted their children “to learn [their] traditions and not forget the old ways.”
Perhaps in part because the education system did not reflect their cultural needs, few Inuit attended school. A 1977 survey of Kimmirut indicated that more than half of the population over the age of 14 had likely never received schooling of any kind and no Inuk in the community had completed grade 12 (Horbart Walsh and Associate Ltd.).
There was little in the way of formal medical treatment available in Kimmirut. A government-owned building was available as a nursing station, but between 1948 and 1967 nurses were only periodically posted to the area. At times the missionary’s wife, an
Examinations that could not be undertaken by those in the community, such as screening for tuberculosis, were performed by doctors who visited annually on the C.D. Howe, a government supply vessel. The use of the C.D. Howe to transport medical personnel ended in 1969, after which aircraft were used.
Serious ailments required evacuation by aircraft, often with very little notice, and the impact of the removal of Inuit for health care in the south is difficult to overstate. Families were often left without news concerning the fate of relatives – mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins – for the rest of their lives.
Kimmirut received pre-fabricated houses in 1962 when four one-bedroom homes arrived on the sealift. Five more were added in 1963. More were erected each year until 1966. During 1967 and 1968, 10 and 12 three-bedroom homes were erected, respectively.
St. Paul’s Anglican Church, which dates from 1909, is the only Christian denomination in Kimmirut. Often an Anglican missionary is stationed in Kimmirut, although at times Inuit catechists are in charge. The present building was erected in 1948.
Dupuis, M. (1992). The art of giving: Cooperating reciprocity and household economic strategies among soapstone carvers in Qimmirut (Lake Harbour) NWT. MA Thesis, McGill University.
Higgins, M. South Coast – Baffin Island: An Area Economic Survey. Ottawa: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1967.
Hobart, Walsh and Associate Consultants. The Communities of South Baffin Island: Selected Socio-economic Characteristics. Edmonton: Hobart Walsh and Associate Ltd., 1977.
Ross, W.G. (1975). Whaling and Eskimos; Hudson Bay 1860-1915. Ottawa: National Museum of Man.
Statistics Canada (2007). Kimmarut, Nunavut (table). In 2006 Community Profiles. 2006 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 92-591-XWE. Ottawa. Released January 15, 2008. Available online at: www.statcan.ca.
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