The town of Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada, has temperatures below freezing nearly all year. Its Inuit name, Aujuittuq, means "place that never thaws.”
But, for around 150 people, Grise Fiord is home.
The families that settled Grise Fiord never chose to live in that arctic desert. They were stuck at the top of the world to serve as human flags.
Until recently, I had never heard of Grise Fiord. But then, as I was monitoring the end of the arctic sea ice melt season, I came across the story of Canada’s northernmost civilian settlement.
In the early 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, the Canadian government was worried about its claims to sovereignty in the east Arctic Archipelago. The United States and Canada jointly ran a weather station on Ellesmere Island (whose other, more military, purpose was hinted at by its name: Alert), but Canada wanted more. It wanted permanent residents to hold its claim.
At the same time, the Inuit people living on the Ungava Peninsula in far northern Quebec sought assistance from the Canadian government. Once subsistence hunters, the indigenous people of the region had come to depend on the fur trade for survival. In the 1950s, fur prices fell and Arctic fox populations collapsed, creating a crisis for trappers.
The Canadian government took advantage of the trappers’ struggles to recruit participants for its northern settlement project. The members of the Inuit community in Inukjuaq, on Hudson Bay, were told that, to the north, a land of abundance awaited them. The government then uprooted 87 people from Inukjuaq to form the communities of Grise Fiord and another settlement, Resolute, in the high arctic reaches of today’s Nunavut (then part of the Northwest Territories). If they didn’t like their new surroundings, they could go home in two years, the government promised.
The conditions in the settlements were nightmarish. The settlers quickly discovered that the region was desolate, with hardly any familiar animal life. The abundant hunting opportunities they had been promised were nonexistent. They lacked appropriate shelter, clothing, and equipment to deal with a climate that made even the Hudson Bay coastline seem mild by comparison. In the book “The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic,” Melanie McGrath tells of the desperate conditions the settlers endured.
The relocated families asked to leave, but bureaucrats in Ottawa broke their promise. Elizabeth Royte, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, observed in a review of McGrath’s book: “Government careers were on the line: the colony had to succeed. Its inhabitants were the equivalent of national flags fluttering in the wind.”
In 1996, after resisting for years, the Canadian government agreed to pay $10 million Canadian (about $9.7 million at today’s exchange rates) to compensate the families of the relocated people. But even then, officials insisted that the relocation had been well-intentioned. It was not until this summer that the government finally issued a formal apology.
"The Government of Canada apologizes for having relocated Inuit families and recognizes that the High Arctic Relocation resulted in extreme hardship and suffering for Inuit who were relocated,” John Duncan, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, said in a speech in Inukjuak in August.
Duncan admitted that the government had broken promises to the settlers, telling reporters, “We're apologizing for promises that were made and not kept. They were promised they were going to a more abundant place. They were promised that they would remain in one community. They were promised that they could leave and return to their home communities after two years if they were unhappy.” Earlier this month, Duncan traveled to Grise Fiord and Resolute to unveil monuments dedicated to the relocated citizens.
Even today, however, the controversy over sovereignty claims in the far north continues. Russia and Canada recently said they will ask the United Nations to determine which has a greater right to the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that each country contends is an extension of its continental shelf. Denmark also claims a right to the underwater mountains.
The trend toward diminishing sea ice in recent years has prompted countries with interests in the Arctic to intensify their struggle for control of disputed regions. This summer's minimum sea ice coverage was smaller than last year’s, though larger than the record lows of 2007 and 2008. Steven Bigras, executive director of the Canadian Polar Commission, told The New York Times, “The Arctic is changing. This whole region was once seen as inaccessible, harsh, but today it's changing in another direction. It's seen as a region of economic opportunities, a place to invest in.”
As this new era unfolds, life goes on for those who continue to symbolically bear the Canadian flag in Grise Fiord and Resolute. After the initial tragedy of the relocation, the Inuit learned to hunt the beluga whale, and, since then, the communities have continued to develop. The 2006 census found the population of Resolute to be 229, an increase from the previous census count in 2001. Grise Fiord’s tourist website informs potential visitors that the Grise Fiord Inuit Cooperative offers “a retail store, cable television services, municipal contracts, property rentals and a post office.” The site adds, “Here you can also rent skidoo's [sic] and all terrain vehicles at affordable rates to help you explore the vastness of the arctic.”
“We may not have picked Grise Fiord as a place to live, but those who remain appreciate our peaceful, close-knit community where everyone knows each other,” the website poignantly states. Ellesmere Island may be, as McGrath claims, the harshest terrain that humans have ever continuously inhabited; but, for those who ended up there, for better or worse, it is also home.