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Nunavut: Our newest territory

Canada now has a third territory as of April 1st 1999! It's rather exciting so I decided to devote a new page to it. If you need more information on Nunavut, go to They have absolutely everything that you wanted to know about Nunavut and more! Other than that, this information is from various sites on the internet. I believe that both are from books. I ordered my "free" Nunavut book - plus a good $12 in shipping and handling - so I hope to update this page when I have more time and information. Until then, read up on what's hear and a big WELCOME to Nunavut!

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Click the picture for a larger view.

Premier: Paul Okalik (Canada's First Inuit Lawyer)
Capital: Iqualuit

The Nunavut Story Present Ice Caps and Glaciers
What Nunavut Is Hydrology and Lakes
Climate The Offshore Area
Geology and Landforms Sea Ice

The Nunavut Story

From the time land claims negotiations started between Inuit and the federal government, the idea of creating a new territory was always part of the proposal.

The Inuit of Nunavut were determined not just to settle their land claim, but to create a new political entity for themselves.

The federal government, on the other hand, informed the Inuit that political issues could not be discussed at the land claims negotiating table. The creation of a new territory, they insisted, had to be pursued through other forums. The Inuit reluctantly agreed, but told the government that a final agreement would not be signed unless it included a commitment to create a new territory. The two parties agreed to disagree on this point, but still began serious negotiations on a land claim settlement.

The idea to split the Northwest Territories into two new territories was first introduced as a bill in the federal House of Commons in 1965. Some eastern Arctic residents appeared before a House of Commons committee to oppose the bill because the population had not been properly consulted. As a result, the bill never got second reading and died on the order paper.

The federal government wanted the issue examined further, and created the Carrothers Commission to study political development in the North and to report back to Parliament. In 1966, after holding hearings in northern communities, the three-man commission recommended that the issue of dividing the Northwest Territories be further examined in 10 years.

It was almost a decade later when the Inuit started to force the issue of division onto the agenda of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly. The assembly was very hostile to the idea and wanted, instead, to devolve more power to the territorial government from the federal government. The Inuit opposed this devolution of powers, insisting that the issue of division be resolved first.

The territorial government finally agreed to put the question of division to the residents of the Northwest Territories in a plebiscite in April 1982. The Inuit leadership campaigned hard for division and the voter turnout in Nunavut's communities was very high. The campaign against division was much less committed and the voter turnout in western Northwest Territories was low. In Nunavut's communities, the yes vote for division was around 90 per cent. The overall result of the plebiscite was 53 per cent for division and 47 per cent against. Nunavut had cleared its first major hurdle.

Years of sometimes acrimonious negotiations on the boundary followed. Finally, in 1992, all interested parties had agreed on a line on the map. This was again put to voters in a Northwest Territories-wide plebiscite to ratify the negotiated boundary between Nunavut and the remainder of the Northwest Territories. Again, there was a high voter turnout in the east and a lower turnout in the west. The boundary was ratified and Nunavut cleared its second major hurdle.

By this time, the negotiations on a final land claims agreement were reaching the home stretch. Most of the major issues had been resolved - except for the territory of Nunavut. In a meeting between the Inuit leadership and Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Tom Siddon in September 1992, the federal government made a last attempt to exclude Nunavut from the final agreement. The Inuit stood their ground and informed the minister that they were prepared to delay the signing of a final agreement until after an expected federal election and a new government. They also informed the minister that they could not recommend ratification by the Inuit of a final agreement that did not include Nunavut. After some phone calls, the minister informed the Inuit leaders that the government would include a provision in the final agreement, committing the government of Canada to create Nunavut.

The final agreement was ratified by the Inuit and the Nunavut Act passed by Parliament in June 1993.

What Nunavut Is

On April 1, 1999, Nunavut becomes the first territory to enter the federation of Canada since Newfoundland joined in 1949. Nunavut, subject to the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, will be a public government with all of its citizens having the same rights. But because the population will be about 85 per cent Inuit, it will reflect that reality.

Nunavut voters have already selected their capital - Iqaluit, the territory's largest community. In 1995, the Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC), a public body whose primary role is to advise how the government of Nunavut should be designed, released a comprehensive set of recommendations in its report Footprints in New Snow. About a year and a half later, Footprints 2 added to the existing blueprint. The recommendations of both reports require federal cabinet approval.

An interim commissioner who will lead Nunavut to the world stage was chosen in 1997: former federal Member of Parliament Jack Anawak.

Also in 1997, Nunavut voters were asked to consider an NIC recommendation that Nunavut's legislative assembly be made up of two-member constituencies, with each constituency represented by a man and a woman. Voters rejected the proposal, which would have made Nunavut's legislature the first in the world to have guaranteed equal participation of both sexes. The gender parity idea, a controversial one that had its opponents, was seen as a way to help Nunavut regain the badly needed balance between men and women, once such an important part of Inuit culture.

Nunavut is a large territory covering 1.9 million square kilometres. This is about one-fifth of Canada, or an area close to half of Europe excluding Russia.

The distance from Nunavut's western boundary to Cape Dyer on the east coast of Baffin Island is approximately 2,400 kilometres; in the other direction, it is about 2,700 kilometres from the Manitoba border to the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. (For comparison, the distance from Toronto to Calgary is about 2,700 kilometres. In Europe, the distance between London and Istanbul is slightly more than 2,400 kilometres.) The territory also includes Sanikiluaq and other islands in Hudson Bay and James Bay, hundreds of kilometres south of the main part of Nunavut. This chapter gives a general overview of the physical geography of this large area; see the chapters in Destinations for details on specific areas.

Approximately 45 per cent of the land area of Nunavut lies on the northern part of Canada's mainland. The rest is distributed throughout a large archipelago of hundreds of islands, including Baffin Island (Canada's largest), as well as Ellesmere, Axel Heiberg and Devon islands. Twelve of the 20 largest islands in Canada lie entirely within Nunavut. The Parry Channel, running from Lancaster Sound off Baffin Bay in the east to the Arctic Ocean in the west, separates the Queen Elizabeth Islands to the north from the rest of the territory.


Nunavut covers the northernmost and coldest parts of Canada. January mean surface temperatures range from around -20 C at the southern tip of Baffin Island, which is influenced by the Labrador Sea to the southeast, to less than -37 C around Lake Hazen on northern Ellesmere Island. As would be expected, the lowest winter temperatures occur in the northernmost part of the territory, but temperatures almost as low (below -35 C) are experienced in an area west of Wager Bay, almost 2,000 kilometers farther south. This is due to its continental location far from the major oceans.

July mean temperatures range from above 10 C in the southern part of the mainland to less than 2 C in the north. The maritime influence keeps the coastal areas relatively warm during the winter, but cool in the summer when the land is generally warmer than the sea. During the summer, inland locations such as the Tanquary Fiord-Lake Hazen area on Ellesmere Island, often enjoy temperatures well above the regional averages. Due to the low mean temperatures, there is continuous permafrost throughout the territory; only a rather shallow surface layer (15 to 150 centimetres) thaws every summer and refreezes during the following winter.

Annual precipitation ranges from more than 600 millimetres in an area on southern Baffin Island to less than 100 millimetres in the northern part; the area around Eureka on Ellesmere Island is the driest part of Nunavut. Precipitation levels are generally low, and only a small part of the territory receives more than 300 millimetres per year. The highest precipitation occurs in the highlands along the eastern seaboard from southern Baffin Island to Ellesmere Island, due to a combination of topography and the maritime influence of the Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay. While the northwestern part of the archipelago is close to the Arctic Ocean, the continuous ice cover reduces evaporation and limits the maritime influence of this water body. This part of Nunavut receives less precipitation than parts of the Sahara Desert, and can be described as a polar desert.

Geology and Landforms

The southern part of the territory - the mainland and Baffin Island - is part of the Canadian Shield, consisting of rocks typically more than a billion years old. This rock formation extends to parts of Ellesmere Island. Younger, sedimentary rocks in largely horizontal layers cover the northern part of the Shield on Nunavut's western islands and along the Parry Channel, as well as smaller isolated areas further south, such as the islands in Foxe Basin and parts of Southampton Island. Except for their southern and eastern parts, the Queen Elizabeth Islands consist of still younger, and in part heavily folded, formations.

The highest mountains in Nunavut are found along the eastern part of the territory, where the land has risen in relatively recent geological time. A highland with many peaks reaching 1,500 metres to 2,000 metres above sea level extends from south of Cape Dyer on Baffin Island to Ellesmere Island. Northern Ellesmere is even higher and contains Nunavut's highest mountain: Mount Barbeau (2,616 metres). The mountains on Axel Heiberg Island reach about 2,200 metres above sea level. From the eastern Baffin highland, the Shield slopes gradually southwestwards to Foxe Basin and re-emerges on the west side of Hudson Bay, rising towards the west. The Boothia Peninsula, at the northern extreme of the mainland, reaches altitudes of about 600 metres and this higher ground extends southward, although most of the mainland is less than 300 metres above sea level. Farther north, along Barrow Strait, typical altitudes are between 400 to 500 metres above sea level, but the islands to the west of the Boothia Peninsula (such as Prince of Wales Island and the eastern part of Victoria Island) are mostly less than 150 metres above sea level. The islands to the west of Axel Heiberg Island are very low and the land rarely rises to more than 150 metres above sea level.

Most of Nunavut's landforms are shaped by ice sheets and glaciers. The Laurentide Ice Sheet extended north from its centre near Hudson Bay to the north side of Parry Channel, while the highlands of Ellesmere, Axel Heiberg and Devon islands supported separate ice centres with ice flowing in all directions, coalescing in many places. Except for Bathurst Island and Cornwallis Island, the low northwestern islands were not ice covered during the Wisconsin glaciation, some 18,000 years ago. However, previous ice sheets reached the Arctic Ocean coast. The spectacular valley and fiord landscape
of parts of the archipelago was shaped during the glacial periods. On Baffin Island, the Laurentide ice spilled over the height-of-land and out toward Baffin Bay, carving out deep valleys and fiords, some reaching depths of more than 900 metres. The fiords are often separated by alpine landscapes, makingthis a favored area for climbers.

The ice sheets left large deposits of till (an unsorted mixture of clay, gravel and boulders), especially along the old ice margins, such as the distinct moraine features along eastern Baffin Island, and on the islands south of the Parry Channel, such as on Victoria Island. The last remnant of the Laurentide Ice Sheet is believed to have melted down over the shield area to the west of Hudson Bay, leaving large till deposits, often in the forms of drumlins. The area also has many eskers, long sinuous ridges of sand and gravel.

The earth's crust was depressed under the weight of the ice sheet, and when it melted, extensive low-lying areas were inundated by the sea. The land has since risen and marine deposits and old shoreline features can be found at altitudes of more than 200 metres above sea level.

Present Ice Caps and Glaciers

At present, ice caps and glaciers cover some 150,000 square kilometres of Nunavut; more than half of this is on Ellesmere Island where ice covers an area larger than the province of New Brunswick. Several outlet glaciers on Ellesmere, Devon and Bylot islands reach tidewater and calve off icebergs. Along the north coast, the ice streams form small ice shelves.

Baffin Island has mostly mountain glaciers, some reaching tidewater, but there are also two ice caps - the Penny and the Barnes. The former rests on the top of the high mountain region of the Auyuittuq National Park Reserve on the Cumberland Peninsula with ice tongues flowing in several directions. The latter lies west of Clyde River like an elongated loaf of bread on the sloping surface of the Shield, well to the west of the height-of-land. It has been suggested it is a remnant of the Laurentide Ice Sheet.

Hydrology and Lakes

The major rivers in Nunavut are on the mainland. The Back and the Coppermine flow toward the Arctic Coast, while to the east, the Thelon, Kazan and Dubawnt rivers flow to Hudson Bay. These rivers have generally gentle profiles. The irregular and surface and low relief provide for numerous lakes, particularly in the southern Kivalliq Region. The largest lake on the mainland is Dubawnt Lake.

On the islands, the distance to the sea is short and so are the rivers. The longest river and major watersheds are found on the west side of Baffin Island. Nettilling Lake, the largest lake in Nunavut, and Amadjuak Lake lie on southern Baffin. There are numerous lakes in the Shield area on Baffin Island. The eastern part of Victoria Island and the adjacent islands also have a large number of mainly small lakes.

Lakes are much less common on the Queen Elizabeth Islands, and many of those that do exist are glacier-dammed. The 72-kilometre-long and almost 10-kilometre-wide Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island is the largest in the area.

All lakes and rivers freeze over during the winter, but are generally ice-free during the summer, except for some in the Far North that may retain their ice cover. Runoff peaks during the spring snowmelt, except where glacier meltwater contributes significantly to the discharge. Permafrost prevents infiltration of water into the ground and this contributes to rapid runoff.

The Offshore Area

The Nunavut archipelago separates the more than 3,500-metre-deep Arctic Ocean to the northwest from the 2,100-metre-deep Baffin Bay to the southeast. The channels in the archipelago are shallow by comparison, rarely reaching more than 500 metres and then only in areas where they have been over-deepened by glaciers. The channels along the Arctic Coast are very shallow. Only in Nares Strait between Ellesmere and Greenland does the sill depth between the two major water bodies exceed 200 metres. Water flows through the archipelago and into Baffin Bay, but only the relatively fresh and cold surface waters can pass through the shallow channels.

Sea Ice

The Arctic Ocean is perpetually ice-covered and a persistent current feature, the Beaufort Gyre, sweeps the sea ice southwestward along the northwest coast of Nunavut. Old (multi-year) ice from the Arctic Ocean penetrates into the Parry Channel and other channels opening toward the northwest. During the winter, sea ice forms in all the channels. Near shore and in the narrower channels, the ice is land fast; in other areas it shifts back and forth with the winds and tides. The sea ice facilitates traveling with dog teams and snowmobiles and during the winter and early spring the area is more like a continuous land mass than an archipelago.

Even during the winter, some small areas have regularly no, or very thin, ice covers. They are known as polynyas and are important for wildlife. The largest and best known polynya is the North Water at the north end of Baffin Bay. A combination of winds and upwelling ocean currents keeps the area relatively ice-free.

In the spring the North Water expands as the temperature rises, causing the northern part of Baffin Bay to become ice-free before the more southern parts. As open water expands south and west into Lancaster Sound, migration routes for whales and marine mammals are opened, the marine biota - plants and animals - flourishes and the sound becomes the feeding ground for millions of seabirds nesting in the adjacent cliffs. Sea ice distribution during the summer depends on weather conditions and varies from year to year; usually minimum ice cover occurs in September. By then Baffin Bay, Jones Sound, the eastern part of Parry Channel, and the channels along the mainland are normally free of ice, but extensive ice cover persists among the Queen Elizabeth Islands.

Icebergs are numerous in the coastal waters along the Baffin Bay coast. Some of them have calved off glaciers on Ellesmere and Devon islands, but the majority - including all the largest ones - stem from tidewater glaciers on Greenland. After breaking off from the glaciers, the icebergs drift north with the West Greenland current and, as it turns at the head of the Bay, flow south along the Canadian side. Some eventually reach the Grand Banks off Newfoundland more than 3,500 kilometres to the south.

*Excerpted from the 1998 Nunavut Handbook web site at:, the on-line companion to the popular soft-cover book... which no longer appears to be working.