Arviat * [pop: under 2000]
by Shirley Tagalik
For centuries, Arviat (pronounced “arq-viat”) has been a site that welcomed visitors to her sandy shores. Much of what makes Arviat an interesting place to visit today is rooted in this history.
The industrious Paallirmiut were the original residents of this coastal area of western Hudson Bay. A self-sufficient group of Inuit, they were able to sustain large camps. They were joined by the traditionally isolated Ahiarmiut inland Inuit who knew only caribou and by sophisticated ex-whalers from the Repulse Bay and Coral Harbour areas. The way these groups hunt, raise children, speak, build igluit, make tools and sew clothes, all differs. Each group has struggled to keep its own identity while uniting to build a community that can creatively address social problems: 80 per cent unemployment and a high birthrate that sees 60 children born yearly.
Today, the community is recognized as being particularly rich in traditional knowledge and values, where Inuktitut is spoken widely and valued highly, and where hunting traditions are maintained.
Still identified on many maps by its former name, Eskimo Point, Arviat comes from the Inuktitut name for bowhead whale, arviq.
Thule culture sites here date back to AD 1100. Many ancient qajaq stands found at traditional summer camp sites are evidence that hundreds of Inuit gathered in this area. Summer brought Paallirmiut families together to hunt whales, seals, and walrus for meat and oil. Two of these sites, Arvia’juaq (an island shaped like a big bowhead) and Qikiqtaarjuk (little island), were designated National Historic Sites in 1995.
When the Hudson’s Bay Co. established a post here in 1921, camp sites were moved into the vicinity as trapping became increasingly profitable. Arctic fox were plentiful and the harsh Keewatin (now called Kivalliq) climate ensured thick, full coats. A visit to Nuvuk, the site of the old post, will introduce visitors to one of the last York boats to ply the waters of Hudson Bay. It carried supplies in trade for furs.
The early history of the Roman Catholic mission, established in 1924, can be viewed through exhibits at the Mikilaaq Centre, a diocese-operated community centre located in the original Roman Catholic church. The Anglican mission, founded in 1926, brought missionaries Donald and Winifred Marsh of England to the Arctic. Their books, including Echoes from a Frozen Land (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1987), paint a colorful picture of the area in the early days.
At the same time that caribou migration patterns changed, demand for furs dwindled, creating hardship for many groups of Inuit. Among the hardest hit were the Ahiarmiut, described in Canadian author Farley Mowat’s books, People of the Deer and The Desperate People. Eventually, the Canadian government relocated them to Arviat. The community’s Federal Day School opened in 1959, marking the beginning of permanent settlement.
Arviat: Its Land and Wildlife
Dotted with shallow lakes, this land, rich in flora and fauna, is glacial terrain consisting of sandy low marsh, muskeg, and long tidal flats. Between June and August, the area attracts thousands of nesting migratory birds. The McConnell River Migratory Bird Sanctuary, south of the community, is a good spot to view nesting pairs of geese, sandhill cranes, swans, ducks and loons. Nesting sites attract snowy owls, peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons. At the tidal flats, swarms of sandpipers, plovers, phalaropes, arctic terns, gulls and jaegers can also be found, fiercely protecting their nests. A short walk from town will introduce you to this rich feathered world. In August and September, snow geese are especially accommodating, when parents march their gaggles right into town, taking over any grassy spots left to nibble. Pods of belugas can be seen in the bays. Many Inuit hunt whales at this time and trips can always be arranged.
Trips up rivers near the community take you to great fishing grounds where you’ll also see migrating caribou. Caribou hide is still widely used for winter clothing, and families camp at caribou grounds at this time of year.
*Reproduced from the Nunavut Handbook