Toponymy of the Canadian Arctic

15 March 2011

The time has come for Canada to assert control over its Arctic land and seascapes. Toponymy, the study of place and geographical names, is a variable that can reflect history, cultures, lifestyles, philosophies, heritage, languages and political landscape. It is one aspect of Canada’s Northern Sovereignty challenges that has yet to be examined in the numerous debates on this topic. An undervalued tool, it can be a catalyst for Canada to assert sovereignty over its Arctic lands, islands, waters, and the seabed or continental shelf. In other words, it can help support the Harper government’s frequent “use it or lose it” rhetoric.

Jacopie Newkinga and Joanasie Koonilusie, two elders from Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, work with IHT staffer, Sheila Oolayou.

Why is this an issue? Can Aboriginal toponymy be part of a solution to assert sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic? What strategy/action plan can be initiated to assist the Canadian Government in its ­sovereignty claims, especially in the High Arctic?

Part of a nation’s culture and heritage, the names of spaces and places reflect the effects of local groups and communities. Local communities, organizations, or even individuals may originate a name and thus “mark” it for posterity. Place names and geographical names thus play an important role in the overall context of culture, settlement history and linguistics. They become an integral part of the character of an area, highlighting unique essences and ­emotional attachments. Names represent human cultural heritage handed down orally from generation to generation. In other words, geographical and place names are landmarks for oral maps, and this is also true across Canada’s North. The practice of local naming of spaces and places protects a nation’s cultural heritage.

Sovereignty over the Arctic
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Arctic sovereignty is a key national issue. He said: “The federal government is responsible for many things. But its highest responsibility is the defence of our nation’s sovereignty. Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake this Government intends to use it.”

The question is: sovereignty over what? The most important area at stake is north of 60° and includes more than 36,563 islands. Most would agree that there is no threat to Canada’s ownership over its Arctic land mass and islands except for the following disputes:

  1. with Greenland (Denmark) over Hans Island in the Lincoln Sea;
  2. with the USA over the delimitation of the boundary between Alaska and Canada in the Beaufort Sea; USA does not recognize the Anglo-Russian Treaty delimiting the Alaska border in 1825 as 141°W; and
  3. with the USA and other maritime states over Canada’s exclusive right to the management and control of the Northwest Passage.

Great Britain transferred title of the Arctic Territories to Canada in 1880, but there was some question of validity since Britain had not discovered all of the islands. However, since Quebec mariner Joseph-Elzéar Bernier solidified Canada’s claim over all the Arctic islands in 1908, Canada’s sovereignty has been questioned by Denmark twice: in 1920 and again in 1928. Both cases were resolved and there have been no significant challenges to Canada’s complete sovereignty over any of the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago since then. There have been acts of defiance in and over Arctic waters, however, such as when the U.S. super tanker Manhattan traversed the Northwest Passage (1969 and 1970), and the Soviet-USA Bering Sea Agreement (1990). Such disputes will most likely be resolved through existing legal frameworks.

Issues common to all circumpolar nations include Russia’s claim of ownership over the Lomonosov Ridge; competition for strategic resources by Canada, USA, Russia and Denmark; environmental concerns put forward through the European Union; sustainable development, emergency responses; conservation of Arctic flora and fauna; concern over acoustic noise by increasing human activity; monitoring of the Arctic environment; and growing global interests towards the North by China, Japan and South Korea – to name just a few. These many issues are indicative of the complexities that Canada faces when dealing with sovereignty challenges to its Arctic archipelago.

Sovereignty over the Arctic continental shelf is a bit more complex. According to Article 77 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982, a coastal state only has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting its natural resources. It is worth noting that Canada is in the process of determining the extent of its continental shelf, and must submit evidence in support of its case by December, 2013.

Use of Toponymy in Asserting Sovereignty
Putting aside the political and economic debates, the use of Aboriginal toponymy can be an important tool in asserting ­sovereignty over the Canadian Arctic. Geographical and place name decisions today are typically dealt with through a nomenclature authority normally established by an Act of Parliament or presidential or royal decree. In all cases, consultation with relevant stakeholders and the broader community is a must because the attachment of individuals and communities to names cannot be underestimated. Institutions that deal with toponymy, such as the Geographical Names Board of Canada (GNBC), Yukon Geographical Place Names Board, the Northwest Territories Cultural Places Program, and the Nunavut Geographic Names Program, follow policies and guidelines that recognize and protect traditional names. Proof of historic and current Inuit use and occupancy is better reflected through toponyms and the supporting ­stories, legends and spiritual traditions than by political rhetoric.

Historical Use and Occupation of the Arctic
The Inuit and their ancestors have inhabited the Canadian Arctic since around 1000 AD, using the lands, water and sea ice. Nomadic hunters travelled from Siberia along the coastline, following migrating animals across the Bering Strait to Alaska some 15,000 – 26,000 years ago.

Some 5,000 years ago, one group whom the Inuit call the Tuniit (Inuit of the Dorset culture) began spreading across the western Arctic and moved eastward to as far as Greenland and down the coast of Labrador. They brought with them their Alaskan ancestors’ ocean-based culture and built a nomadic life following the migration of animals in order to survive the harsh environment.

Nowhere is the connection to land, to water, and to land-fast ice more prevalent than across Canada’s North where the landscape is dotted with “traditional and current use and occupation of the lands, waters and land fast ice therein in accordance with their own customs and usages” (Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, 1993).

Strategy/Action Plan
The Canadian “Arctic Sovereignty” issue will continue to smolder. According to Kathleen Harris, National Bureau Chief for Sun Media, “Canada and the U.S. will partner on a strategy to develop the melting Arctic, but remain sharply at odds over transit rights through the Northwest ­Passage.” In order to strengthen its position, Canada could start adjusting its quiet diplomacy approach. This is no time for complacency, Canada must defend appropriately its sovereignty over the whole of the Arctic Archipelago – including land, islands, internal and offshore waters; and the Arctic continental shelf. The littoral zone is almost equal to its land mass, and this vast area is vital not only to Canada but the rest of the world. Ignored and avoided by other countries until recently, technological advances have made the region more hospitable.

Dr. Oran Young, a ­professor of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, has noticed an important “shift from an emphasis on the concerns of southern capitals, like Washington, Ottawa, Copenhagen and Moscow, to an emphasis on issues of concern to the Arctic residents.”

These Arctic spaces are at risk from climate change and human activity. Sea ice shrank by another 2.6 million square kilometres this summer – more than the average melt recorded over the last 25 years. Arctic sea ice is projected to shrink 40% by 2050. Summer sea ice is forecasted to disappear altogether by then as well – significantly changing the Arctic environment.

Silas Aittauq, John Qaqimat, and John Nukik advise IHT staff during the traditional place names interview in Baker Lake, Nunavut.

However, amidst all the gloom and doom, there is a silver lining when looking at a map of Canada from a toponymic perspective. Canada’s land and seascape has been dotted with meaningful and colourful names – east to west and north to south – that depict a rich and historical tapestry of the existence and expression of Canada’s multi-cultural environment. It shows, over time and in a spatial context, the evolution of local knowledge of important areas, important events, and points of reference used by fishermen, herders and hunters. It also reveals, as noted by Ailsa Henderson, Visiting Professor in Canadian Studies and Politics at the University of Edinburgh, kinship patterns, naming ­conventions, knowledge transfer, myths or legends supplemented by the diaries and biographies of the explorers, traders, ­missionaries, nurses, teachers, miners, ­construction workers and government employees who have travelled the Arctic for adventure or job prospects and have left their imprint on the landscape and seascape through toponymy. It also helps us understand Aboriginal customs, practices, or traditions as well as their modern activities.

In defending its Arctic sovereignty, Whitney Lackenbauer, Chair at St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo, suggests Canada needs to marry its national defence, security, foreign policies and sustainable resource development agenda with stronger diplomatic engagement and sustainable socio-economic development – in direct collaboration with the territorial governments and northern Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organizations. Thus, to help defuse the frenzied debate over Canadian sovereignty through increased spending on national defence is not being realistic or practical, even though enhancing surveillance and security across the Canadian Arctic is a necessity because, as Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary points out, “sovereignty and security are interdependent.”

The Department of National Defence has developed its Northern Strategy and the Arctic Integrating Concept to outline its role and the types of challenges to defence, security and sovereignty in Canada’s North. Canada Command, a key asset in dealing with challenges in the North, is tasked with protecting Canada. The federal government must work co-operatively in an effective manner with all stakeholders in the Arctic to fulfill the needs of its Northerners. That is the reality of today. A flag waiving approach to Arctic sovereignty is not the preferred course.

According to the Canada First Defence Strategy, changing weather patterns in the Arctic could “spark an increase in illegal activities with important implications for Canadian sovereignty and security and a potential requirement for additional military support.” Although Canada has used quiet diplomacy and practical multilateral and bilateral agreements to bolster sovereignty in the Arctic, that may not be enough in the 21st Century because the ­circumpolar north is “strongly divided by geopolitical discourses which strongly reflect national interests” notes Heather Nicol, of the University of West Virginia. That is the reality Canada faces in the coming years. For any success, many are coming to the conclusion that the most important aspect of the Arctic sovereignty discussion is the people.

The world is changing at an unprecedented pace and there is currently a need for an integrated Northern Strategy approach, as Lackenbauer pointed out in 2008. The Canadian government must consider an array of variables in order to implement such a strategy. The Government has listened, and released its Northern Strategy in July 2009. However, without associated funding, to address critical infrastructure needs for example, it has no teeth and Northerners lose once again.

The continued melting of the polar ice-cap, and iceberg derivations will undoubtedly open several Arctic waterways to commercial routes and may force Canada’s claim over the Arctic to be dealt with more as an important dimension of its foreign relations, especially the High Arctic because of its sparse occupation and use. The Northwest Passage, however, developed from an elusive sea passage pieced together through the efforts of many explorers into clear maritime routes from Europe to Asia for trading goods.

In 1920, James White tabled his report to the then Geographic Board of Canada (GBC) in which he provided a history of place names in northern Canada showing proof of who left their imprint across the North. Despite, as Helen Kerfoot, an ­Emeritus Scientist with Natural Resources Canada, notes, “a UN philosophy of ­precedence to local usage in standardizing toponyms,” most of those names are imported from other cultures and places, and do not reflect Aboriginal ­surroundings.

Since the creation of the GBC in 1897, Canadian toponymy has made tremendous strides as a national body and also has made a significant impact at the international level through the United Nations Geographical Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN). Nevertheless, some of those non-Inuit names across Canada’s north will disappear. The government of Nunavut has already replaced some, while others are in the process of being replaced by ­traditional Inuit names as depicted on Inuit maps. However, the main impediment to approve more names has been slowed by the large volume of field work yet to be undertaken and the associated funding. In the long run, Canada’s Arctic region will be dotted with a mix of historical names and Inuit traditional names that, together, will play an important role in the sovereignty debate.

It is important to emphasize that Inuit geographical names and place names be formalized quickly as evidence of occupation of spaces and places that have been used and owned by local Inuit groups and communities. They represent an inherent Inuit human value and are the result of life experiences and recollections of important events in oral history. Basically, their identity is defined “in terms of the places in which they hunt, gather, live, and travel through the annual cycle,” according to a group of researchers from the Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba. And, as Government of Nunavut documentation notes, “traditional hunting and trading routes have always been described as going from one geographical name to another.” They represent landmarks for oral maps, and were very noticeable when Sheila Oolayou, from the Inuit Heritage Trust, showed local Inuit maps of the Pangnirtung area at a reception in Iqaluit in August 2009. These names can include the ­remnants of earlier civilizations or extinct languages that partly survived; they can be the result of myths or legends, stories and accounts handed down through generations in oral form, having survived a changing and complex society. They are irreplaceable and must be preserved. The ultimate aim is to safeguard their cultural value and extend their life for the benefit of future Inuit generations and for all Canadians. Therefore, as previously mentioned, more crucial field work is required to capture all relevant information associated with local Inuit space and place names. By formalizing these names, they will certainly show up on Canada’s National Topographic System maps, thus supporting the Government’s “use it or lose it” rhetoric.

Place or geographical names provide insight into how communities evolved and adapted to ecological changes over the years, and are reflected in their livelihoods, traditions and unique culture. This is paramount in understanding the stories behind the names in support of use and occupation of the landscape and seascape; it portrays the link between people and their attachment to nature.

Take Investment Seriously
Investment by the Federal government, as part of its Northern Strategy, will help to increase sustainability in Northern communities – what better option than the Nunavut Geographic Names Program? The Government of Nunavut needs to compile, officialize, and disseminate more of the ­traditional space and place names, concentrating on transferring these oral names onto maps. This information will help the official recognition of Inuit toponymy and support not only the principles outlined in the Nunavut Geographic Names Policy but the use and ownership of Canada’s Arctic. It will strengthen Canada’s Arctic sovereignty claims.

It is well known that all Arctic coastal states are currently engaged in activities relating to the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea. All are seeking to solidify sovereign rights to portions of the sea that are adjacent to their respective coastlines by establishing indisputable claims to the outer limits of their continental shelves.

The importance of determining the extent of the continental shelf relates primarily to the lucrative rights to underwater reserves of natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals. In accordance with UNCLOS, which covers seabed claims, Canada has until 7 December 2013 to submit its supporting evidence.

In the meantime, the Nunavut Geographic Names Committee could seize the moment and push to formalize as many existing Inuit names as possible across the landscape and seascape and, in the near future, even the continental shelf, as far as the UNCLOS Article 76 Limit will allow.

The 2013 deadline is fast approaching. Compiling, cataloguing and formalizing such data over the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in support of the Government’s concept of “use it or lose it” is a project that cannot wait. The area most at risk is the High Arctic due to its remoteness and the difficulty to protect the vastness of its open skies and the huge expanses of land and myriad waterways.

Greenland/Denmark have recently laid claim the North Pole region  – challenging Canada’s presumed sovereignty of the High Arctic. It therefore becomes imperative that Canada put forth a concerted effort to fight for the interests of the Northerners of this unique and vulnerable land. Unlike anything it has done to date, the government of Canada must direct the resources of many departments to this goal in a sustained and wide-ranging project.

This is no time for complacency. It is clear that planning for the future will be challenging, requiring significant investment, and will undoubtedly include coalitions across jurisdictions and boundaries, such as alliances with NATO members as well as Russia. If Canada does not deliver fairly quickly on the promises made by the Harper Government, the entire sovereignty endeavour will lose legitimacy, which will “undermine the credibility of Canada’s reliance on the Inuit use and occupation” as Anna Meller Paperny asserts in her 2009 article in the Globe & Mail.

Any discussion on Arctic sovereignty must naturally include the Inuit – their ­historic activities underpin the their traditional territory and waters. Canadian decision-makers need to take Northern communities seriously and invest in education, employment, and infrastructure to help assert regional control.

One easily-implemented option for increasing the optics of regional control is to use formalized Inuit toponymy as a stepping stone towards a sustainable sovereignty and security.

At the end of the day, the Canadian government must have a roadmap, a management plan or national action plan that involves Northerners in decisions to build a stronger and secure Arctic. The Inuit need a government they can trust to actually deliver and implement its Northern Strategy.
Gilles J. Champoux is the Program Manager - Zonings with the Real Property Management Directorate at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.
© Frontline Defence 2011