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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic August 08, 2014 - 10:12 am

Taissumani, Aug. 8

The Inughuit Threat to Canadian High Arctic Sovereignty


With concerns about Canadian sovereignty so much in the news again, it is interesting to look at an early sovereignty scare — one involving Inuit — that turned out to be a misunderstanding.

In 1910 Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen established their trading post, Thule Station, in northwestern Greenland. They knew that Robert Peary, on whom the Inughuit (the Inuit whom explorers generally called Polar Eskimos) had depended for trade goods, would not return to the district, and they hoped to fill the void left by his departure.

But although the Danish flag flew from the store, officials in Copenhagen did not acknowledge that the district was Danish territory. Then in 1916, the United States purchased the Danish West Indies (now the Virgin Islands) from Denmark and simultaneously announced that it would not oppose Denmark extending its political and economic interests to the whole of Greenland. 

By 1919, the Canadian government was aware that Inughuit were in the habit of crossing Smith Sound to Ellesmere Island to hunt polar bear and musk-oxen.

There was no reason why they shouldn’t — both sides of Smith Sound and Kane Basin were, after all, their traditional hunting territory. And Knud Rasmussen, a Dane (although Denmark had not yet claimed north-western Greenland), did not object to the Inuit use of Ellesmere Island.

That same year the Canadian government set up the Reindeer and Musk-ox Commission to study the economic and biological potential of these two animals. Donald MacMillan, an Arctic explorer recently returned from his Crocker Land Expedition, appeared as a witness and informed the commission that every year Inughuit crossed to Ellesmere Island and killed a small number of muskoxen.

He ventured the opinion that “this is not likely to cause any serious depletion of the herd.” The commission was skeptical, noting that the Inughuit were acquiring firearms which would allow them to kill more muskoxen than before.

In July 1919, the Canadian government sent a request, via the British Foreign Office, to the Danish government, formally asking it to prevent the Inughuit from killing any muskoxen on Ellesmere Island.

Canada offered to place its own personnel on the Greenland side of Smith Sound to control the movements of the Inuit, a bizarre suggestion when one considers that there were no Canadians in Ellesmere Island on the other side of Smith Sound, which Canada claimed nonetheless to be Canadian!

The Danish government responded that it did not administer the part of Greenland referred to, and sent the request on to Knud Rasmussen.

Rasmussen replied in March 1920. His reply, translated into English in Denmark, was completely misunderstood when it finally reached Ottawa. The letter stated that caribou had disappeared completely from north-western Greenland because of over-hunting by foreign expeditions (he meant Peary and later MacMillan’s Crocker Land Expedition), that the Inughuit had to seek furs in Ellesmere Island to use in their own homes for warmth and for winter travel, and that he did not trade in muskox skins for export.

He wrote that he believed strongly in muskox conservation and would do whatever possible to comply with the Canadian request, noting that the Inughuit were independent people who, nonetheless, generally followed his advice.

But in Ottawa, officials focused on the following words in Rasmussen’s letter:

“It is well known that the territory of the Polar Esquimaux falls within the region designated as “No Man’s Land” and there is, therefore, no authority in the district except that which I exercise through my station… I venture to close with the observation that, in order to carry out the protective measures indicated in this statement, I shall need no assistance whatever from the Canadian government.”

On April 20, 1920, the Danish government replied to Canada, agreeing with Rasmussen’s position: “Mr. Knud Rasmussen… comes to the conclusion that he will not need the assistance of the Canadian Government in order to carry out the protective measures indicated in his statement… My government thinks that they can subscribe to what Mr. Rasmussen says therein…”

Rasmussen’s reference to the territory of the Inughuit being a “No Man’s Land” was a reference to the fact that Denmark had not yet established any formal administration in north-western Greenland. Rasmussen was the sole authority in the region.

His reference to needing no help from the Canadian government in carrying out measures to conserve muskoxen was simply a rejection of Canada’s suggestion that it station its own personnel in Greenland to control the travel of the Inughuit.

But Canada read this otherwise, and concluded that Rasmussen’s “No Man’s Land” referred to Ellesmere Island. In July 1920 an official advised his deputy minister: “…it would appear that neither Mr. Rasmussen nor the Danish Government seem to recognize that Canadian authority is dominant and exclusive in Ellesmere Land…. There seems to be an inference that Denmark has some authority in the area in question.”

The Canadian government protested its understanding that the Danish government had implied that Ellesmere Island was a “No Man’s Land” — an implication that Denmark had not made. Wisely, the Danish government did not reply.

A postscript: Even today officials of the Canadian government periodically harass Inughuit who cross the treacherous ice of Kane Basin to hunt in their traditional hunting territories on eastern Ellesmere Island.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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