Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic December 10, 2009 - 3:33 pm

Taissumani, Dec. 11

The Canadian Northwest Passage?


So one member of Parliament had the bright idea that Canada’s interests in the north would be enhanced by re-naming the Northwest Passage as the “Canadian Northwest Passage.”

The media has largely misunderstood this symbolic gesture.

What passed was a motion, not a bill. And a motion, while having some weight, is merely advisory. The motion doesn’t propose an official name change or impose any legal obligations.

This is just as well, because it would be rather difficult to officially change a name that doesn’t exist.

That’s because the Northwest Passage itself is not an official name. In fact, there are not one, but many Northwest Passages, because there are — in theory at least — many ways through the labyrinth of Canadian islands north of the Canadian mainland.

Before any intrepid explorer had ever succeeded in making his way through these ice-clogged waterways, the Northwest Passage was a fiction that held out the possibility of Asiatic riches for the backers of countless attempts to find such a passage.

First, of course, they had to find a promising waterway to enter. Attempts to penetrate the continent from the western coast of Hudson Bay proved fruitless for the simple reason that no waterway through the continent exists there.

When attention eventually turned to Lancaster Sound as a way westward, the challenge became to find a way through the ice. Franklin was lured to his death. Searchers for the lost expedition mapped the remaining islands and waterways, which proved that there were passages, of sorts, but ice-clogged and largely unusable by ships.

These channels and sounds have names of course, given them by white explorers, names like Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Viscount Melville Sound, McClure Strait, Peel Sound, Franklin Strait, McClintock Channel, and so on.

But there is no “Northwest Passage” on today’s map of the Arctic.

That didn’t dissuade a well-intentioned but ill-informed MP from proposing his motion. The bill as passed read:

“That, in the opinion of the House, as the various waterways known as the ‘Northwest Passage’ are historic internal waters of Canada that have been used and occupied by the Inuit since time immemorial, the Government of Canada should endeavour to refer to these waterways as the ‘Canadian Northwest Passage.’

“Further, recognizing the importance of the Northwest Passage to the Inuit, that this House support the identification of an appropriate Inuktitut name for the whole Northwest Passage in co-operation with Inuit land claims organizations and territorial governments. Further, that this name be used in conjunction with the Canadian Northwest Passage when referring to internal Canadian waterways.”

The second part of the motion was a hastily added amendment to placate Inuit organizations who complained they hadn’t been consulted.

There are errors of fact in this motion. Many of the waterways in question have not been used and occupied by the Inuit “since time immemorial” and some are not occupied by Inuit even now. Some are north of where Inuit have historically lived. 

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. has taken the position that there is a perfectly good Inuktitut name for the Northwest Passage, and that it is “Tallurutik.”

In the Nunavut Legislature on December 1, James Arvaluk corrected that mis-spelling when he said that the Inuktitut name for the Northwest Passage was Tallurutiup Tariunga. The problem is that this is only an Inuktitut name for one part of the chimerical passage.

NTI said, correctly, that this name, Talluruti, means “a woman’s chin with tattoos on it” and that crevasses and streaks on the land resembled tattoos from a distance.

That is a perfectly acceptable way to name a geographical feature. After all, in 1965 members of the Geological Survey of Canada, all Qallunaat, named a feature on Ellesmere Island Zebra Cliffs, because of the striped appearance of the rock strata.

But Talluruti is a name for one specific place, Dundas Harbour on Devon Island, on the north shore of Lancaster Sound, and Tallurutiup Tariunga (Talluruti’s body of sea water) refers only to Lancaster Sound, naming it in relation to the name for Dundas Harbour. And so it is the name that would be used by the people of Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet, as well as Resolute and Grise Fiord.

But that name in no way refers to the many channels and sounds that make up the plethora of Northwest Passages that one could trace on a modern map. There is no reason why the people of Kugluktuk or Kugaaruk would use that name.

So, for the same reason that there is no single Northwest Passage, there is also no Inuktitut name that can be said to apply to the passage. 

But if white explorers and now members of parliament have the right to make up names for geographical features, so do the Inuit. After all, the land claim requires that the Inuit Heritage Trust be consulted on any changes to place names.

So why weren’t they consulted on this issue? Perhaps because it was a non-binding motion and not a bill.

But perhaps because it’s not a place, and therefore not an official name anyway. Perhaps Inuit will choose eventually to coin a name, just as Qallunaat have done. But it probably won’t be Tallurutiup Tariunga.

As for the name, “Canadian Northwest Passage,” it applies to nothing and accomplishes nothing. In fact, it may be counter-productive, drawing international attention to the fact that Canada feels compelled to resort to such meaningless symbolism to bolster its claim to what we already know is ours.

Once the fuss about this meaningless and ill-advised gesture dies down, one hopes that the government and the Inuit simply ignore the matter.

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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