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Cape Dorset

Cape Dorset

Qikiqtani School Operations (QSO)



Kinngait, meaning “mountains” in the Inuit language, has been occupied by Inuit since at least the time of the Dorset culture. This cultural period was given that name as a result of early archaeological excavations around the current settlement of Cape Dorset, with artifacts recovered going back 3,500 years. Oral history within the community suggests that today’s Inuit are descendants of the Thule people who inhabited the region following the Dorset people. The first European contact may have taken place as early as 1000 AD, as recent archaeological evidence along the coast between Cape Dorset and Kimmirut shows that Vikings likely travelled in the region about that time. The English official name of the location is attributed to explorer Luke Foxe, who travelled through the region in 1631 looking for the Northwest Passage. It is thought that he named the point after one of his sponsors, the Earl of Dorset of the day. Given the location of the community along Hudson Strait, visits by whalers were common during the 1800s and into the early 1900s.

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established a trading post in 1913. Both the Catholic and Anglican missions were present in the area, although the Catholic mission that was established in 1938 was closed in 1960 because most of the residents attended Anglican worship. Important to Cape Dorset was the development of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in 1959, which helped to bring Inuit art to world attention.

The Government of Nunavut (GN) Employee Orientation website offers an excellent collection of material on the general history of Nunavut, together with an overview of Inuit culture and history and an explanation of how Inuit cultural principles are being incorporated into government operations and services. We recommend exploring this site once it is available again after their restructuring, for now you can try the general GN site for information.


Cape Dorset Inuit have developed a pragmatic approach to the blending of Inuit and western culture, thanks to the community’s long exposure to European explorers, traders and whalers, and the world attention that was directed on local artists after the establishment of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative. The Inuit language and attachment to the land remain strong, and the promotion of Inuit culture through world-renowned art has made possible a stronger local cash economy than is available to many smaller or more isolated communities. The community regularly organizes festivals and community feasts. Cape Dorset also has an Anglican church, a Pentecostal church, and a Baha’ï House.

Inuktitut is the predominant language in Cape Dorset. You will hear it on the street and it is used regularly in daily life. In the 2011 census, 90% of Cape Dorset residents claimed Inuktitut as a mother tongue, and 85% speak Inuktitut as the language of the home. English is the mother tongue for 9%, and the remainder claim French or a handful of other languages. Almost 20% of the Inuktitut-speaking population does not speak either English or French, which means that, on occasion, newcomers or visitors need to find someone who speaks English to translate for them. You can expect most public events and meetings to be conducted in both Inuktitut and English, but you should not expect general Inuktitut conversations to be translated automatically because an English speaker is present. Inuktitut dialects vary widely across Nunavut, so if you have been speaking Inuktitut in another community, be prepared to learn dialectal differences and to have local residents correct your usage. The Inuit language (Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun), English and French are all official languages of Nunavut, so you have the right to request government services in the official language of your choice.

By Nunavut standards, Cape Dorset is a middle-size community, ranking 10th in population. The 2011 census counted 170 preschool and 360 school-age children, making 39% of the population under 18. Elders over 65 make up 4% of the population, and no one is over 85.


Although some other Nunavut communities might disagree, Cape Dorset identifies itself as “The Capital of Inuit Art.” Carving and graphic art are the mainstays of the Cape Dorset economy, with nearly 22% of the local workforce involved in visual art production. The Kinngait Co-op, still known in art circles as the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, forms the backbone of the arts community that has grown world-famous since James Houston’s arrival and encouragement of local artists in 1953. In addition to its arts industries, Cape Dorset has benefited by being one of the communities of Nunavut that is home to a number of decentralized offices for Government of Nunavut departments, including the transportation programs of the Department of Economic Development and Transportation, community development operations for the Nunavut Housing Corporation, and a number of Community and Government Services positions.

In addition to arts and crafts and the local government and services wage economy, a number of people in Cape Dorset still pursue traditional hunting and fishing activities. Tourism is also important, with Mallikjuak Territorial Park nearby providing opportunities for local outfitters and guides.

As in many Nunavut communities, there are no bank branches in Cape Dorset, and cash supplies can often become very limited. The Northern Store and the Co-op offer “light banking” services, which may include the ability to maintain a small cash account with the store, cash cheques, etc. There is an ATM at the Co-op, with a limited cash supply. Interac and credit cards are accepted at most retail outlets. It is highly recommended that newcomers establish Internet banking services and online methods of bill payment, particularly since postal service can often be delayed by weather disruptions to transportation.


The Cape Dorset area is rich in marine life. This includes seafood, such as Arctic char, clams and cold-water shrimp. Marine mammals also abound: beluga whales, right whales, killer whales, harbour seals, harp seals, bearded seals and walrus. Terrestrial mammals and birds include caribou, polar bears, foxes, wolves, Arctic hares, geese, ducks, and ptarmigan.

Further Reading: 
  • Bennett, John & Susan Rowley, eds. Uqalurait: an oral history of Nunavut. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004.
  • Dalton, Anthony. Arctic naturalist: the life of J. Dewey Soper. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010
  • Dorais, Louis-Jacques. The language of the Inuit: syntax, semantics and society in the Arctic. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.
  • Eber, Dorothy Harley. When the whalers were up North. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989
  • Houston, James. Confessions of an igloo dweller. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1995.
  • Issenman, Betty Kobayashi. Sinews of Survival: the living legacy of Inuit clothing. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997.
  • MacDonald, John. The Arctic sky: Inuit astronomy, star lore and legend. Iqaluit, Nunavut & Toronto: Nunavut Research Institute and Royal Ontario Museum, 1998.
  • McGhee, Robert. The last imaginary place: a human history of the Arctic world. Toronto: Key Porter Books, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2004.
  • Morrison, David and Georges-Hébert Germain. Inuit: glimpses of an Arctic past. Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995.
  • Norton, Derek and Nigel Reading Cape Dorset sculpture. Vancouver: Douglas & MacIntyre, 2005.
  • Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. The Inuit way: a guide to Inuit culture, rev. ed. Ottawa: Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, 2006. (also available electronically on the GN orientation website)
  • Pitseolak, Peter and Dorothy Harley Eber. People from our side: a life story with photographs and oral biography. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993
  • Ryan, Leslie Boyd, ed. Cape Dorset prints: celebrating 50: 1959-2009. Canada: West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, 2009.
  • Walk, Ansgar: Kenojuak: the life story of an Inuit artist. Manotick: Penumbra Press, 1999.