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Gjoa Haven

Gjoa Haven

Kitikmeot School Operations (KitSO)



Located on King William Island, the current site of Gjoa Haven was chosen in 1903 by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and is named after his ship, the Gjoa, which is now moored at a maritime museum in Oslo, Norway. Amundsen was the first European explorer to traverse the Northwest Passage successfully, overwintering in the area at that time. He learned Arctic survival methods from the Netsilik people (also spelled “Nattilik”) who frequented the area and called the location Uqsuqtuuq, or “place of plentiful blubber.” His successful attempt to be the first person to reach the South Pole is credited to his use of these traditional skills. The John Ross expedition of 1829-1833 had previously visited this region and John Franklin’s expedition of 1845 perished nearby, making Gjoa Haven a place of significance for people interested in the history of European exploration of the Arctic. The community became increasingly settled after the Hudson’s Bay Company moved a permanent trading post was moved from Douglas Bay to Gjoa Haven in 1927. Gjoa Haven achieved Hamlet status in 1981.

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.


The area around Gjoa Haven has been settled by the Netsilingmiut (“people of the seal”) for over a thousand years. The Inuit name for Gjoa Haven, Uqsuqtuuq, means “place of plentiful blubber” in the Netsilingmiut dialect, from the seals that were abundant in the area. Although Inuktitut is not as widely used in Gjoa as in many communities in the eastern Arctic, the people lead a very traditional lifestyle, with many families spending a month or two “on the land” in the summertime. Hunting and fishing remain important food sources.

As in much of the Kitikmeot region, the Inuit language has suffered some loss. Almost all residents speak English and only 2% are unilingual speakers of Inuktitut. In the 2011 Census, 55% of residents gave English as their mother tongue, and 45% as Inuktitut; there are no French speakers. Most people speak English at home, but almost 64% use Inuktitut at home in some way. You can expect most public events and meetings to be conducted in both languages. Inuktitut dialects vary widely across Nunavut, so if you have been speaking Inuktitut in another community, be prepared to learn dialectal differences and perhaps be corrected in your usage by local residents. 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.

Gjoa today is a young community, with a high birth rate. According to the 2011 Census, there are around 170 pre-school and 385 school age children, so 43% of the population is under 18. The median age is 21.2. However, Gjoa has nearly 60 Elders, a higher proportion of the population (5%) than in many communities.

The Anglican and Catholic churches arrived in Gjoa in the 1950s, and the Pentecostal church in the 1990s. Traditional Inuit shamanistic beliefs are also held by some individuals.


Gjoa Haven is the location for the decentralized offices of two GN departments: the transportation policy and motor vehicles sections of the Department of Economic Development and Transportation, and the Legal Services Board of Nunavut. These two offices have fewer than 20 employees, however, so most people in Gjoa work in community services positions (teachers, nurses, Hamlet employees) or outside of government. Much employment tends to be seasonal, with construction, tourism, and hunting and fishing activities taking place in the summer. Handicrafts, particularly carvings and distinctive wall hangings, provide a source of income for many people. Gjoa carvings are noted for their dark green soapstone and can be bought from nearby sources by snowmobile in the frozen months.

Nearby, the Nunavut Parks Northwest Passage Trail park provides an interesting destination for the tourism industry, and across the Queen Maud Gulf from Gjoa Haven is the federal Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary, the largest in Canada.

There are no bank branches in Gjoa Haven and cash supplies can often become very limited. ATMs are available at the Northern and Co-op stores, with limited cash supply. Interac and credit card services are available at most retail stores. It is highly recommended that newcomers establish Internet banking services and online methods of bill payment, particularly since postal service can often be delayed when bad weather disrupts transportation.


There is a small herd of muskox on King William Island and a few caribou. Numerous migratory birds visit the area in late spring and summer, many of them nesting locally, including loons, geese, ducks, terns, jaegers, plovers, snow buntings and snowy owls. In June and July, the bay is home to fish and seals, and local people travel to a nearby traditional weir to fish for Arctic char during their August migration.

Further Reading: 
  • Amundsen, Roald. The Amundsen photographs, edited and introduced by Roland Huntford. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.
  • Balikci, Asen. The Netsilik Eskimo. New York: American Museum of Natural History Press, 1970.
  • Bennett, John & Susan Rowley, eds. Uqalurait: an oral history of Nunavut. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004.
  • 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. Encounters on the Passage: Inuit meet the explorers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
  • 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 & 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.
  • Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. The Inuit way: a guide to Inuit culture, rev. ed. Ottawa.: Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, 2006.