Inuvik History

Address by T. Detlor
Aurora Campus Arctic College, July 1989

The Town of Inuvik’s history is quite short but it’s not without excitement. The first European to visit Inuvik was Sir Alexander Mackenzie who stayed here in July 1789 on his epic journey down the river that bears his name. This area traditionally for the native people was really no-mans land between the Inuit (Eskimo) to the north and the Dene (Indian) to the south. Only the odd trapper ever visited the site of Inuvik. During the mid 1950′s the government of Canada felt there was a need for an administrative center in the Western Arctic. Aklavik, the traditional center was subject to flooding and erosion, in fact experts of the day felt Aklavik would be washed into the Mackenzie before too long. As well there was insufficient space for the needed expansion. Consequently a search for a new site was launched.

In 1954, the first survey teams flew to the Mackenzie Delta, looking for the best site for the future, but unnamed town. A number of potential sites were identified with this location being referred to as East Three. The site was on a navigable river with access to wood, gravel, a good, clean water supply and enough flat land for a major airport. Moreover, the site had plenty of room for expansion and definitely with no flood concerns. The East Three site was selected and in hindsight the choice was a good one.

The decision to build Inuvik was not taken lightly by the Government of Canada, the Department of Northern Affairs and Northern Resources was the lead agent with assistance from the National Research Council, Mines and Technical Surveys, Public Works, Transport, and National Health and Welfare.

The planning and construction of Inuvik was completely new. A venture like this had never been tried in Canada thus every stage of the development became a pilot study, an experiment, a new experience. Building a town from scratch, on the permafrost, in the Arctic was a major undertaking.

The site was chosen in November 1954 and construction began in 1955 with completion scheduled for 1961 or 1962. Construction was not an easy task. The presence of permafrost meant building had to be on piles, and above ground utilidors for water and sewer were needed. As you walk around town you’ll notice little shed like structures running between buildings. These are utilidors.

There are two basic types of utilidors although there are a number of variations in construction materials. Some are made of wood, others of steel and aluminum. The two types are those that have the water and sewage lines and the high temperature heating system. The other carries only the water and sewage lines. The utilidors with the heating system use the heat lost to keep the water running. In the utilidor with only water and sewage lines, the hot water is heated and the cold water line runs beside the hot water line using the heat to keep the water running even at the coldest temperatures. The lines from the main utilidor to each house are called utilidettes.

To give you some idea of the complexity of building Inuvik consider that every building, every road, every structure, the entire airport, everything had to be either on piles or on a three foot gravel pad. The runway at the airport is 6000 feet long and its entire length including the taxiways are on a gravel pad, in some areas the pad is 6 feet thick.

The cost of building Inuvik, no one really knows. Although there rough estimates that the cost to replace Inuvik today would cost anywhere from $600 million to $900 million. The airport alone would cost $50 million.

In the area where Inuvik is built there is a lot of ice lenses. This is frozen groundwater. In some places where the water has collected there is pure ice. Blue ice. This is the reason the book about Inuvik is called “On Blue Ice”, we really built on blue ice. If the ground gets heated and the ice melts there is no structural support and the land will collapse. This can be quite dramatic. A few years ago a fifty foot wide section of road beside the sewage lagoon suddenly dropped about 25 feet as the ice dense beneath was heated by the lagoon and the ice melted, down went the road. The permafrost must be protected.

Nineteen fifty five saw the building of the airstrip, wharf, storage warehouses and camp buildings. By 1956 the site had begun to take shape. Hundreds of piles were floated to the site and rammed home with pile-drivers. In 1958 the power plant was installed.

In 1958 there were a total of 21 streets in the various stages of construction. Twelve streets, namely Distributor Street, the street the Arctic College is on, Water Street, Mackenzie Road, the main street of town, Mackenzie Square, Council Crescent, Franklin Road, Millen Street, Firth Street, Reliance Street, Union Street, Bompass Street and Breyant Street had buildings and were named. Three streets, Kingmingya Road, Camsell Place and Spruce Hill Drive had buildings but were named later. Six streets were planned but construction had not been completed.

On July 18, 1958 Inuvik, which means “Place of Man” in Inuvialuktun, officially began by proclamation of the 15th session of the Council of NWT Inuvik was the first planned town North of the Arctic Circle. Inuvik as stated on the Town Monument, dedicated by the Rt. Hon. John Diefenbaker, was created as a model community to provided ” the normal facilities of a Canadian town. It was designed not only as a base for development and administration, but as a centre to bring education, medical care and new opportunity to the people of the Western Arctic.”

Construction continued with the building of the school in 1959, and the hospital, office buildings and staff housing in 1960. The RCMP, CPC, NCPC, Transport, National Defense, National Health and Welfare, Citizenship and Immigration all has personnel living in Inuvik. Many of the first houses built were cabins 16 ft by 32 ft and because they contained 512 sq. ft. they became known as 512′s.

During the early days the community grew rapidly as Inuvialuit, Dene and Metis from the Delta/Coast region and people from southern Canada moved to Inuvik, creating a unique three culture community. On April 1, 1967 Inuvik was incorporated as the Village of Inuvik. Mr. Sid Hancock was the first Reeve. Inuvik was the first incorporated municipality North of the Arctic Circle.

Oil was discovered in 1970 with natural gas being found in 1971 in the Mackenzie Delta. These discoveries lead to further expansion of Inuvik. The major oil companies established offices in our town and the service sector for the oil patch rapidly expanded. Scientific and environmental research in the area also expanded and the Federal Government opened a scientific research laboratory in Inuvik.

By 1970, Inuvik had grown-up and in January 1970 became Canada’s first and only Town north of the Arctic Circle. The first Mayor was Richard Hill. During the early 1970 Inuvik was a flourish of activity. Buildings were being constructed, subdivision were established all in the anticipation of the production of oil and gas from the Delta. However things came to thundering crash in 1977 as a result of a 10 year moratorium recommended by Justice Berger. Inuvik quickly learned what the term boom-bust means. The downturn was halted and by 1980 with the renewed interest in oil offshore the town started to grow again.

This renewed growth was short-lived. In May 1985 the Government of Canada announced that they were closing the Canadian Forces base in Inuvik. The base was staffed by 267 personnel and at that time was the largest single military installation in the North. The closing of the base meant that about 700 people left town. The Town felt that the military has made a mistake. Inuvik is in a very strategic location. If you look on a map you can see that Inuvik is on the Northwest entrance into North America and the western entrance to the Northwest Passage. We lobbied the military and the politicians pointing out the value of Inuvik. As a result Inuvik was named as a Forward Operating Location for the F18′s and we are the resupply base for the western portion of the North Warning System.

Then in 1986 the second blow hit. The collapse of the price of oil. The oil companies activities almost stopped. Fortunately the Mackenzie Delta/Beaufort Sea is rich in both oil and natural gas. With the uncertainty in oil, attention has shifted to natural gas. Earlier this year Esso, Shell and Gulf made an application to the National Energy Board to export natural gas from the Mackenzie Delta to the United States. Hearings have been held and we are now waiting to hear the results.

It is not all doom and gloom. Today Inuvik is still the regional government centre and the transportation hub of the Western Arctic. The completion of the Dempster Highway in 1979 opened Inuvik and the Western Arctic to the people of the world. Tourism is one of the growth industries in Inuvik now. The future expansion of Inuvik although hinges on the production of oil and gas from the Beaufort. When this happens Inuvik is predicted to grow to 7000 or double the size.

The Town of Inuvik is an incorporated municipality with a population of 3389 and is similar in operation to Town’s in other parts of Canada.

© 2010 Town of Inuvik