Belcher Islands - Life in Canada's Frozen North


This week we make an extreme shift in environments. After we covered Namibia's Sandwich Harbour in our blogpost last week, this week we take a closer look at a unique formation of islands in the Great White North: Canada's Belcher Islands.

BELCHER ISLANDS

The Belcher Islands are an archipelago located in the southern part of Canada’s Hudson Bay, just north of the mouth of James Bay. The 1,500 islands making up Belcher Islands are spread over an area of about 3,000 square kilometres. Despite extremely harsh living conditions, Flaherty Island, the main island, is home to a small community of approximately 800 Inuit. The Belcher Islands are especially interesting due to their unique geological features, the local wildlife, and the many stories surrounding its people – including a mysterious mass murder in the 1940’s.


The Belcher Islands are located in the southern part of Canada's Hudson Bay

HUDSON'S GRAVE

The first mention of the Belcher Islands by a European explorer appears in Henry Hudson’s logbook, reporting their sighting in 1610. At that time, Hudson was looking for the rumoured Northeast Passage, a sea route from Europe to present day China. In 1611, after spending the winter on the shores of James Bay, Hudson wanted to continue his exploration, but most of his crew mutinied. Hudson, his son and seven crew members were cast adrift and were never seen again. It is rumoured that their boat drifted onto the Belchers, where Hudson was supposedly buried, although nobody knows where his grave might be exactly.


"The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson" by John Collier via Wikimedia Commons

In the following centuries, little attention was devoted to the islands, neither by European explorers, nor by settlers from mainland Canada and the islands were virtually “forgotten”. It was not until the early 20th century until the Belchers were “rediscovered” by Robert Flaherty in 1915 in his search for iron ore. He was guided by the Inuit pilot George Wetalltok, a native of Belcher Island, who produced the first known map of the Belchers for Flaherty

THE INUIT OF SANIKILUAQ

Saying that the Belchers were “discovered” by Hudson in the 17th century and then “rediscovered” in the 20th century is in fact not exactly true. Indigenous ancestors of the Inuit people inhabited the islands as early as 500 BC, as numerous archaeological findings across the Belchers have revealed.

Today, despite the harshest of living conditions, the Belcher Islands are home to a community of about 800 people, mostly of Inuit origin. Temperatures average at about 10°C in the summer and -27°C in the winter. Not a single tree is to be seen on the islands and only a thin layer of soil covers the ground. And while conditions have always been hard on the islands, things got even worse in the early 19th century. In a particularly hard winter, most of the caribous disappeared from the Belchers, meaning that the local inhabitants had to adapt to the major source of clothing and food vanishing. Women started sewing jackets from the skin of eider ducks, while the men had to expand their hunting skills and became renowned for their kayaking skills.

Today, Sanikiluaq, located on Flaherty Island’s northern end, is the only community on the Belcher Islands. Officially, it forms part of the Canadian territory of Nunavut and - despite how frozen and cold it looks on the satellite picture - it is the territory's southernmost community. It was created in 1971, when the Canadian government consolidated its services and moved all inhabitants from the southern settlement (the only other settlement at that point in time) to the northern settlement. The hamlet was named after a legendary Inuk who used to live on the islands named Sandy Kiluaq. He was adopted as boy and had a hard life, but grew up to be the best hunter and provider of the community.

Like their ancestors, the people of Sanikiluaq today mostly rely on subsistence hunting and fishing. In addition, the craftsmen of the Belcher Islands are famous for their stone carvings, depicting Arctic birds or marine mammals.


Stone carvings of animals are an integral part of Inuit art. Artwork by Qiatsuq Shaa, photo by Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons

THE GRISLY SIDE OF THE BELCHER ISLANDS

The disappearance of the caribous from the Belchers in the 19th century was not the only event of major significance. In the 1940’s, the islands experienced one of Canada’s strangest, most mysterious mass murders.

A missionary visiting Belcher Islands had left behind a Bible written in Inuit syllabics. Amongst the locals, there was only one – Charlie Ouyerack – who was able to read it. In 1941, during an extremely harsh winter, a meteor shower occurred and was taken as a sign that the world would soon come to an end. It was in this setting that Charlie Ouyerack, who thought of himself as a shaman, declared himself Jesus and appointed his friend, Peter Sala, the best hunter and kayaker on the islands, as god. He preached that the hunger and cold were soon to come to an end. All the sled dogs, vital to the survival on the islands, were killed on Ouyerack’s orders, as they were not going to be needed anymore. Sara Apawkok, who questioned Ouyerack’s claims, was declared Satan and became the first of his murder victims. Eight more people died before the Royal Canadian Mounted Police finally arrived on the Belchers and stopped the scam.

JUST A BIG STONE?

The Belchers are in fact not separate islands, but rather a gigantic geological structure still mostly below the sea level. The “islands” are actually the ridges of this rock that are visible above sea level, since they are made of harder rock that only slowly erodes. On the other hand, the valleys – the parts that are covered by water – are made out of softer rock which is eroding at a faster rate.


The Belchers are not separate islands but consist of one enormous geological structure. Photo by Mike Beauregard

The rocks making up the Belcher Islands are about 2,000 million years old. They were shaped by the glacial movements of the Laurentide Ice Sheet that used to cover most of Canada. The ice sheet was so heavy it compacted the earth and pushed it below sea level. Today, the entire area of Hudson Bay is experiencing a “glacial rebound”, meaning the earth is rising again. Immediately after the ice age, the rate at which the land was rising was about 12cm per year. By now, this rate has slowed down to about one centimetre per year. Like the entire area, the Belchers are still rising and in the future, more of the islands may be visible above the water line.


The last glacial movement scraped off much of the soil and left a beautiful pattern. Photo by Mike Beauregard

THE ICE IS THAWING

Due to relatively inhospitable living conditions on land the Belchers’ wildlife is mainly found in the water. Amongst the animals that populate the area around the islands are beluga whales and walrus. Some land animals are however native to the islands. Most prominent amongst them are eider ducks, which are hunted for their feathers. Since their disappearance in the 19th century, caribous have returned to the Belchers.

The scarcity of soil and the harsh weather conditions mean that there is no agriculture or farming on the islands. Instead, the local Inuit rely on subsistence hunting. Over recent decades, the hunters of the community of Sanikiluaq have been experiencing an increasingly declining quality of the animals being hunted. These effects are attributed to climate change. In the past, the ice conditions and floe directions used to be relatively predictable and the knowledge of these has helped hunters in the past to navigate the sea and find food. However, in recent years, ice conditions have become less predictable, limiting the areas accessible even to the most experienced hunters, making it more difficult and dangerous to find food.

OUR LOVE-STORY WITH THE BELCHER ISLANDS

What makes the motif of Belcher Islands really special are the contrasting colours - the white ice, the deep blue ocean and the brown rocks that make up the islands - as well as the fluent, folded shapes that are drawn into the waters of Hudson Bay by the islands, seeming like a snake. The different shades of colour of the ice are especially beautiful in this image, with intensely white sheets of ice on the bottom of the picture, and thinner shoals floating around the islands.


Visit our store and check out the poster of the Belcher Islands there. Maybe you too fell in love with the beautiful Belcher Islands or know somebody else who has a special connection to the place.

Are you from Sanikiluaq or have you ever visited the Belcher Islands before? Let us know how you liked this blogpost and share with us your stories of the islands!

FURTHER READINGS / RESOURCES

The Canadian Encyclopedia - http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/belcher-islands/

Info on the Inuit Sculptures of Sanikiluaq - https://www.inuitsculptures.com/pages/sanikiluaq

Sanikiluaq Sea Ice Project - https://eloka-arctic.org/communities/sanikiluaq/seaice_project.html

Nunavut Tourism - http://www.nunavuttourism.com/regions-communities/sanikiluaq

The Website of Sanikiluaq - http://www.sanikiluaq.ca/i18n/english/history.html

The Mass Murder on the Belcher Islands - http://swordandscale.com/the-belcher-islands-massacre-of-1941/

MacLean's "Visiting a Grisly Mass Murder in Canada's North" - http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/lawrence-millman-revisits-a-grisly-mass-murder-in-canadas-north/

#BelcherIslands #Canada #satelliteimage #motif #HudsonBay #NorthAmerica

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