• Feature

Carving Out Inuit Rights to Quarry Stone

Jun 16, 2021
by Elaine Anselmi

Written into the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement is every Inuk’s right to quarry stone for carving. The agreement— Section 9 in particular—recognizes each beneficiary’s yearly entitlement to 50 cubic yards of serpentinite, argillite and steatite: utkuhighak and hananguagahaq.
No permit needed.

The agreement was signed in 1993, but quarrying was well practiced across the Canadian Arctic at this point. By the 1960s, Inuit who lived among groups in camps scattered across the tundra, had moved into communities on sandy bays and pebbled shores across the mainland Arctic and archipelago.

The construction of the Distant Early Warning Line, fending off a Russian attack— or at least notifying North American authorities of it—was under construction, bringing with it work, healthcare and southern provisions that were previously doled out through trading posts. Children who grew up in those scattered camps were enrolled in community schools by the federal government, their parents given no choice but to send them.

It was this series of tectonic cultural shifts that exposed geological areas to groups of artists seeking stone to saw and scrape away into sculpture. There was also the development of a market for those works of art that came largely with the help of government funded programs to expose new audiences to Inuit art both at home and abroad.

Since the 1960s, the Government of Canada (and more recently Government of Nunavut) has recognized the value of Inuit carvings as an economic opportunity for the region, and as an emblem of Canada’s embattled claim to the Arctic—and its riches below (of which rock is hardly the focus).

In the decades since, the location of ukkusisaqtarviq (the places where we find stone) have been studied and mapped by various governments. Between 2010 and 2013, the Government of Nunavut’s Carving Stone Deposit Evaluation Program set out across the territory to the quarry sites for each community to evaluate the available resource.


Lydia Qayaq
carving at the Nunavut Arts Festival in Iqaluit, 2019

The largest quarry among them is Kangiqsukutaaq outside Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, which has been mined since the 1960s. “This stone is highly regarded for its overall consistency, toughness, holding of fine detail and smooth finished polish,” the report from this program reads. And it is against the stone of Kangiqsukutaaq that the quality of all other stone in the territory is measured.

This summer at the Nunavut Arts Festival in Iqaluit, NU, carver Lydia Qayaq of Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River), NU, stated that you can tell the quality of the stone from looking at it. “I can tell because I’m a carver: there’s a hard piece, there’s a soft piece,” she explained on the plateau where Inuksuk High School overlooks Koojesse Inlet. “The colour and feel of the stone give it away,” she said.

Qayaq’s circular saw smoothed edges off a block of marble that laid on the ground between her feet. She bent down over it, pressing the blade into the white surface in a cross-cut and four legs started to take shape. The ground around Qayaq and a half-dozen other carvers was covered in rock dust as they demonstrated their technique for onlookers. Jaco Ishulutaq of Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung), NU, licked his finger and swiped it across a piece of steatite, removing the white dust, to inspect the black surface.

The rock of each region varies greatly. Kimmirut’s Aberdeen Bay is known for its apple green marble: “Tatsiituq ‘the place of fog’ yields Nunavut’s most famous stone,” reads the Carving Stone Evaluation report. East of Iqaluit, a quarry bears speckled green marble that has the appearance of narwhal skin. And further north on Baffin Island, around Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), NU, a light green serpentinite stone was found by carver Phillip Pitseolak in 1981, fetching a higher price for artists and the community co-op from then on, writes Emily Elisabeth Auger in The Way of Inuit Art (2005).

Quarried by hand for five decades, about 50,000 tonnes of rock are estimated to have been mined from Kangiqsukutaaq near Kinngait. About 30 percent of that was transported to carvers across Nunavut—the rest left behind as waste rock.


Nicotye Samayualie
Names Out of Rocks (2017) Coloured pencil 58.2 x 40.6 cm

But the surface rock is dwindling, a 2013 study by the Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office found. Hand quarrying relies on that rock and it’s long been the method of extraction: whether an individual rock lies in wait to be selected, or through the plug-and-feather method where repetitive tapping and wedging liberates the rock from its place. Little is left of this surface rock, but there is plenty buried beneath, the report found. And for this, mechanical extraction would be required.

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) which represents Inuit of the Qikiqtaaluk Region has continued to study the quarry and how to manage it as a resource in the future. As a 2017 Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office report states: “Carving stone—such as serpentinite, marble and soapstone—holds intrinsic value in Nunavut’s Inuit society. Traditional carvings are valuable both economically and as a means of passing traditional knowledge down through generations.”

This value has been recognized with investment. In 2016, the federal government put $57,000 toward the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) for its work on developing three quarry sites outside Kinngait, Kimmirut and Sanikiluaq, respectively. The QIA also contributed $14,000.

Transportation can be a significant challenge and expense. To combat this, some northern airlines offer special rates on transporting carving stone. In 2016 an Arctic research vessel, the Martin Bergmann, ferried carvers from its regular docking point in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), NU, to known steatite quarries in Bathurst Inlet and Wellington Bay.

Because of her health, Qayaq can no longer make the trip to the nearest quarry in Clyde Inlet. It’s about three hours away and has to be reached during a short window before the river breaks up. Her grandson Jimmy now makes the trip for her, by snowmobile between March and May. When she flew to Iqaluit for the festival, she lugged a store of marble with her. At a sale on the final day of the festival, her polar bears were gone within the first hour. She had a few more blocks of marble that she left there for next year’s festival.

Carving is the only way Qayaq can earn a living, she tells me. Across Arctic communities and subarctic cities, you’ll find artists on porches and outside buildings, surrounded by dust, a sculpture taking shape at the end of their saw. Unfinished utkuhighak and hananguagahaq awaits transformation. It’s their beneficiary right, as long as they can get it.

This Feature was originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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