Building Inuvik

Early in 1954, the federal department of Northern Affairs and National Resources sent a survey team north to the Mackenzie Delta to find a site to build a new town. The Advisory Committee on Northern Development, made up of senior Ottawa government employees, had met to study the problem of flooding in Aklavik and concluded that this community couldn’t be saved. A new town had to be built.

Aklavik (meaning “Land of the Barrenland Grizzly”) was originally an Inuvialuit camp location that the Hudson Bay Company chose for a Mackenzie Delta trading post in 1911-1912. Founded by the Pokiak, Greenland and Stewart families, Aklavik was made up of Inuvialuit, Gwich’in, Métis and non-Indigenous people. Aklavik soon became a northern hub for government, trade, transportation, churches and education, and by 1953 came to serve approximately 1,600 people. In the 1940s, however, the site was showing some problems. Sandwiched between a channel of the Mackenzie River and a low-lying area of lakes and muskeg, Aklavik was plagued by spring floods and was reputed to be the muddiest place in the north. 

The 1954 survey team for the new townsite looked for a large, flat area close to a good location for an airport that had stable soil and was well out of range of spring floods but still had access to the Mackenzie River. Nine sites that met these criteria were found, but the one that these surveyors called East Three seemed to have the most potential and was therefore chosen as the site for a new northern town. The name East Three was quickly dropped for the town, and people began to refer to this site as New Aklavik.

Construction began in the summer of 1954 with an airport, a wharf, some warehouses and a camp to house hundreds of workers, many of whom came from Aklavik. Pressure began to build on the people to move to the new community, but many refused or resisted. Between 1958-1961, local church hospitals, schools, and residences closed in the old Aklavik site, and as the new institutions opened on the East Three site, many people felt forced to relocate to continue receiving services. After debate in the north and Ottawa, Knut Lang, the Mackenzie Delta representative on the NWT Council, suggested the new town be named Inuvik, a somewhat contrived Inuvialuktun word meaning ‘place of man.’ Commissioner Robertson officially proclaimed this name on July 18, 1958, and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker opened the town on July 21, 1961.

Aklavik, the town said to be soon abandoned, lives on which is why their community flag bears the motto “Never Say Die.” Inuvik’s population has grown to 3,100 as of 2021.