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New atlas shows traditional Inuit trail network, bolsters sovereignty case

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The Canadian Arctic is often called the trackless tundra. New research proves it is anything but.

Fraser Taylor of Carleton University is a co-author of a new atlas that documents hundreds of traditional Inuit place names and thousands of kilometres of routes through the sea ice, coastlines and vast expanses of the Canadian North from Lake Winnipeg to the tip of Ellesmere Island.

The atlas, released this week after more than 15 years of work, combines interviews with dozens of elders as well as explorer and trader accounts to trace the trails, some hundreds of years old and many still in regular use.

The result, says Taylor, redefines our understanding of Inuit culture and firms up a plank in Canada's case for sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.

"Inuit occupancy and Inuit use of those sea routes is a clear example of 'use it or lose it,' " said Taylor, referring to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's working definition of Arctic sovereignty.

"We show that this is very much Canadian territory, both in land terms and in sea terms."

The atlas is a joint project of Carleton's Cartographic Research Centre, the Marine Affairs Program at Halifax's Dalhousie University, and the geography department at Cambridge University.

Researchers spent weeks and months in Arctic communities, earning over the course of years the trust of local elders. In some cases, communities came to them asking for help in documenting local knowledge.

"We start from a philosophy of building from the bottom up, not from the top down," Taylor said.

"We're not outside researchers coming in to exploit the Inuit. We literally and metaphorically give voice to local people."

Each trail and place name, said Taylor, represents a story.

"The journey is a story of what happened, who you met, who you saw, what kinds of things happened to you on that route. And every story is different, even though they're moving along the same route.

"These geo-narratives are vitally important in understanding the richness of that journey."

The extent of the web of routes and the depth of those combined stories present a very different view of traditional Inuit culture, Taylor said.

"It should change the idea of the Inuit of an isolated group of people living in small hamlets by the side of the frozen sea into a thriving community which has moved and evolved and interacted over the course of time. It's confirming what the Inuit have been telling us for generations and we haven't really listened."

The trails were used for trading, following game, and just keeping in touch, Taylor said.

"You name it, they're exchanging it — material goods, stories, myths."

The atlas, released Wednesday, is already getting rave reviews from aboriginals and academics alike.

"The importance of doing the work that you have done is monumental is so many ways," Inupiat whaler and archeologist Qaiyaan Harcharek from Barrow, Alaska, wrote to Taylor.

The atlas focuses on the eastern Arctic. Taylor said more research is needed in Arctic Quebec, Labrador and the far west.

In some areas, Inuit place names extend from the land onto the sea ice, research that could bolster Canada's claims to the Northwest Passage.

The International Court of Justice has ruled that indigenous people do have some legal rights over areas they traditionally occupy.

"Canada would have to persuade other states or an international court or tribunal that sea ice can be subject to occupancy and appropriation like land," international law expert Michael Byers has written.

Taylor said the atlas does just that.

"This occupancy is not only recent, it's been going on for generations. And it extends much further than we previously thought.

"(Inuit) discovered the Northwest Passage before we even thought of it."

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