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Text and photos by Ken Johnson   

The City of Iqaluit is among a unique group of Canadian communities that originated entirely from a military presence, and not from a commercial venture, such as a trading post, or a government administrative venture. From its origin as an airbase to serve the ferrying of aircraft from North America to Europe in 1942, Crystall II as it was then known, then Frobisher Bay (1964), and finally Iqaluit (1987), has experienced a remarkable 75-year transformation.

The modern history of the region originated almost 450 years ago with the exploration of Martin Frobisher, and his apparent discovery of gold in 1576. The site of this early Arctic mining misadventure is only 190 kilometres to the southeast. No significant exploration of the region advanced until C.F. Hall explored the region in the 1860s. As part of the search for Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition, he created the first rudimentary map of the area.

Another 80 years passed before interest in the region once again emerged with the Second World War and the Battle of the Atlantic, through which the Allied Forces suffered terrible losses from Nazi Germany’s submarine fleet. A new mobilization plan for supplies, and aircraft in particular, was developed and became known as the Crimson Route. This route made use of the point of land at the south end of Baffin Island, which was on the great circle route to Europe, and accommodated the leap frogging of fighter aircraft.

Ocean view houses are a common feature in Iqaluit.

During late July 1941, a United States Army Air Forces team investigated the Frobisher Bay region for a potential airfield. Ultimately, a level meadow beside the community was selected as an airfield site. The base amenities consisted of the base accommodation, a hospital, and a sealift area, in addition to two runways. The construction was difficult, particularly since the military personnel had no experience constructing in perma­frost soils. This venture was a “secret” project back in 1943.

The Battle of the Atlantic turnaround in 1943 meant the Crimson Route through the base became obsolete because the location was not particularly strategic. The airfield activity was reduced to weather, communications, and logistics duties and the base was inactivated in 1950, functioning as a weather station only. In 1944, the Canadian government bought the airfield for 6.8 million dollars.

In nearby Ward Inlet, 10 kilometres south of the community, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) had an outpost. In a strictly commercial venture, the HBC outpost moved in 1949 from Ward Inlet to the neighbouring River valley of Niaqunngut, officially called Apex, to take advantage of the commercial prospects at the airfield. The HBC could not relocate to the base itself because of its military status, so they settled on being five kilometres away.

The Americans moved back to the Canadian Department of Transport administered Frobisher Bay Airport in 1951 because the advantages of having high latitude airfields were realized, with the possibility of an over the top attack from the Soviet Union. The U.S. military reactivated the base in 1951 and Crystal II became known as Frobisher Bay Air Base. As part of the reactivation, the U.S. military extended the paved runway to 2750 metres (9,000 feet) for aerial tanker operations.

The airbase became a staging point for the construction of the DEW Line with materials sealifted to the airbase and then transported by air to DEW Line sites in the region. A DEW Line site at the base itself opened in 1957, and subsequently closed in 1961 ending the surveillance activity. In 1957, the community had a population of 1,200 with 489 being Inuit.

Tundra Ridge and its distinctive “lego” shaped buildings was a product of 1990s development.

A new direction for the community came with John Diefenbaker’s 1958 election campaign, where he announced his ‘Northern Vision.’ This was a strategy to extend Canadian nationhood to the Arctic and develop its natural resources for the benefit of all Canadians. The then Department of Northern Affairs and National Development implemented the ‘National Development Policy’.

In March 1958, a speech by the chief of the industrial Arctic division of the Department of Northern Affairs and National Development was made regarding the redevelopment of Frobisher Bay. “It will be the most revolutionary community in the country, perhaps on the continent. Today, architects and engineers are talking in terms of a new community shaped roughly like a snow flake to make up a modern community of more than 4,000 people.”

This futuristic plan for a domed city surrounded by residential towers had a price tag at the time of $120 million, which would be at least one billion dollars today. Residential towers around a central covered dome was a totally impractical design for an Arctic community, particularly given the extreme construction challenges of building on permafrost.

Following the shelving of the futuristic concept, a more modest “new town two” plan was developed. This concept was still based upon a sheltered environment from the harsh Arctic temperatures. The grand vision came and went when Diefenbaker lost power in 1962.

In 1963, the remaining military forces left, creating a Canadian government centre for the Eastern Arctic. This ultimately transformed a military base into a community, with a legacy of the “bedroom community” of Apex, which was accessed by a road in 1955. During this period the overlying governance for the community changed from Ottawa to Yellowknife, when Yellowknife became the territorial capital in 1967.

Within the community itself, a central area called Astro Hill became the community focus in the late sixties, and a satellite residential area was connected with a sheltered corridor to the “White Row” housing. The limited residential neighborhoods included the “Lower Base” and Iqaluit with a “k” instead of a “q”. In the mid-1980s, planning occurred for a new residential expansion area. The ultimate naming of the new development was quite “literal,” with the original neighbourhood name of “New Expansion Area”. With time this literal name was replaced by the neighbourhoods of Tundra Valley, Tundra Ridge and Legoland.

Iqaluit’s current yellow airport terminal was built in 1986. The airport is undergoing expansion and a new red terminal will open in 2017. © Doris Ohlmann

In the approach to the creation of the Nunavut territory in 1999, the Town of Iqaluit had to fight for the right to be the territorial capital, competing against the regional centres of Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay. Iqaluit won out, which created a phenomenal boom in the community, with a growth estimate to 5,000 people, ultimately becoming 6,600 people. The housing in Tundra Valley, Tundra Ridge and Legoland took on a modern look reflecting the maturation from a regional centre to a territorial capital.

As much as the community itself now dominates the landscape around Iqaluit, air transport remains one of the largest private sector employers in Iqaluit and Nunavut. Iqaluit is also important on a global aviation scale because polar routes from eastern North America to Asia, and western North America to Europe are within 600 kilometres, which makes the airfield an alternative landing site for any aviation emergency. The polar route location, cold climate and runway size also make an ideal destination for aircraft testing, which Iqaluit has regularly experienced. In January 2016, Airbus hopped over Greenland from Europe to cold weather test a new engine for the A320.

Iqaluit is uniquely a “big city” with features of the community, such as 200 cars per kilometre of road, which compete with the number for Singapore. As much as Iqaluit is a “big city” in the context of the Nunavut Territory, the community remains an Arctic community at heart on the edge of a frontier. How many capital cities can boast about the occasional polar bear walking through town?

Ken Johnson is a planner, engineer, and historian based in Edmonton, Alberta. He has been coming and going from Iqaluit for almost 30 years, and he has witnessed first-hand the “capitalization” of Iqaluit since 1999. He is currently pursuing the dedication of the Iqaluit airfield as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, in recognition of its historic and current contributions to North American aviation, world aviation, and northern development, joining the ranks of the Town of Inuvik, the Alaska Highway, and the White Pass and Yukon Railway. Ken Johnson may be contacted at cryofront@gmail.com.