Introduction to Rigolet
The community of Rigolet is a small group of 300 people on the North coast of Labrador by the Hamilton Inlet. Comprised of a large number of people of Labrador Inuit heritage, it is the southernmost Inuit community in the world. Sitting on the easternmost edge of the Canadian shield, the town of Rigolet is surrounded by a striking and lush environment. With generally rocky terrain around the coast, but a vast, lush boreal forest on the interior, this area of Labrador is a region of contrast. This is mirrored in the cold winter seasons and the moderate to warm summers. The community of Rigolet in particular sits in a relatively wet climate, with plenty of year-round precipitation and countless lakes and ponds in the interior of the province.
Given its location within this lush environment, it’s no surprise that for the community of Rigolet, resource-based industries are critically important – some more than others. Employment in the fishing, hunting, and trapping industries have declined; but they are still a vital source of sustenance for the Inuit people in the area. Here it is common to supplement wage income with these more traditional fishing and hunting practices. Although fishing and hunting industries are declining, the Labrador area is rich in mineral and oil deposits. This has lead to a huge leap in the number of people employed in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industries.
Additionally, although a large number of people work in the primary and secondary sectors – especially in Rigolet – the province of Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole sees 74% of the employed population working in the service industry, as of 2012. It is important to note, however, that the unemployment rate in Newfoundland and Labrador is typically the highest in all of Canada, and is also often double that of the national average. This is a fact felt by the people of Rigolet, despite wage-income only being used to supplement the sustenance activities they engage in by living off the land.
Furthermore, tourism is an important part of the local Rigolet economy specifically. With a winning combination of a beautiful landscape and strong cultural traditions, the community even has a heritage society that devotes its time to driving tourism to the area.
Culture and Festivals
Although the community of Rigolet’s current population is comprised of families of European as well as Inuit descent, it is the well-preserved traditions of the Inuit families that stand out in the little town. The annual Tikigiaksaugusik Cultural Festival is one of these. The festival incorporates dog team racing and other outdoor activities, as well as square dancing for several days’ worth of celebration. Another important annual festival in Rigolet is the Salmon Festival – an event with a large tourism draw – that sees three days of traditional entertainment with a huge salmon feast to mark the end of the festivities.
In addition to the special events that give Rigolet its character, there are other more important day-to-day activities that occur in the community, much of which has to do with the vast amount of wildlife found in the area. The summer months in particular see a large amount of fishing, whale watching, and boat riding. In the winter months, both tourists and locals alike enjoy snowmobiling, dog sledding, ice fishing, and snowshoeing. Seal hunting also remains a big, time-honoured event among the Inuit residents. As well, Rigolet has a history of being home to artists and crafts people. Many of these local artists still use traditional materials such as skin and moose hide. Many also work in the long-standing forms of carving and grasswork.
Longest Boardwalk in North America
Rigolet is also home to the longest boardwalk in North America. In 2015, the last nail was driven into the over 8 kilometre boardwalk. The community hopes that tourists who visit Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve will be drawn to their community by the boardwalk. The wooden trail stretches a considerable swatch of gorgeous seaside coast. Users of the boardwalk have the opportunity to do incredible sightseeing. Extraordinary bird, seal, and whale-watching opportunities abound along the whole of the trail.
Not only that, but the boardwalk serves as a type of walking museum as well. There are many opportunities to old Inuit historical sites. Near the end of the boardwalk tourists can see three sod houses that have recently been excavated. Sod houses are just as they sound. These were traditional Inuit homes made out of sod and other natural materials found nearby. Remains of salmon fishing activities and other inhabited grounds are visible along the walk.
For those looking to be truly immersed in nature, this is the activity for you. There are several lookout points located on the way to the end of the boardwalk. These provide the perfect vantage point to overlook the town of Rigolet, as well as the marine wildlife. The remoteness of Rigolet means that the wilderness has been largely undisturbed, and allows for a practically solitary experience to take in the natural world.
History of Rigolet
Prehistory and Thule People
In the beginning, the region was populated with Labrador Inuit. The Labrador Inuit are descendants of the pre-historic Thule people, and as such they share certain aspects of their culture and language with Inuit in the more polar regions of Canada, as well as Inuit who reside in Alaska, Greenland, and some parts of Siberia. These Labrador Inuit began to expand into the Hamilton Inuit around 1600 AD. These early settlers spent their summers on the coast participating in fishing and other coastal sustenance activities. In the winter, people moved into the interior to hunt game and waterfowl.
The Thule people had a specialized whale-hunting adaptation that allowed them to compete with other groups. As a result of their successful whaling practices, the Thule people were able to set up permanent settlements. Moving from west to east over time, the Thule people eventually made their way to Labrador.
- Migration routes of Inuit peoples. Credit: WorldHistory (2015, May 24)
Besides being avid whale hunters, the Thule are defined by various technological innovations and art styles. Unique pottery, drag floats used in whaling, and dog sleds allowed the Thule to succeed both in mobility and long-term settlements. As the Thule moved West from present-day Alaska towards the East, they diversified their sustenance economy to further succeed. Seals, walrus, caribou. musk-ox, fish, and birds all became game important to the prosperity of the Thule.
This mobility came with a shift in large villages and communities to smaller group sizes. Seasonal rounds existed dependent on the game and hunting present. Winter houses were partially submerged below ground, with tunnel entrances and raised sleeping platforms. These houses were often covered in sod – much like the excavated houses seen on the boardwalk. In the summer, small skin tents were common.
The Hamilton Inlet where Rigolet is located has seen European contact with explorers and traders since the 18th century. In particular, Louis Fornel claimed the land near present Rigolet for France in 1743. He also was the one who established Rigolet’s first trading post. In 1763 the English took over the Labrador Coast; and as such European fisherman and whalers flooded the area and settled there.
The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) had its first trading post in Rigolet by 1836, and remained in the community until 1987. The HBC used this post for fur trading, and later expanded the post to include the salmon industry. The European families that came with the HBC were mostly from Scotland, Newfoundland, and Quebec. At this post, the HBC owned fishing gear that they kept in a building called the Netloft; they rented it out to families for 1/3 of the salmon catch. This Netloft building became so prominent in the shaping of the community, that it still stands in the town today as a refurbished heritage museum.
Labrador Inuit Association
In 1949, Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada. However, for the large Inuit population of the province, they would not be included in the terms outlined in the Indian Act, as it did not pertain to Inuit groups. This meant that the Indigenous people of the province were not subject to treaties or other means of formal federal engagement; for better or for worse. For the people of Rigolet this changed in the 1990s. The Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) – created to look after Inuit health and communities – filed a claim with the Canadian government for land rights in northern Labrador. The claims were settled in 1997. This gave the Labrador Inuit surface title to 16,000 km2 of land, and shared harvesting rights to approximately 44,000 km2. It also allowed for self-governance of their communities in the area.
After decades of land claims negotiations with the federal government, the Labrador Inuit became the first Inuit region in Canada to have self-government with the establishment of the Nunatsiavut Government in 2005. Of the five Inuit community governments in the Nunatsiavut Assembly, Rigolet is one of them. This government is responsible for the needs of their residents and can pass laws regarding education, health, and cultural affairs.
Land Claims, Development, and Current Issues
The LIA and the Nunatsiavut Government became even more important at the onset of the ongoing dispute over the construction of a damn at Muskrat Falls. From the onset, there has been a lack of proper environmental assessments, despite the fact that there will be a large impact to fish and game, as well as human populations, as the construction of this dam involved flooding a large area of land in Labrador.
The location of the desired construction is Muskrat Falls – an area about 40km upstream from Lake Melville, that is fed by the Churchill River. With the sandy beaches and plentiful forests and mountains surrounding the area, the shores on and around Lake Melville boast a population of around 10,000 people. These people are majorly concerned that the runoff from the dam will cause mercury pollution in the environment. This is of grave importance given the fact that the Inuit population of the area – and especially Rigolet in particular – rely heavily on the hunting and the fishing the area provides in order to survive. As well, this will worsen current water issues. Many Indigenous communities in Canada face water security problems. Boil water advisories are not uncommon.
Rigolet has taken initiative in solving these issues. They have brought in outside researchers from universities for both Muskrat falls and water concerns. As well, the community uses the media and broadcasting to bring their issues to the public. These actions will help serve as a guideline for future Inuit communities battling environmental and land claim disputes.
The Importance of Understanding Regional Geographies
In a place as rich in ecosystems and natural resources as Rigolet is, the idea of place and identity are bound to one another. This is true for the Inuit population in the community. They directly rely on what their region has to offer in order to live and prosper. Place and property are more important still to the Inuit as their culture, society, and livelihoods are based off of historical traditions that their ancestors developed and cultivated. The land is part of who they are, and in turn the Inuit people have been a long-standing part of what has defined this region of Canada.
The way one would define the geography of this area would not be the same – nor would it be complete – if the historical perspective was not examined. Examining only the current sustenance and economic activities of the Rigolet community of today does not do the region justice. Having in-depth knowledge as to why the community functions as it does cannot be achieved without understanding its history.
Additionally, since Canada is still a relatively young country, much of what is considered historical is inherently linked to present-day. The province of Newfoundland and Labrador was one of the last provinces to join the confederation; as such, the human geography of the area is still undergoing an adjustment to government and development. This is evident in the very recent settling of Inuit land claims and inclusion of Inuit people as Indigenous people under the constitution act.
Rigolet is a historical community found on Canada’s rugged east coast. Here, tradition merges with modernity to create the unique culture of its people. Rigolet is the southernmost officially recognized Inuit community in the world. In fact, only 5% of the town’s population is non-Inuit. The lush environment and distinct remoteness adds to the charm of the town. With a population of only 310, visiting Rigolet is the perfect chance to escape from all the hustle and bustle. Fishing and hunting are not only important economic activities, but also a way of life for the people here.
Festivals steeped in tradition bring vitality to the community, and are great tourist opportunities. However, tourism is not just limited to festivals. Whale-watching, birdwatching, fishing, and dog-sledding are huge draws for the community. Additionally, Rigolet honours their artisans – many of whom create using traditional methods and materials. Not to be forgotten is the town’s boardwalk – the longest in North America. Besides the wilderness experience the boardwalk provides, it’s also a chance to see the history of the region.
Rigolet has a long history. Pre-contact with Europeans, the decedents of the prehistoric Thule people populated the area. Avid whale hunters, their sod houses and technology allowed them great success. After European contact, the town was developed and became an important post for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Now an Inuit community with self-governing abilities, the community chooses to showcase and embrace their heritage. For those looking for an opportunity to experience both nature and history, Rigolet is the perfect choice.
Anne-marie Pederson. 2006. “Labrador Inuit (Labradormiut)”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/labrador-inuit
John Gushue. 2010. “Historic hydro pact signed between N.L., N.S.”. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/historic-hydro-pact-signed-between-n-l-n-s-1.883078
Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage. 2008. “Inuit Organizations and Land Claims”. http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/aboriginal/inuit-land-claims.php
Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage. 2004. “Hudson’s Bay Company Net Loft (Rigolet)”. http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/society/hudsons-bay-company-loft.php
Ossie Michelin. 2017. “The Mighty Fight for Muskrat Falls”. Briarpatch Magazine. https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/the-mighty-fight-for-muskrat-falls
Tourism Nunatsiavut. n.d. “Rigolet”. https://www.tourismnunatsiavut.com/home/rigolet.htm
W.F. Summers. 2010. “Newfoundland and Labrador”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/newfoundland-and-labrador