The region now known as Nunavut has supported a continuous population for approximately 4000 years. Most historians also identify the coast of Baffin Island with the Helluland described in Norse sagas, so it is possible that the inhabitants of the region had occasional contact with Norse sailors.
In September 2008, Patricia Sutherland, who worked at the Canadian Museum of Civilization until she was fired in 2012, reported on the evaluation of existing and newly excavated archaeological remains, including yarn / thin cordage / string spun from a hare, rats, tally sticks, a carved wooden face mask depicting Caucasian features, and some "unusual" architecture. The materials were collected in five seasons of excavation at Cape Banfield. Scholars have determined these are evidence of European traders and possibly settlers on Baffin Island not later than 1000 CE. Radiocarbon dating of the yarn / cordage predates the Norse by several hundred years. In 986, Erik the Red led the settlement of Greenland, so Sutherland is suggesting contact hundreds of years before what is commonly accepted. They seem to indicate prolonged contact, possibly up to 1450. The origin of the Old World contact is unclear and controversial; the article states: "Dating of some yarn and other artifacts, presumed to be left by Vikings on Baffin Island, have produced an age that predates the Vikings by several hundred years. So [...] you have to consider the possibility that as remote as it may seem, these finds may represent evidence of contact with Europeans prior to the Vikings' arrival in Greenland."
In 2018, Michele Hayeur Smith of Brown University, who specializes in the study of ancient textiles, wrote that she does not think the ancient Arctic people, the Dorset and Thule, needed to be taught how to spin yarn "It's a pretty intuitive thing to do." In 1992, Elizabeth Wayland Barber wrote that a piece of three-ply yarn that dates to the Paleolithic era, that ended about 10,000 BP, was found at the Lascaux caves in France. This yarn consisted of three s-twist strands that were z-plied, much like the way yarn is made now. The eight sod buildings and artifacts found in the 1960s at L'Anse aux Meadows, located on the northern tip of Newfoundland, remains the only confirmed Norse site in North America outside of those found in Greenland.
The written historical accounts of Nunavut begin in 1576, with an account by an English explorer. Martin Frobisher, while leading an expedition to find the Northwest Passage, thought he had discovered gold ore around the body of water now known as Frobisher Bay on the coast of Baffin Island. The ore turned out to be worthless, but Frobisher made the first recorded European contact with the Inuit. Other explorers in search of the elusive Northwest Passage followed in the 17th century, including Henry Hudson, William Baffin and Robert Bylot.
Cornwallis and Ellesmere Islands feature in the history of the Cold War in the 1950s. Efforts to assert sovereignty in the High Arctic during the Cold War, i.e. the area's strategic geopolitical position, were part of the reason the federal government decided to forcibly relocate Inuit from northern Quebec to Resolute and Grise Fiord. The first group of people were relocated in 1953 from Inukjuak, Quebec (then known as Port Harrison ) and from Pond Inlet, Nunavut. They were promised homes and game to hunt, but the relocated people discovered no buildings and very little familiar wildlife. They also had to endure weeks of 24-hour darkness during the winter, and 24-hour sunlight during the summer, something that does not occur in northern Quebec. They were told that they would be returned home after a year if they wished, but this offer was later withdrawn as it would damage Canada's claims to sovereignty in the area and the Inuit were forced to stay. Eventually, the Inuit learned the local beluga whale migration routes and were able to survive in the area, hunting over a range of 18,000 km² (6,950 mi²) each year.
In 1993, the Canadian government held hearings to investigate the relocation program. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued a report entitled The High Arctic Relocation: A Report on the 1953-55 Relocation. The government paid $10 million CAD to the survivors and their families, but as of 2007 has yet to apologize.
The whole story is told in Melanie McGrath's The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic.
Leading up to the 1970s, there was some discussion of splitting the Northwest Territories into two separate jurisdictions in order to better reflect the demographic character of the territory. In 1966, a public commission of inquiry on Northwest Territories government reported, recommending against division of the Northwest Territories at the time.
In 1976 as part of the land claims negotiations between the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (then called the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada) and the federal government, the division of the Northwest Territories was discussed. On April 14, 1982, a plebiscite on division was held throughout the Northwest Territories with a majority of the residents voting in favour and the federal government gave a conditional agreement seven months later. The land claims agreement was decided in September 1992 and ratified by nearly 85% of the voters in Nunavut in a referendum. On July 9, 1993, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act and the Nunavut Act were passed by the Canadian Parliament, and the transition was completed on April 1, 1999.
On the program, host Carol Off interviewed Dr. Sutherland […] Off asked Dr. Sutherland whether she might have been fired from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (which was renamed the Canadian Museum of History last year) because her research was out of step with government views of Canadian history. Sutherland agreed […]
… Michele Hayeur Smith of Brown University in Rhode Island, lead author of a recent paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Hayeur Smith and her colleagues were looking at scraps of yarn, perhaps used to hang amulets or decorate clothing, from ancient sites on Baffin Island and the Ungava Peninsula. The idea that you would have to learn to spin something from another culture was a bit ludicrous," she said. "It's a pretty intuitive thing to do.
Whitcomb, Dr. Ed. A Short History of the Canadian North. Ottawa. From Sea To Sea Enterprises, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9865967-2-8. 62 pp.