Lake Melville and the North Coast (By Boat)

Labrador's north coast is undergoing a tremendous change. For much of the past 250 years, European missionaries, fur traders and administrators have dominated the social and economic life of the North Coast, with the aspirations of the aboriginal peoples, the Inuit and Innu, pushed to the background no more. The establishment of aboriginal self-government and the settlement of land claims guarantee they have a major say in social and economic development. The creation of Torngat Mountains National Park, one of the outcomes of the land claims settlement, preserves an important spiritual component of the Inuit homeland.

Begin in Happy Valley-Goose Bay

Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the home port for the coastal shipping service along the rugged North Coast. Reservations for this trip must be made in advance, as only a limited number of berths are available. The vessel does not carry automobiles. It leaves Goose Bay on Monday and returns on Friday during the summer shipping season. You can also reach coastal Labrador by regularly scheduled air service or air charter.

The first stop is on the shores of Hamilton Inlet at Rigolet, a community with a long and continuing history of fur trapping and fishing. This small town was a fur trading centre, first for the French and later the English, starting in the 18th century. The Hudson Bay Company took over the post in 1836. Except for a brief period during World War II when this was the site of a Canadian Army Base, life has not changed here for two centuries. In fact, the Blakes, Olivers, Groves, Shepards and other families trace their arrival in Rigolet to before 1800 and can tell visitors how their ancestors lived. The town is also well-known for various craft items made from a special grass that grows in the area.

The boat then sails through Hamilton Inlet and heads for the north coast where the first stop is Makkovik. It was originally settled in the early part of the 19th century by a Norwegian fur trader, Torsten Andersen, and his Labrador wife, Mary Thomas. By 1896, the settlement had grown enough for the Moravian Missions to build a church complex that was in use until 1948. Life here has not changed significantly since it was founded. The people still fish and hunt and carry on many aspects of their traditional culture. At the retail outlet you will be able to purchase duffle parkas, mittens and slippers as well as bone jewellery, antler buttons and other fine examples of native crafts.

Hudson's Bay Company

Although it had been operating in Canada, trading furs since 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company didn't establish a trading post in Labrador until 1836. Prior to that, access to the area had been considered too difficult. The post established at North West River, and others built in subsequent years, had competition from other traders who had been in Labrador for decades. Over the years the company expanded from the Lake Melville area to posts along the Churchill River in the interior and north along the coast, where it was in competition with Moravian traders who held exclusive trade rights with the Inuit under an 18th-century deed from the British government.

In addition to furs, HBC canned salmon and trout and operated a small farm at North West River. By 1870, it had nine trading posts and had settled its differences with the Moravians by leaving the North Coast. HBC traders began to marry local women and settle down, something the company discouraged elsewhere, and by the 20th century some traders were acting as agents for the Newfoundland government. Their role in delivering relief to the poor, acting as justices of the peace or collecting customs duties were cited in the Labrador boundary dispute between Newfoundland and Canada, which was settled in Newfoundland's favour in 1927.

In the 1920s, the company leased and took over the trading stores that had been operated by the Moravians in Nain, Hopedale, Makkovik and Hebron, subsequently handing these over to the Newfoundland government during World War II when demand for furs declined. It retained a retail presence in the province, including fur trading by its Northern Stores division, into the 1980s when the company was sold and renamed. The entity now known as HBC operates three shopping malls in the province.

Head further North to Postville

Just North of Makkovik, at the head of Kaipokok Bay is Postville. While this small town began life as a fur trading post in 1843 and a Quebec merchant, D.R. Stewart, is listed as its first settler, people have been coming to Postville for thousands of years. The Dorset Eskimo, who lived along this coast almost 4,000 years ago, came here every spring to fish and hunt.

Further up the coast at Hopedale you can visit the Hopedale Mission National Historic Site, the oldest wooden frame building east of Quebec. This structure includes a church, a store, a residence for missionaries, a storehouse and several small huts that were used to house the visiting native people. It has stood on this site since 1782 when the Moravian Church was granted permission by the British Government to establish a mission in this remote community.

The Innu who lived at Davis Inlet since the 1960s moved to a completely new community 15 kilometres away on Sango Bay called Natuashish in 2003. After calling at Sango Bay, the boat heads for Voisey's Bay where a huge nickel deposit is being developed.

The northernmost community – and the last stop for the coastal boat – is Nain where a Moravian Mission was established in 1771. Craftsmen in this community are justifiably famous for their soapstone carvings.

Long-abandoned Hebron was once one of the most northerly communities on the north Labrador coast. A Moravian Mission station was constructed here from 1829 to 1831 but the main buildings were not inhabited until 1837. The station was abandoned in 1959 but, since that time, the structure has been stabilized. Visitors are invited to tour the Moravian Mission National Historic Site. You'll have to make arrangements with a local outfitter for a boat trip to Hebron or other northern areas.

The Moravians

The Moravian church traces its roots to central Europe in the mid-15th century. Persecuted like other Protestant groups in the 17th century, it found refuge in Germany and began missionary services in the New World around 1730. Three early attempts to bring Christianity to the Inuit of the northern Labrador coast between 1752 and 1765 failed, but in 1770 the British government granted them 100,000 acres of land and exclusive rights to trade with the Inuit. The British hoped the influence of religion would reduce hostility between the Inuit and settlers.

Conversions were few after a mission was established in Nain in 1771, but other mission stations were established along the coast throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, attesting to the church's growing influences during this period. The two-faceted enterprise of religion and trade was controversial almost from the beginning. The Moravians brought change to the Inuit, whether for good or ill. However, the missionaries, originally from Germany and, increasingly after 1918, British, learned and spoke Inuktitut, and translated European prayers and hymns into the aboriginal language. They also brought musical instruments to the coast, and rudimentary medical care. The tradition of brass bands in coastal schools remains to this day.

In the 20th century medical care was taken over by the Grenfell mission, and later by the provincial government. After World War I the German-speaking missionaries were gradually replaced by English speakers. The trade arm was separated from the missionary work and then sold to the Hudson's Bay Company. As transportation links improved and more outsiders moved into Labrador, diseases from which the Inuit had no resistance decimated the population. The influenza epidemic of 1918-19 killed one-third of Inuit along the coast. Like elsewhere, the role of the Moravian church declined, although a congregation was established in North West River as late as 1960. Today, the church's headquarters are in the United States.

A National Park unlike any other

If you love the wilderness, visit one of Canada's newest national parks. Torngat Mountains National Park occupies the very northern portion of Labrador, covering 9,600 square kilometres of mountain and tundra. This is a national park like no other. There are no campsites or communities nearby. This is wild, unspoiled country, so be advised this is not a place to visit on a whim.

Experienced trekkers who are used to days and weeks on their own in the wilderness will be attracted to this area of striking beauty. The park's headquarters are in Nain and you need a permit and a guide to travel here. There's a lot to see and do, including wildlife viewing of polar bears, caribou, peregrine falcons and golden eagles, plus hiking, climbing and kayaking. There are no campsites in the park. Just outside its boundaries a fenced compound is the staging area for expeditions into the park. It's surrounded by an electric fence to keep out the polar bears. Cruise ships visiting the area use Zodiacs to carry passengers ashore.