Charles Gimpel and the Canadian Arctic: 1958–1968

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Miranda Virginillo

Charles Gimpel was an English photographer and art collector who travelled in the Canadian Arctic many times between 1958 and 1968, capturing moments of Inuit life. In 1958, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) funded Gimpel’s trip from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba, and to various ports around the Foxe Basin and northern Hudson Bay. In return, the HBC received photographs of their stores and the products in use in Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), Igluligaarjuk (Chesterfield Inlet), Pangnirtung and other locations. The Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources Canada funded subsequent trips to the Arctic, in varying degrees. Gimpel’s patrons largely determined his activities in what was then part of the Northwest Territories (present-day Nunavut). Gimpel’s correspondence, articles, journals, notebooks and large number of slides in the Charles Gimpel fonds chronicle the beginning of an era of artistic production in the Canadian Arctic. The notebooks from his first trip in 1958 are particularly specific about his activities and demonstrate who and what would influence the rest of his career. Gimpel’s notebooks and photographs detail the places he travelled, the people he encountered and the conversations he had with them.

Colour photograph of an Inuk man, Kove, and Charles Gimpel dressed in brown-and-white fur parkas. The photo is very hazy because of a snowstorm.

Charles Gimpel (right), whose Inuit nickname was Ukjuk, with friend and guide Kove in a snowstorm near Inuksugalait (Inuksuk Point, Enukso Point), possibly Kinngait (Cape Dorset), May 1968 (e011212607)

My job as a Carleton University practicum student was to record the details of the places where Gimpel went and the people he met during his travels, to decipher his notebooks written in a personal shorthand, and to determine the location of a hand-drawn map. The first task was no small feat. The trip between Winnipeg and Churchill took five days by train, and Gimpel was interested in the stories of everyone he encountered on the journey. During his first trip alone, Gimpel recorded varying levels of information for approximately 40 named people, and for many more who were unidentified.

In deciphering Gimpel’s notebooks, the code followed the same pattern throughout: date, location, film conditions, subjects and, noted later, the four-digit identifier for the film roll in his collection. For example, “6241” indicated roll 41, taken in 1962.

The map refers to an arrangement of inuksuit (plural for inuksuk) at Inuksugalait (Inuksuk Point, Enukso Point). Inuksuit are cairns to mark a place for others or oneself. They serve many purposes, from being navigational aids to communicating good fishing spots or food caches. Gimpel recorded the height of each inuksuk and the distances between them, measured in feet. He also laid “claim” to the inuksuit by naming them after his friends and companions. The shorter inuksuit were named after children he had met on his trip: Nuvuolia (Nuvuoliak, Nuvoalia) and his adopted brother Irhalook, and Kove’s son Iali. The larger inuksuit were named after his interpreters, Pingwartok and Johanessie, and the sculptor Tunu. Gimpel even went so far as to give one inuksuk his own Inuit nickname, Ukjuk, which means bearded seal.

Hand-drawn map on white paper in a spiral notebook. The map consists of red circles with black lines between them, names of the inuksuit, numbers in brackets and a compass indicating East, South, West and North.

Map of inuksuit at Inuksuk Point, page 10 of document, 1964 (e011307430)

At the end of his 1958 journal, Gimpel recorded his meeting with James (Jim) Houston. This introduction solidified Gimpel’s interest in the Canadian Arctic for the rest of his life. Over the next decade, both men coordinated their efforts with Terry Ryan of the West Baffin Island Eskimo Cooperative (WBIEC) and the heads of other co-operatives in the Arctic to help develop this source of income for Inuit. Gimpel provided international venues, including the Gimpel Fils art gallery in London, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Bezalel National Museum in Jerusalem, with art from Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) and nearby camps. Photographs from his 1964 and 1968 trips capture stone carvers at work in Iqaluit and at the WBIEC.

A colour photograph of an Inuk man wearing a dark jacket and cap as he carves white statues.

Henry Evaluardjuk carving, Iqaluit, April 1964 (e011212063)

A colour photograph of an Inuk man sitting behind a stone sculpture with his tools in front of it.

Unidentified sculptor, Iqaluit, April 1964 (e011212065)

Gimpel’s trips were taken at a time when many people from southern Canada and abroad were discovering the unique Inuit art and culture. His journals and the photographs he took during his trips to the Arctic are now available online. The Rosemary Gilliat Eaton fonds, the James Houston fonds and the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council series in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds also reflect this pivotal time in history.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Miranda Virginillo, from the School of Art and Culture at Carleton University, is an undergraduate practicum student in the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.