Fireworks lit up the midnight sky over Iqaluit on April 1st, 1999 to kick off a long weekend of festivities throughout Canada’s newest territory. The founding of Nunavut is a milestone in Canadian history that was welcomed with celebrations of Inuit culture across the country—and even in outer space.
Two months after the territory’s new flag was raised above Nunavut’s legislative assembly for the first time, it soared hundreds of kilometres over the Earth aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Astronaut and future Governor General Julie Payette brought the memento back down from orbit and returned it to the people of Nunavut. It now rests inside the Legislative Assembly Building in Iqaluit.
Elsewhere, Canada Post marked the creation of 27,000 new mailing addresses by printing seven million commemorative stamps (inset). Designed by Bonne Zabolotney and featuring an illustration by Musqueam artist Susan Point, the stamp colourfully depicts the smiling faces of several Inuit children across a vast horizon—a symbolic portrayal of the territory’s bright future.
Most Canadians probably remember the Nunavut toonie. It was the first ever commemorative edition of the two-dollar coin, itself a new addition to Canadian culture having just replaced the two-dollar bill three years prior. Every 1999 toonie released into general circulation replaced the standard polar bear relief with a dancing Inuit drummer. Inside the drum was an outline of Nunavut, and a qulliq (oil lamp) to light the way forward.
Celebrated artist Germaine Arnaktauyok created the illustration. Born near Igloolik in 1946, Arnaktauyok studied fine art at the University of Manitoba. Her etchings, lithographs and illustrations depicting Inuit mythology and culture have brought her international acclaim. But it’s that humble toonie that’s likely her most recognized work—even if you didn’t know the name behind it.
“I was thinking that if you play drums, you can hear them far away,” Arnaktauyok says, two decades after the coin’s release. “Maybe other countries, or even in America, they would listen to what they had to say in Nunavut.”
She wanted the drumbeat to reverberate across the country so that Nunavut’s creation story could inspire other Indigenous peoples.
Arnaktauyok hopes that drumbeat is still heard 20 years later. “I’m hoping that we have a voice, even though we’re so small.”
This year, the Royal Canadian Mint is issuing another commemorative coin to mark Nunavut’s 20th birthday. The collectible—it won’t be released into general circulation—is part of a series called “Symbols of the North” that uses gold extracted from Nunavut mines and depicts Arctic wildlife such as a walrus, ptarmigan, polar bear and narwhal as illustrated by Pangnirtung artist Andrew Qappik.