Welcome to Rigolet, Labrador:
a tiny northern community that’s using tourism to protect and celebrate its traditional culture while providing visitors with authentic Indigenous experiences
Inuit Nunangat is the four homelands of the Inuit stretching across the Canadian Arctic and Subarctic and comprises over one-third of the country’s landmass. Nunatsiavut, located in northern Labrador, is the only Inuit homeland in Atlantic Canada. There, the community of Rigolet is the southernmost Inuit community in the world. While this picturesque coastal town is challenged at times to bring visitors in, the 300 people who live here are working hard to ensure that those who make the journey won’t soon forget the experience.
If you come to Rigolet expecting flat Arctic tundra, you’re in for a surprise. Nestled between rolling hills and deep bays, the community is located where Labrador’s Lake Melville empties into the North Atlantic. Thick forests of black spruce, tamarack, birches, pines and poplars cover the hills beyond the horizon, only interrupted by cold waters and rocky outcrops. Although this land is vast and sparsely populated, it is far from empty. Inuit hunt, fish and gather throughout Nunatsiavut as their ancestors have done since time immemorial.
“When we have travelers who come here from all over Canada or abroad, one of the experiences that they want to involve themselves with is that connection with the people living here. Whether it’s through the Land or through the crafts or through the lifestyle, people love to learn about our life here,” explains Derrick Pottle.
Pottle, who has spent much of his life in the area surrounding Rigolet, is a man of many skills: carver, hunter, trapper and guide. “For most of us [in Rigolet], this is just second nature. People want to experience the things that we’ve been doing our whole lives. We share our knowledge and those skills to create a real authentic experience for them, and I think that is what attracts people here,” he explains.
He has guided visitors hunting for traditional animals like seal and polar bear, or taken them in his boat to family fishing spots that his ancestors have visited for hundreds of years. Sometimes he’ll perform a carving demonstration or even let the visitors try their hand at stone carving.
And then there are those who just want to go out on the Land. “Not everybody wants to participate in hunting or fishing,” says Pottle. “Some people just want to come and sit on a rock in the sun or see icebergs or whales or seals and experience the natural environment.”
From early July to late October, when the waters are free from ice, a ferry operates between the community and the larger town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, which is reachable by road and major Canadian airlines. Year-round, visitors fly into Rigolet on small 16-seater twin otter planes out of the Goose Bay airport. For the adventurous, groomed winter snowmobile trails link Rigolet to Goose Bay and other Nunatsiavut communities.
Though there are myriad transportation options, travel to, and within, Labrador can deter budget-conscious travelers. But for those looking for the authentic Inuit experience, Rigolet is among the most accessible options.
“It’s very expensive to travel here so we try our best to advertise and to bring our piece of heaven to the world,” says Pottle with pride. “We get one or two cruise ships each year, and everyone in the community participates in welcoming them, but there’s always room for more.”
The community, though small, has been working hard for recognition; Rigolet even beat out Atlantic City for having North America’s longest wooden boardwalk. The boardwalk trails along over eight kilometres of coastline where walkers can see minke whales and sea birds diving for shoals of fish as well as seals poking their heads above water and many other birds and animals that live along the shores. At the end of the boardwalk, at Double Mer Point, is an archeological dig of three traditional Inuit sod huts.
“The boardwalk started as a make-work project in the early 2000s, and …once we found out that we were getting close to the North American record, we decided to keep going,” explains Jennifer Michelin, Rigolet’s tourism manager. “With the archeological site at the end, it gives people something to look forward to and connect with.”
Since the era of glacial retreat, people have been coming to this area to take advantage of the rich plant and animal life. Rigolet has been a gathering point for camps to come together and pass the winter together. The ocean and inland waters freeze up every winter, but there are patches of water kept open by the current for much of the year, attracting animals and people alike. The area boasts a rich trove of archeological remains that have been attracting explorers and researchers from Canada and abroad for over a hundred years. It is not unusual to see research vessels, pleasure crafts, and local fishing boats moored at the community docks.
“We have a lot of archeological sites in the area around the community, and we are always having researchers and archeologists coming up each year,” Michelin explains. “People in town are always very curious about what they find there, and visitors really like to learn about [the archeological work] and our history too.”
The remains of the three sod huts are being excavated by researchers from Memorial University working with the local Inuit government. The three dwellings date back to the 17th century and researchers have found artifacts inside dating back to the time when Inuit and Europeans began to maintain steady contact with each other. A variety of Inuit and imported European goods have been found in the huts, including an Ottoman smoking pipe.
As new archeological treasures are discovered they are often brought to the Net Loft Museum, a former Hudson’s Bay fishing building, for residents to inspect and identify. One of the oldest structures in the community, the Net Loft preserves the community’s fishing and trapping heritage. Here you can find old pictures, record logs and some of the tools used in days gone by.
A little up the road from the Net Loft is the Lord Strathcona Interpretation Centre, named after Rigolet’s former Hudson’s Bay store manager Donald Smith. (Smith would later go on to become Lord Strathcona, who famously hammered the last spike into the Canadian Pacific Rail Road.) The Interpretation Centre is a recreation of Strathcona’s house and is filled with community history as well as records on community members’ contributions to the World Wars. John Shiwak, for example, was known as the best sharp shooter in his regiment.
Rigolet has two annual festivals where Inuit culture is on full display. The Salmon Festival, held each August, is a celebration of all things fishing and water-related and is capped with a community dance and salmon feast. The Tikigiaksaugusik Spring festival is home to winter games, a dance and a feast of wild country foods. Each year at this festival, dog teams from Rigolet and surrounding communities compete in the Levi Pottle Memorial Dog Team Race.
“It’s great to see that this tradition of raising dog teams is still alive and well here,” says Michelin. “There’s at least five teams being raised in town now, and there’s even a high school-aged student who is raising his first team and will be competing next year in the race!”
Inuit pride shines through the community’s youth as young people work to reclaim Inuit cultural traditions like raising dog teams, performing drum dancing, throat singing and speaking Inuktitut. When visitors come to the community they are often greeted by young people demonstrating their traditional talents for the world.
Michelin notes that while they are eager to welcome first-time visitors to Rigolet, more importantly “we also want them to come back. We want them to tell everyone they know about us. We want them to recommend it to their friends and bring people with them when they come back. It gives us a great sense of pride when it happens.”
It has been reported that Nunatsiavut has the highest number of artists and craft producers in the province, and for a province like Newfoundland and Labrador that’s known for its creativity, that is no small feat. About a third of the community’s 300 residents participate in crafting or arts.
Alongside the dock, ready to greet visitors arriving by boat and ship, is Rigolet’s craft shop. Whenever a tour boat or cruise ship arrives, no matter the hour, the shop opens for business. There, in addition to Inuit carvings and prints, you’ll find a diverse array of clothing, jewelry, and textile art.
Rigolet is particularly renowned for its unique sewn grasswork, made up of tightly-wound coils of sea grass. Artisans traditionally made grass mats and baskets but have now expanded into making grass-sewn earrings, broaches, and jewelry. Throughout the year, the Nunatsiavut government holds workshops for residents to learn how to harvest, store and sew grass.
“We focus on the grasswork, because it is our specialty here in Rigolet more than anywhere else, and visitors love to learn the history and see that we are still doing this tradition,” explains Inez Shiwak, a local crafter. “We’ve gotten to the point now where we realize tourists are looking for little things they can easily take back with them. …We’ve learned tips like this over the years, and we try to pass it on to the other craft shops in the other [Nunatsiavut] communities.”
Inez explains that each item in the craft shop is unique, handmade and comes with a story—from an Elder learning to knit socks from his wife, to grassworkers experimenting with new designs—every item comes with a personal touch. “People love hearing those stories. It makes them more excited (about our heritage) and they love to buy things from the craft store.”
It’s a good time for crafters in Nunatsiavut, says Inez. Recently, several craftspeople had their work featured in a national touring exhibition called SakKijâjuk. The national exposure has inspired crafters like Inez to find new and interesting ways to reinterpret traditional skills that were once used for survival into expressive and creative art forms.
“People are experimenting with different techniques, the stuff I make is not the same as my mum makes, everybody is trying to be different,” explains Inez. “For me it’s making the bracelets and the flowers and the wall hangings using dyed sealskins. People are expanding into new ideas to add to the market or to appeal to a new market with what they’re selling.”
Rigolet may be small in size, but this little community offers an unforgettable and authentic cultural experience. People here hope that the beauty of the Land and the richness of the Inuit culture will attract visitors from near and far—and that their warmth and hospitality will keep them coming back.
See Rigolet from a “Bird’s Eye View” with drone videos by Eldred Allen: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIiWnUIE12SCfi-yH0ywagg