Summary: Incorporated in 1959, the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative (WBEC) was the first Inuit-owned Co-operative to be formed with start-up assistance from the Canadian federal government. Over the next five years, 20 Co-ops were established across the Northwest Territories, from Cape Dorset in the east to Holman Island in the west. Today, there are 35. These community Co-ops were established to provide income, employment and services to their growing communities.
The Co-operative is known locally as Kinngait Co-operative. The word kinngait (pronounced “king – ite”) describes the high, undulating hills surrounding the community of Cape Dorset. Collectively, the Co-op’s world-renowned graphic arts studios are recognized as the Kinngait Studios.
The West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative is wholly owned by its membership, representing the majority of the adult population of the community. All members are residents of Cape Dorset and almost all are of Inuit descent.
WBEC is unique among Co-operatives in the Arctic for its sustained focus on the arts and artists of the community. Arts activities fall under the umbrella of the Producer Division of the Co-op, which includes two fine art printmaking studios in Cape Dorset for stonecut and lithography, and the carving buying operation. The Co-op also operates a retail grocery and supply store. Established in 1960, the store has expanded to keep pace with the growing community and now serves as its Home Hardware and Yamaha snowmobile dealership. The Consumer Division also administers several community service contracts, providing essential services such as the local delivery of heating fuel and gasoline. The Co-op’s most enduring contribution however, to both the community of Cape Dorset and the world beyond has been the prints and carvings produced by its extraordinary stable of artist members.