Spotlight On Canada’s Inuit People

 By Anick-Marie – she has co-written a Lonely Planet guide on alternative travel techniques to be published this summer (in French). She volunteered several years for CouchSurfing.org and presented on Travelling Alone as a Woman at the RoadJunky Film Festival in Berlin. She keeps a blog, also in French, covering all types of hitchhiking (cars, boats, planes and trains), dumpster diving and other alternative means of living on the road. She’s been living a semi-nomadic lifestyle for over 9 years now and doesn’t plan to stop soon.

Canada’s Inuit People : Still Alive and Thriving

Nomadic nordic peoples have for a long time fascinated the “civilized world”, as we can’t seem to get our heads around a few things. First, how can they survive in such a harsh climatic and geologic environment ? And the second, past survival, how can they develop a thriving culture ? I was dazzled myself by the richness of their traditional knowledge, and in the spirit of curiosity and openness I soon discovered Canada’s inuit people. (singular=Inuk, plural=Inuit) while living in Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit.

Political landscape

Canada’s inuit people are grouped under a cultural entity called Inuit Nunaat, itself divided in four political division with distinct statuses and rights.

The Territory of Nunavut (created in 1999) is the most autonomous inuit area, with the land officially belonging to all native beneficiaries of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement. Its government is trying hard to make the best of all these political opportunities, although there is much criticism over how effective it is in tackling social issues. Next on the autonomy scale is its younger brother Nunatsiavut (created in 2005), an autonomous region within the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Although in this case the land doesn’t belong to the local Inuit, they are granted special rights over it and have implemented a form of self-government

The Nunavik region of Quebec’s province did try to gain more autonomy in 2011, but its resident rejected that option by referendum, probably because the current institutions were not trusted to ensure a proper transition and efficient management of the area. Finally, the Inuvialuit area is part of the Northwest Territories and its residents are also entitled to certain special rights.

Cultural Identity

Canadian inuit have had a chance over other native groups : their remoteness and the harshness of their environment preserved them from an early invasion by white settlers. This is not to say that they were not aware of white people : the romantic image of a blissful pre-contact state emerges more from the white discoverer’s fantasies since there are early traces of interaction not only with their native neighbors, but also with European whalers as early as the mid-16th century.

Traditionally, inuit are hunters and gatherers. Their lifestyle follows the cycle of the six seasons, each an ideal time for hunting certain species, due not only to migration patterns, but to the quality of the fur, thickness of the fat, reproductive capacity, etc. Depending on their geographical location, their targets are whale (especially bowhead and beluga), walrus, seal, caribou, polar bear, muskox, as well as various species of fish and birds. In the absence of woodland in a major part of their territory, it is notable that inuit would use bones, tendons and fur for most of their technological needs. Although they sometimes found driftwood.

Nowadays, hunting is often done using guns, although many traditional inuit tools are still in use : kakivak spear for fishing, ulu knife for cleaning the skins, igimak and unaaqharpoons, etc. In summer, inuit complement their diet by gathering berries of the tundra such as crowberry, cloudberry (also known as bakeapple), cranberrry and blueberry. Although they nowadays have access to a wide variety of Western foods, their high cost and dubious freshness makes them unreliable, and it is traditional country food that still ensures food security in most communities.

Anick in Canada's North

Anick in Canada’s North

Most inuit can be proud of speaking one of the very few native languages not to be facing a direct threat of extinction. Inuktitut is an official language of Nunavut and this ensures its teaching in schools. At the current time, it is possible for an Iqalummiut (resident of Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital) to go through elementary and middle school completely in Inuktitut, along with a functional learning of the English language. Some inuit dialects are still endangered, such as Innuinaqtun, although it is also an offical language of the territory.

This is a big improvement compared to the former Residential Schools system that prohibited any native language from being spoken by the pupils, aiming at turning all native children into “proper Canadians”. Current policies are now reverting the damages that over 50 years of cultural genocide have done to the language and the community, disconnecting more than a “generation” from its cultural roots. Many claim that this is now the reason, along with forced sedentarization, why inuits are facing so many serious social issues. The new generations are now faced with both the challenge of defining their identity in a changing global world, buth also recovering from a link almost severed with their past.

Contemporary Achievements

Despite these issues and challenges, the inuit are famous for their contemporary cultural flavour and acheivements. Famous throughout the world are their soapstone, serpentine and walrus ivory sculptures. Cape Dorset, on southern Baffin Island, is now famous for making high quality prints.

For their inner music market, inuit mix celtic riffs with country music sung in Inuktitut, but inuit are world famous for their skillful throatsinging, often presented as a women’s duel. Nowadays, artists such as Tanya Tagaq work with musicians from different cultural background to mix together amazing sounds and styles.

At the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, inuit culture was featured (sometimes even without their consent/approval), from the inukshuk Olympic Games logo to drum dancing, throat singing and contemporary dance performances. The community of Igloolik is today a nevralgic point of modern inuit culture, home of Isuma Productions (making movies with world-famous director Zacharias Kunuk) and Artcirq, Nunavut’s own circus. Indeed, inuit culture is still thriving!


Comments

  1. says

    What a great post ! I didn’t know about the creation of Nunatsiavut in 2005. This information comes in handy as I am planning a trip to Newfoundland this summer. Thanks for sharing. I also included your post in our ePaper paper.li/T_W_O/1326445527.

  2. says

    Indeed Laurence. That year, December was scaringly warm, but then the rest of winter was normal. School was canceled 3 times because of extreme cold (they cancel it when it goes below -53 windchill), though technically the real issue are blizzards – where low visibility mean you can get lost in the cold within meters of the road home… Otherwise, I didn’t use my Canada Goose (the big winter jacket on the pic) when it was warmer than -15 C. Cold is a reality but we do live with it up there :)

    • says

      I think most people don’t know that much about them, since the population up there is so small and tourism is not big. I am so grateful to Anick-Marie for sharing this great post with us!

  3. says

    Thank you for an insightful post! I envy your time in Iqaluit! I’ve spent this last year in Yellowknife, NWT (which i have fallen in love with, btw), but there really aren’t that many Inuit here. The majority are Dene. I need to go further north, but have no idea how to make that happen, because it’s SO expensive. Some day.. some how, i will make it happen though. I’m entirely intrigued by the Inuit and have been for a long time. They are one of the most unique human beings on the planet!

    • says

      That sounds really interesting Amber! I have always wanted to go to the territories and maybe just live and work there for a season or something…. one day! The culture of Canada’s north is so unique and can’t be found anywhere else… it’s a shame no one knows much about them or spend time to visit.

    • says

      Nakurmiik Amber ! I guess the easiest way to spend some (cheap/paid) time up there is to find a way to get paid for it : working for the government (Nunavut, Federal or local), doing a “run”, which means working intensively up there for a few weeks if you are technically specialized or one of the snack’s full-time slaves, etc. There is a lot of work in the North, after all.

      A friend of mind negociated with the airplane company to sell them a feature on arctic sealift boats, and convinced a sealift company to let him hitch a ride in exchange of the feature… So polish up your portfolio !

      I was planning a hitchhiking trip to Yellowknife from Montreal this winter, but it got cancelled because of personal life events. But I won’t abandon so easily – I’ll get there and see it myself too.

      If you are interested in Canada’s nordic/nomadic people, I shall recommend the following reading : Brody, Hugh. “The other side of Eden” (2001).

    • says

      Nakurmiik Amber ! I guess the easiest way to spend some (cheap/paid) time up there is to find a way to get paid for it : working for the government (Nunavut, Federal or local), doing a “run”, which means working intensively up there for a few weeks if you are technically specialized or one of the snack’s full-time slaves, etc. There is a lot of work in the North, after all.

      A friend of mind negociated with the airplane company to sell them a feature on arctic sealift boats, and convinced a sealift company to let him hitch a ride in exchange of the feature… So polish up your portfolio !

      I was planning a hitchhiking trip to Yellowknife from Montreal this winter, but it got cancelled because of personal life events. But I won’t abandon so easily – I’ll get there and see it myself too.

      If you are interested in Canada’s nordic/nomadic people, I shall recommend the following reading : Brody, Hugh. “The other side of Eden” (2001).

  4. says

    Nice Post!

    I would imagine this is one of the world’s untouched places, and yet so close to my home. I really want to spend some time up there.

    Thansk so much for this and the book recommendation.

    • says

      Your welcome Justin! I am the same as well…. Next time I am in Canada I am going to make a point of visiting some of the places that are more north

  5. says

    I’m also Canadian and have yet to visit my great white North. Cool to learn even more about the Inuit culture. One of my goals is to explore more of Canada the next time I visit home.

  6. says

    Hello! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this page to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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  1. […] week at Our Oyster, Anick-Marie was throwing a Spotlight On Canada’s Inuit People – a fantastically informative blog post that keeps adding more and more layers to the culture, […]

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