Northern life and Inuit culture

Northern life and Inuit culture

Who are the Inuits?

Who are the Inuits ?

The Inuit are the aboriginal inhabitants of the North American Arctic, from Bering Strait to East Greenland, a distance of over 6000 kilometres. As well as Arctic Canada, Inuit also live in northern Alaska and Greenland, and have close relatives in Russia. They are united by a common cultural heritage and a common language. Until recently, outsiders called the Inuit "Eskimo." Now they prefer their own term, "Inuit," meaning simply "people." There are about 40,000 Inuit in Canada.

Inuit Origins

According to archaeological research, the origins of the Inuit lie in north-western Alaska. These first Alaskan Inuit lived on the seacoast and tundra, where they hunted seals, walrus, whales, and caribou. They lived in houses made of driftwood and sod, and almost certainly spoke an early version of the Inuit language, Inuktitut. They and their ancestors were the first Arctic people to become expert at hunting the larger sea mammals, such as the bowhead whale. The large volume of food that resulted from a successful hunt—even a small whale could weigh seven tonnes-meant that their way of life was richer and more secure than that of many other hunting people.

The Inuit Move East

Beginning about a thousand years ago, these early Inuit began to spread east into Arctic Canada. Within a few hundred years, they had replaced the earlier inhabitants of the region, a now-extinct people known to the Inuit as Tunit. This Inuit migration was not a single mass event, but probably involved dozens of small parties of perhaps 20 or 30 people moving east in search of a better life.

A particular goal seems to have been the rich whaling grounds around Baffin and Somerset islands. Here they quickly replicated the large whaling villages and prosperous way of life they had left behind in Alaska. Other groups settled in coastal areas without rich whale resources, where they lived in smaller villages and depended primarily upon seals, caribou and fish. Everywhere they went, Inuit pioneers brought with them the heavy sod winter houses and elaborate hunting technology of their Alaskan ancestors.

The Inuit and the Vikings

By about AD1250, the first Inuit had entered Greenland through the Smith Sound area in the far northwest of the island. Here, possibly on the Canadian side, they first encountered medieval Norse ("Viking") hunters coming from the Norse colonies in southwest Greenland founded by Eric the Red. Eventually these Norse colonies disappeared, probably in the mid 1400s. There are different theories about their disappearance, but a deteriorating climate was one reason. Competition with the Inuit, who were far better adapted to Arctic life than the Norse, might also have been a factor. By the time of later European exploration in the 16th century, the Inuit were in sole possession of the entire North American Arctic.

A Colder Climate

The same worsening climate that spelled the end of the Norse colonies in Greenland also put severe strains on the Inuit economy. After about 1300, temperatures became progressively colder culminating in a so-called Little Ice Age around 1500. Rich and important whaling areas in the High Arctic were abandoned and people shifted southward.

Bowhead whaling as the focus of Inuit life disappeared from most of Canada and Greenland (although not Alaska). Life generally became harder and more hand-to-mouth. People moved their camps and villages more frequently, and, in many areas, the old sod and whalebone winter house was abandoned in favour of houses made of blocks of snow. They were easier to build as they could be put up anywhere, even on the sea ice, and required only an hour or two to construct.

Contact with Explorers

Contact with European explorers also brought changes. Between the voyages of Martin Frobisher in the 1570s and the search for the missing Franklin expedition in the 1850s, dozens of expeditions to the Arctic set sail, usually from England. Most of them were in search of a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

At first, Europeans did not see the Arctic as a place of value in itself, but as an obstacle blocking their way to the fortunes beyond. During their journeys through the North, European explorers often met Inuit. Few Europeans were unprejudiced enough to think they had anything to learn from the Inuit, but they did trade and exchange gifts. The Inuit began to learn about the outside world and to appreciate what it had to offer. The Europeans brought them iron, which they valued for making tools such as harpoon points and knife blades.

The Whalers

In the 1850s, Europeans and Americans began to appreciate the commercial value of the Arctic's animal resources. The North Atlantic commercial whaling industry, operating out of Britain and New England, began large-scale operations in what are now Canadian waters, where they killed thousands of whales. They hired hundreds of Inuit to work on their ships as hunters and seamstresses. A huge range and quantity of manufactured goods entered Inuit society, everything from rifles and tent canvas to whale boats and flour.

At the same time, the Pacific whalers, based in San Francisco, were expanding north through Bering Strait and then east along the Alaskan coast to the Mackenzie River. By 1890, they were well established at Herschel Island. Because of the much longer distances involved, the Pacific whalers routinely stayed over for the winter. The crews of up to 15 ships in a season became involved in local Inuit life.


In addition to manufactured goods, the whalers brought infectious diseases. The Inuit had no natural immunities to these diseases and hundreds, even thousands, died. The population of the western Canadian Arctic Inuit (called Inuvialuit) fell from an estimated 2000 to 2500 people in 1850, to 150 people in 1910.

In the East, the effects of disease were more sporadic. One local group, the Sadlirmiut of Southampton Island, disappeared entirely during the winter of 1902-03. They caught dysentery, a severe disease, from sailors on the Scottish whaling ship Active


The Hudson's Bay Company, the Police, and the Church

By 1905, the whaling industry was dying as Arctic whale stocks almost completely collapsed. In addition, new inventions, such as a synthetic substitute for baleen, caused whalers to turn to other livelihoods, including the fur trade. The Hudson's Bay Company and other trading concerns also began to take an active interest in the northern fur trade. In the ten years after the First World War (1914-1918), the commercial fur trade moved north to encompass the entire Arctic. With the fur trade came the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

By 1925, the Inuit had become subjects if not quite citizens of the Canadian state. Under the missionaries, many traditional beliefs and practices of the Inuit disappeared or went underground. The Inuit lost power over their own lives in the early twentieth century. Many slipped into deep poverty because of fluctuations in fur prices set in distant London or New York.


It was not until after the Second World War (1939-45) that the Canadian government began to take an active interest in Inuit welfare. After hearing reports of widespread misery and even starvation, the government began to actively encourage people to give up their nomadic or wandering way of life. They encouraged permanent settlements because it seemed to be the easiest and least expensive way of administering social welfare.

Government services and facilities were greatly expanded within these new settlements. Cheap housing was made available, and schools, medical facilities, airports, and modern stores were built. New "micro-urban" communities sprang into being. A population once spread thinly across an immense landscape was now concentrated in a small number of communities. By the mid 1960s, nearly all Inuit in Canada lived in these new settlements. It was a far from ideal solution. No longer living on the land, the Inuit became more and more dependent on social assistance. Job opportunities were very limited. The Inuit became almost entirely dependent on the larger outside society.

Democracy Comes to the Arctic

Democracy came late to the Arctic. Beginning in 1966, the federal government in Ottawa created federal electoral constituencies in parts of the Northwest Territories. In 1967, a resident Commissioner of the Northwest Territories was appointed and many federal programs were transferred to the new territorial government. By the late 1970s, the territorial government had become an elected, representative body.

The Creation of Nunavut

The battle for Inuit self-government dates to at least the 1960s, when "Eskimo Co-ops" were established in most Arctic settlements. The Co-ops helped the Inuit keep control of their art sales. They also provided competition to the Hudson's Bay Company, and thus helped keep fur prices up and the cost of merchandise down.

An important step toward self-government was taken in 1971, with the founding of the Inuit Brotherhood, now called Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. In 1976, the Inuit proposed the creation of a new territory to be called Nunavut ("our land"). The new Nunavut would be made up of the central and eastern portions of the Northwest Territories and it would represent a majority of Inuit citizens. The Nunavut proposal also included a comprehensive land claim. In 1982, a plebiscite, or vote of the people, supported the Nunavut Proposal, and, in 1992, an Agreement in Principle was supported by 85 percent of Inuit voters. In May 1993, the Nunavut Final Agreement was signed, and the new territory of Nunavut was proclaimed on April 1, 1999.

Other Paths Towards Self-Government

Inuit living outside of Nunavut have chosen different political paths. The Inuvialuit, people who live along the Arctic coast in the western Northwest Territories, have long felt distinct from the eastern Arctic Inuit. They had access to the rich oil and gas reserves of the Beaufort Sea. They wished to negotiate their own land claim and did so under the Committee for Original Peoples' Entitlement (COPE). In 1984, they signed the Inuvialuit Final Agreement with the federal and territorial governments. It established the Inuvialuit Settlement Region encompassing much of the western Arctic.

Earlier, in 1975, the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, now the Makivik Corporation, signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, establishing Inuit land ownership and other rights in Arctic Quebec. Both the Northern Quebec and Inuvialuit agreements are comprehensive land claims only. They are not as broad or sweeping as the Nunavut claim, which includes the establishment of a public, territorial government.

The Future

At the dawn of the 21st century, the Inuit of Canada have made important political gains. They now collectively own much of the Arctic outright, and enjoy considerable political power within their territories. The creation of Nunavut, in particular, underlines the important role the Inuit now play in Canada. However, fundamental difficulties remain. Economically the Arctic is still underdeveloped. Employment opportunities are few and jobs are often menial. Few people have the formal education or skills necessary for today's highly technical global economy.

Many look to a growing tourist industry for prosperity, but it is only a partial solution. Mining and other forms of resource extraction are growing sectors of the economy, especially now that land claims are settled. In the Inuvialuit area, the development of gas reserves in the Beaufort Sea and plans for a western pipeline may help fuel economic growth. In Nunavut, diamond, gold and heavy metal mines offer employment opportunities as well as revenues. However, as many realize, an economy based on raw materials is highly vulnerable to price fluctuations and to environmental problems such as heavy metal pollution (from mining) and the environmental destruction caused by road and pipeline construction.

Fortunately, the Inuit have a young and vibrant population and a long tradition of overcoming impossible obstacles. Their goals are to preserve the core of their culture and to achieve a decent standard of living for themselves and their children. Their history of strength and survival suggests that they will succeed.