The Circumpolar Region is home to nearly 200,000 Inuit who share a similar culture in the four separate countries they inhabit; the Yupigeet in Siberia Russia, the Inupiat in Alaska and the Western Canadian Arctic, the Inuit of Canada, and the Kalallit of Greenland Denmark.
These people, indigenous to the coastal regions of Labrador, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), Nunavut, the Northwest Territories (including the Arctic archipelago) Canada; Greenland; Alaska and northeastern Siberia Russia; share ancestors as well as many cultural traits and form an entirely separate group from the Amerindian tribes. Each of these regions, however, has its own language: Yupik is spoken in northern Siberia and along the central Alaskan coast, Inupik from northern Alaska across Western Arctic Canada, Inuktitut in Eastern Canada, and Kalallissut in Greenland. All these stem from the same linguistic roots and are often mutually unintelligible.
The Inuit have been said to be of Mongolian origin, arriving into the North American continent from the Bering Sea over 3,000 years ago. Most typically have dark eyes, straight black hair, and darkish skin. Centuries of contact with non-Inuit has resulted in a small number of Inuit with mixed heritage. Inuit adapted remarkably to the cold climate of the arctic through their intelligence and resolve and their physical traits that are adapted to the arctic.
The Canadian Eastern Arctic Today
There are about 40,000 people living in the Canadian Eastern Arctic today. More than half (29,000) of these live in Nunavut Territory, with the balance split between Nunavik Northern Quebec (where 11,000 people inhabit a region one third of the entire province of Quebec, about the size of France) and Labrador (where 5,300 Inuit live along the northern coast).
In an area of 2.4 million square km (926,700 square miles) that makes for 60 square km (or 23.2 square miles) per person. 85% or so of all these people are Inuit, and here is another interesting statistic: 56% are under the age of 25! Traditionally, the Inuit lived in small groups of extended family members. Nowadays, Inuit communities range in size from just over 100 to over 7,000. Grise Fjord and Ivujivik have populations over 140, while Iqaluit has over 7,000 and climbing. Most of these communities were formed over 50 years ago, when government officials persuaded the Inuit to move into settlements so that their children could be near a school.
Inuit society has experienced a rapid progression of changes. A people who once lived semi-nomadic lives now live in settlements, always along coastal regions. Most of these changes were set in motion merely a generation ago. Remarkably, Inuit embrace the modern while retaining their valued traditions such as hunting for subsistence, the manufacture of traditional clothing, sharing, and their famous hospitality.
In the old days, hunting, fishing and trapping were virtually the only pursuits of the Inuit, although in the last few centuries the fur trade impacted hugely on the subsistence economy that Inuit experienced. For better or worse, the Inuit became an unwitting part of the world economy, initially through trade with whalers in the 18th century, and then through the trading posts that sprouted in the Arctic in search of furs. However, their new reliance on the fur trade was subject to the whims of the market. When the price of fox fur went down during the depression they lost one of their mainstays, and with the steep decline in the demand for seal fur in the 1960′s due to pressure from animal rights activists, the Inuit lost nearly all means of purchasing the manufactured goods they had become accustomed to having. By the 1950s the federal government had taken administrative control of their regions, building schools and sending teachers north to educate the Inuit.
At around the same time (early1950′s) there was a government program under which Inuit of Inukjuak and Pond Inlet were relocated to Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay. The social and cultural impacts of this were huge, with family members never having contact with those they left for many years afterwards. Their demand for compensation from the federal government was eventually answered, and it became possible for them to move back to their old communities. Many chose to remain in the communities that they helped forge, and so Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay remain two Inuit communities that have allowed Canada to claim its sovereignty in the High Arctic.
Another major impact on the Inuit way of life was the loss of sled dogs in great numbers in many of the Inuit communities. Entire dog-teams were killed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other government authorities in the 1950′s and the 1960′s, and many once-proud owners of sled dogs lost their autonomy and their means of transport. This legacy, once an issue of quiet shame, no longer hides silently and Inuit today are speaking openly about it and act upon it as well. An annual Inuit sled-dog race called Ivakkak was created in Nunavik to promote the return of the Inuit sled-dog and the tradition of tundra sledding. Inuit, young and old, are again proud owners of their own sled-dogs.
By the end of the 1960′s, the Inuit had come under the control of the remote Ottawa government – and had become the objects of what has been called ‘welfare state colonialism’. Nunavut, and the other regions of the northern Canada, rely on transfer payments from the federal government: Ottawa spends more than $28,000 for every man, woman and child in Nunavut and in the NWT, compared to $2,700 per capita in Newfoundland & Labrador.
Northern Politics Today
In response to the changes in their lives, and the subsequent political awareness that resulted, a wave of Inuit nationalism rose in the early 1970′s. In Alaska the Inupiat and other Inuit groups participated in negotiations as members of the Alaska Federation of Natives toward a treaty with the U.S. government. Kalallit in Greenland obtained Home rule Government within Denmark in 1979. The Yupigeet are members of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), where land claims are not part of the political agenda of Russia.
In Canada the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada was formed in 1971 to represent the Inuit at the national level. Today it is called Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which means Inuit United in Canada. Fair representation for the Inuit by Inuit in regional government, and to take part in the political progress, was a first step, and land claims for ancestral territories have all been addressed by regional groups of Inuit. Inuit created their own associations within their respectives regions such as the Northern Quebec Inuit Association (whose mandate was later replaced by Makivik Corporation), which concluded alongside the Crees of James Bay, the first modern treaty in 1975 called the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. This treaty exchanged aboriginal title for another set of rights defined in the Agreement, such as certain categories of land belonging collectively to the Inuit of Nunavik, maintaining aboriginal rights to hunting, fishing, and trapping, and the creation of Inuit directed administrative organizations such as the Kativik Regional Government. The creation of Nunavut, a new territory which covers the Baffin region as well as part of what used to be central NWT, was an historic event for the political development of Canada. The legislation creating the Nunavut territory, which took 20 years to negotiate and was finally ratified in 1999, includes a land claim agreement as well as a system of public government that represents all residents of Nunavut, be they Inuit or non-Inuit. As aboriginal people choosing to administer services through their municipalities or hamlets under central administration, Inuit also became taxpayers like all other citizens of Canada. In Labrador, Inuit recently concluded a land claim treaty as well, which created the Nunatsiavut Government, and an impacts and benefits agreement with the Voisy’s Bay mining development in their region. In general, the Inuit of Canada take part in the Canadian political systems in an active way.
Currently, Inuit projects aim at relieving and preventing poverty, resolving social problems prevailing in the communities, creating sustainable development and jobs, and promoting education. In Nunavik, the Kativik School Board is responsible for education since its creation in 1978, and teaches Inuktitut only during the first three years of schooling for children. In Nunavut, Arctic College was created in 1987 where Inuktitut language and cultural programs are developed at the post-secondary level. The development of tourism in the north is another current project through the promotion of the region as a tourist destination, with local people becoming involved as guides and outfitters.
Concern for the environment has taken on greater importance as well. In the Arctic, climate change became part of current dialogue years ago. Inuit have been observing later ice formation and earlier ice break-up both at sea and in fresh water systems in recent years. Rising temperatures and differences in ice formation have negatively impacted the success of Inuit subsistence harvesting due to changes in seasonal animal migration patterns. Moreover, these changes are undermining traditional knowledge of travel routes resulting in the very safety of hunters being compromised. Building foundations, roads and airstrips have been affected due to significant thawing of permafrost, resulting in severe damage and challenges for stabilizing current buildings and future construction. Finally the likely opening of the Northwest Passage will result in significant increases in shipping traffic with attendant political challenges related to sovereignty, socio-economic impacts due to a greater presence of southerners (at least seasonally), as well as environmental concerns over potential oil spills which would have catastrophic impacts on wildlife. It is therefore absolutely critical that sound management and policy decisions with adequate regulations are established to ensure the protection of fragile ecosystems and to ensure that Inuit are directly involved in the in the decision making process.
Beyond political autonomy and resolving or improving current situations, Inuit are also involved in creating businesses within their regions. Nunavut Tunngavik Inc (NTI), which is the birthright organization representing the Inuit of Nunavut, created Nunasi Corporation, and Makivik Corporation is the birthright organization representing the Inuit of Nunavik. These two corporations create businesses in their regions to help build the economy and to create as many jobs as possible for Inuit. Both deal in investments as well as the creation of subsidiary companies including airlines (Nunasi Helicopters, First Air and Air Inuit), construction services, cargo shipping, shrimp fishing, and joint ventures such as the PanArctic Inuit Logistics, which maintains the radar sites across the Canadian arctic.