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Inuit of Nunavut - Canada

The Inuit of Nunavut Canada

Nunavut , which means ‘our land’ in the Inuit language of Inuktitut, is Canada’s largest and newest province. It covers a vast area of almost 2 million square kilometres. To give this a geographical perspective, Nunavut is about the same size as the whole of Western Europe with a population of only 29,000 people, eighty per cent of whom are native Inuit. The Province of Nunavut came into existance on 1 st April 1999 Nunavut with Paul Okalik becoming its first premier. A parliament was built in the capital, Iqaluit (place of fishes) on Baffin Island to house the 19 member legislative assembly that governs Nunavut regions and its 26 communities


The earliest ancestors of today’s Inuit first settled in Nunavut around 4,000 years. They were hunter gatherers, who survived off caribou, musk ox, seals, walrus and polar bears that the land and seas around Nunavut could provide. In the 13th Century the Thule culture arrived and today’s Inuit are their direct descendants.

The first recorded contact with Europeans was in 1576 when Martin Frobisher, landed on the coast of Baffin Island. Over the next 200 years other explorers including Henry Hudson (1610), John Ross (1818), William Parry (1819) and John Franklin (1845) visited the Nunavut region, all of them were searching for the same thing, the elusive Northwest Passage, which was thought to be an important trade route to the orient.

Early Whaling in the Arctic
In the 19th Century the whalers followed the explorers into Nunavut in their search for bowhead whales. The whalers had a great impact on Inuit and trading with them gave the Inuit access to a whole new range of technology including guns, tools, metal and wooden boats. By the end of the 19th Century the stocks of bowhead whales had been decimated and the fur traders arrived. The famous Hudson Bay Company opened its first trading post on Baffin Island in 1913 keen to buy fox pelts from the Inuit. When the market for fox fur also declined the traders turned to sealskins. Alongside the traders came the missionaries, with both Catholics and Anglicans competing with each other to convert the Inuit to Christianity.

By the middle of the 20th Century most Inuit in Nunavut were still leading a semi nomadic existence living in scattered camps and small settlements. Their permanent dwellings were turf houses and they also used Igloos in winter and skin tents in summer. In the 1950s Canada’s Federal Government decided to move the Inuit into purpose built settlements. Villages sprung up all over Nunavut and the lives of the Inuit changed dramatically. Suddenly they found themselves living in wooden bungalows where heat and light came with the flick of a switch, their children went to school, and starvation became a thing of the past.


About 70% of the Inuit of Nunavut speak their own language called Inuktitut which has numerous dialects. It is a language that is unrelated to any other and is a common language spoken by Inuit from Alaska to Greenland. The name ‘Inuit’ in their language means ‘man’ and it is the name they call themselves. The written form is called Syllabics and was developed for the Swampy Cree by James Evans around 1840, in 1876 Edmund Peck first started adapting this writing style for the Inuit of Great Whale River.

Daily Life

Igloo at Night
Traditionally, the Inuit of Nunavut were hunter gathers. They hunted sea mammals, seals, walrus, whales, as well as land mammals like caribou, arctic hares and birds. They also fished, primarily for arctic char. Each community developed its own seasonal cycle with hunters going to different areas to hunt different animals at the optimum time each year.

Up until the early nineteen eighties, many Inuit families in Nunavut still lived by hunting, fishing and trapping and they relied on selling seal skins for money. When, as a response to Canada’s Harp Seal cull, the United States Government and the European Economic Community banned all seal products from its markets in 1982 the price of sealskins totally collapsed forcing many Inuit families into a life of welfare. Despite this, hunting is still remains an important part of Inuit culture and the traditional way of sharing food amongst family and friends continues. Being a hunter nowadays is expensive, it involves owning snowmobiles, boats, rifles, as well as buying ammunition and petrol. It’s ironic that it is now mainly the Inuit with jobs that can afford to hunt and they usually don’t have the time, so hunting has increasingly become more of a part time occupation, carried out during evenings, weekends & holidays.

The major employer in Nunavut is the government with most of the jobs being in community support. Some Inuit also are able to earn an income from producing Inuit art. There is a steady market for the soapstone carvings and limited edition prints that have been produced there since the 1950s. Communities like Cape Dorset and Pangnirtung on Baffin Island have become famous. Some of Individual artists like Kenoujuaq Ashevak and Kananginak Pootoogook have become internationally famous and their work has been exhibited all over the world.


The traditional food of the Inuit was predominately meat and fish. It was a high protein and very high fat diet with three quarters of their daily energy intake coming from fat. Their vitamin C came largely from sea mammals. Raw liver from a ringed seal contains the same quantity of vitamin C per 100 grams as citrus fruits like grapefruit or oranges. They also collected berries in the summer as well as other edible plants and seaweed, depending on the area. Nowadays the Hudson Bay Company stores have turned into regular supermarkets selling ‘southern’ food at very high prices. It’s partly because of the cost of store bought food prices that many Inuit continue to hunt and fish though many young Inuit now prefer hamburgers and pizza to their own traditional foods.


The main winter transport of the Inuit in Nunavut was the dogsled but that has now largely been replaced by modern snowmobiles which are able to travel across ice and snow at much faster speed. In former times a walrus skin covered boat called an ‘ Umiaq’ was used in the summer as too was another skin covered narrow craft called the ‘ Qajak’ (kayak). The kayak which has now been adapted as a leisure craft by people all over the world was buoyant, fast and ideal for summer hunting. Both these traditional boats have now been replaced by modern boats with outboard engines.

Traditional Beliefs

The Inuit practiced an animist form of religion. They believed that every living thing had a form of spirit. Each community had an ‘Angakuq’ (shaman) whom the people could call on for advice as well as to invoke spirits to assist them in their lives. Their principal and most powerful deity was ‘ Sedna’ a woman who was similar to a mermaid and who lived beneath the sea and was goddess of all marine animals.


Traditional Inuit clothing was both warm and had a very functional. It was ideally suited for the climate and the activities of the people. Clothes for both men and women were made from animal skins, mainly caribou, seal and fox. In former times they were sewn with needles made from bone and sinew used as thread. Nowadays, most Inuit wear modern store bought clothes while they are home in their community, but many still use some traditional clothing when they go hunting particularly in the winter time.

Social Problems

The founding of Nunavut in 1999 created optimism among the Inuit. They hoped that having their own government would change their lives for the better. Sadly for many that has not happened. Unemployment rates remain high, over 28%, despite there being new jobs created at a faster rate than anywhere else in Canada. The Inuit of Nunavut live in socially troubled times with alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide all proving to be major problems. Although the annual educational budget is $172 million dollars, more high school students drop out than graduate. The Inuit of today may not have to endure the starvation and hardships their forbears did, but many of them face considerable social problems.

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Text © B & C Alexander

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