Inuit Country

View from mount duval from north end of pangnirtung fiord. Photos by Peter Kulchyski

This year ’s “Indian Country” theme issue of Canadian Dimension deals with a specific group of indigenous people in Canada, the Inuit. Inuit are indigenous occupants of the arctic in Canada, the US, Russia and Greenland. They have a distinct land base, distinct legal status, distinct culture and distinct colonial history. In the US they are still referred to as Eskimos (which does not mean “eaters of raw meat” as is commonly thought) and as a result that word still has global currency, though Canada and Denmark have both replaced the word with “Inuit,” a self-designation. Geographically, in Canada Inuit occupy the northernmost regions (beyond the tree line) in the NWT, Nunavut, Labrador and northern Québec. Culturally, Inuit are hunting peoples whose traditional life was built almost entirely around snow, bone, skin and ice. For archaeologists, Inuit are descendants of a migration across the Bering Strait that took place about 1,000 years ago, whereas most indigenous Americans are likely descended from people who migrated 10 to 12 thousand years ago. Inuit traditionally have been gatherers and hunters, like many other indigenous peoples, but have their own distinct cultural expressions of this embodied in stories, games, artworks, tools, clothing and so on that are immediately recognizable.

Historically, the Inuit engagement with colonial capitalism has also been distinct. In Canada, although early contact with Inuit took place in the 16th century, sustained contacts did not happen until the mid and late 19th century, with the search for the Franklin expedition and the arctic whale hunt being the major drivers of the process. Missionary activity in arctic Canada becomes a sustained force at this time, and by the early 20th century a fox fur trade becomes important. The Canadian state’s involvement in the arctic was sporadic and fitful until the postwar period; in the late 1950s a policy of neglect transformed dramatically as the welfare state moves to take control of many aspects of Inuit peoples’ lives. The Indian Act has only very briefly regulated Inuit. Hence, to this day, Inuit communities do not have the chief and council structure that First Nations deal with, there are no Inuit reserves, and Inuit have not had to deal with the vexing problem of legal “status.” However, Inuit are constitutionally recognized as indigenous peoples with Aboriginal rights. Inuit never signed historic treaties, but have been leaders in negotiating comprehensive land claims or modern treaties.

Politically, Inuit are represented internationally by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, nationally in Canada by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and in the separate provinces and territories by land-claims-based groups, such as the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in the Beaufort Sea area of the NWT, or Makivik in northern Québec. In Canada an Inuit women’s organization, Pauktuutit, represents Inuit women from all the regions. Inuit have been involved in struggles that parallel those of First Nations and Metis in other parts of Canada, struggles over resource development/ destruction, to assert land title, to achieve self-determination and self-government. Although in Greenland a strong socialist movement exists among Inuit, socialism in Canada has not been able to establish itself in any sustained way. Similarly, the various Inuit struggles have not generated the kind of non-Aboriginal support activities or drawn upon civil disobedience actions that other indigenous activist communities have sometimes engaged.

Yet Inuit have a remarkable history of resistance to the Canadian State and in one part of arctic Canada have established a public government and territory that they democratically control: Nunavut. From the time of the first Inuit land-based petition to the government (1953) to the early 70s when Inuit first established a national political body (then called the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, now ITK), Inuit have been a quick study in responding to colonial capitalism. Inuit have also been leaders in developing language retention for their language (Inuktitut) and have produced remarkable and dynamic contemporary cultural and artist expressions from prints, sculpture and stories, to film and music.

Canadian Dimension has never previously “featured” Inuit as extensively in its pages as we do here with two outstanding pieces. One of the founding fathers of Nunavut, Peter Irniq, tells us about his life in a colonial frame, touching on a variety of issues, notably including the impact of residential schools on his generation. A non-Inuit graduate student at York University, Warren Bernauer, writes about the struggle of the small community of Baker Lake, which finds itself once again faced with an international corporate attempt to mine the uranium deposits found in the inland of the Kivalliq region, this time with the support of many Inuit leaders and organizations. A socialism informed about Inuit issues may become a socialism of relevance to Inuit; Inuit may themselves offer many resources to a broader socialist project to build a better world.

A great deal of material can be found in books, online, and through films about Inuit. I have to recommend the works Frank Tester and myself have coauthored, Tammarniit (Mistakes) and Kiumajut (Talking Back), as histories that focus on state-sponsored colonialism in the 50s and 60s. Hugh Brody’s work, The People’s Land and The Other Side of Eden, offers a strong discussion of Inuit hunting cultures in a modern frame. The Zacharias Kunuk/Norman Cohn films Atanarjuat and The Journals of Knut Rasmussen are enormously exciting and rewarding dramatic pieces that immerse viewers in an Inuit world view. A struggle continues to unfold in the regions of the arctic claimed by Canada. Harper’s Conservatives want to spend enormous resources militarizing the area in the name of Canadian sovereignty. Mary Simon, among other Inuit leaders, has pointed out that instead of icebreakers, arctic military exercises, and warplanes, a government that worked with arctic occupants, the Inuit, would surely offer the strongest reason for Inuit themselves to want to be in Canada and therefore protect its arctic interests. Alongside of this, rapacious colonial capitalism, which Harperites also cheerlead for, desires the energy and mineral resources that can be found in abundance under arctic lands and waters. While hunting continues to thrive among Inuit, these new mega resource projects pose a serious challenge to Inuit and now often come with some degree of Inuit “leadership” support. The issues are even more complex given the enormous social problems “modernization” has created, including youth suicide rates among the highest in the world. Inuit therefore continue to pose a challenge, by their very existence, to the Canadian national project: will it be founded on a rapacious capitalism for which “development” is defined solely as the growth of capital, or will it be founded on the development of our human capacities, our appreciation and admiration for the contributions Inuit culture has to offer to humanity, and our respect for a justice that deserves the name?