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Inuit in Canada

  • Profile

    The 2001 Canadian Census reported 56,330 Inuit living in Canada – 22,560 in Nunavut, 3,910 in the Northwest Territories, 9,530 in Quebec and 4,560 in Newfoundland and Labrador. There are smaller Inuit populations in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia. Other Inuit communities survive in Siberian Russia, Greenland and the US state of Alaska.

    The Inuit live in 53 Arctic communities in four geographic regions: Nunatsiavut (Labrador); Nunavik (Quebec); Nunavut; and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of the Northwest Territories.

    Two of Canada’s northern territories give official status to Inuit and other indigenous languages. In Nunavut, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun are official languages alongside English and French, and Inuktitut is a common vehicular language in government. In the Northwest Territories, there are 11 official languages: Dene Suline, Cree, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey and Tåîchô.

    Historical context

    Britain granted the vast Canadian Arctic to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670, but the first recorded contact between modern European explorers and the Inuit did not occur until the nineteenth century. The explorers brought back reports of a seemingly primitive and inferior people with none of the advantages of European civilization. Some explorers paid dearly for their mistaken perception when they were shipwrecked and refused to entertain the idea that the Inuit could help them.

    At the time of the first contacts, the Inuit people had developed a sophisticated technology for surviving in a harsh environment that provided them with a rich and secure economy. Inhabiting the entire north from the coast of Alaska to Labrador, they lived in groups of families in temporary camps, moving according to the seasons and the availability of game. Travel was by skin boat, dog team or on foot. They were mostly a maritime people, depending for food and clothing on marine mammals – bowhead whale, beluga, narwhal, walrus and seal – although caribou and fish were also important. A small group of people known as Caribou Inuit lived in the Keewatin region in the central Canadian Arctic, dependent for food, clothing and summer shelter on caribou and taking no sea animals.

    Inuit were hard-hit by initial contact with Europeans, particularly the American and Scottish whalers who decimated this vital element of Inuit survival in a few short decades starting in the 1850s. Ironically, the Europeans made extensive use of Inuit knowledge of the water and of the whales in order to make their catches, pressing local Inuit into service on their ships. The whaling industry also brought with it diseases and alcohol, which had enormous impacts on the Inuit. By 1910, the number of Inuit in the Mackenzie River Delta in the western Canadian Arctic had fallen from 2,000 to about 130.

    In 1870, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold the land of the Inuit to the Canadian government, which renamed it the Northwest Territories and parcelled it out to existing provinces. All this was done without any consultation with the Inuit people, much less their consent. In 1912, again without consulting local Inuit, the federal government extended the boundary of the province of Quebec northward to include the ‘Ungava’ district (known by the Inuit as Nunavik). At this time, the Arctic held no intrinsic value for the Canadian government. But as other countries, especially the United States, became interested in the area in the late 1800s, Canada was forced to establish its sovereignty.

    Between 1953 and 1955, Canada forcibly relocated 92 Inuit from the northern Quebec village of Inukjuak to the High Arctic in a bid to assert its sovereignty over the area. They endured hunger and cold, and were not warned about the long months of darkness that awaited them. They were also not provided with warm clothing. In 1994, the federally appointed Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples called the move ‘paternalistic’ and ‘illegal’ because it was financed with money intended for Inuit economic development. The Commission also said that Canada never gave the Inuit a choice in whether to move or stay, echoing calls for compensation and an apology already made by the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (the political body representing Canada’s Inuit), the Canadian Human Rights Commission and a House of Commons committee. The federal government expressed regret about the relocations, but did not issue a formal apology or compensation.

    The Inuit people of northern Quebec have experienced some of the worst effects of European contact. In the mid-1970s, they entered a period of falling life expectancy that still continues. This new trend coincided with the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was considered the first modern land claims settlement in Canada. In exchange for providing certainty of title to the territory to Quebec, Nunavik Inuit (and Crees and Naskapis) received compensation moneys, land and governmental powers. Some land was granted in ownership and some was set aside for exclusive native hunting, fishing and trapping.


    Alarmed by the changes in their environment and the social problems in their communities, Inuit people have formed movements to regain power over their lives. The Inuit have successfully concluded landmark comprehensive land claim agreements: to date, Inuit representatives have signed three land claim settlements (Nunavik, Inuvialuit Settlement Region and Nunavut), and have reached an agreement in principle on the fourth and final land claim – Nunatsiavut (Labrador).

    Years of sustained pressure by Inuit in the eastern Arctic obliged the federal government to agree to carve a new territory, Canada’s third, out of the eastern Northwest Territories, known as Nunavut. It is a territory that spans the 2 million sq km of Canada extending north and west of Hudson’s Bay, above the tree line to the North Pole, totalling about one-fifth the territory of Canada. Nunavut means ‘our land’ in Inuktitut. Unlike in the Northwest Territories, where non-natives dominated much of the government bureaucracy, Inuit form 85 per cent of Nunavut’s population of approximately 29,500 residents and they have substantial control over health and social services, education, economic development, tourism and resource exploitation. The territory officially came into existence on 1 April 1999. C$1.2 billion dollars in compensation money will pass from the federal government to the Nunavut Trust until 2007.

    Other First Nations see Nunavut as a model for their own strivings towards self-government. The government of Nunavut is committed to Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) as a guiding principle of public government. IQ embodies Inuit traditional knowledge and values, and guides the government in framing decisions, policies and laws that reflect the key philosophies, attitudes and practices of Nunavut’s Inuit majority. Representatives are chosen on an individual rather than a party basis.

    Economic and social life

    The largest employer in Nunavut is government – federal, territorial and municipal. New jobs are rapidly emerging in the mining and resource development sectors. Growth is also occurring in the tourism sector, in fisheries, and in Inuit art such as carvings and prints. The Inuit in Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Chukota have long been concerned about the trade barriers that have resulted from the national borders crossing through their circumpolar homeland. In 1994, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) took initial steps to remedy this situation, successfully lobbying to have the United States government amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow cultural trade and exchanges between indigenous groups.

    Suicide remains a deep problem in Inuit communities. In Nunavut the suicide rate is nearly six times the national average. During Nunavut’s first year as a territory, 20 people committed suicide and dozens of others tried. It is hoped that the realization of self-government will help the people reclaim identity and confidence. In the meantime, the government provides resources for suicide prevention, intervention training and treatment. In Quebec, Inuit life expectancy in the 1990s was 60 years, according to a survey by the Quebec health department, while average Canadian life expectancy was 77 years. A major reason for the falling life expectancy rate was the fact that Inuit aged 15-19 have a suicide rate of 480 per 100,000 people, nearly 25 times the Quebec average. Among other indicators, Inuit infant mortality was four times the Canadian average and Inuit were six times more likely to die of respiratory diseases than Quebecers, and almost 50 per cent more likely to die of cancer.

    The plight of the Innu people of Labrador has garnered particular attention. The Innu residents of Davis Inlet historically were forced by the government to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and found themselves slipping out of touch with their traditional way of life. Rates of alcoholism and suicide increased and few resources were allocated to support the community who lived in sub-standard conditions. Although the government has now invested millions to relocate 680 Innu people from Davis Inlet to the purpose-built community of Natuashish, an evaluation of the government-funded Labrador Innu Healing Strategy says there is virtually no progress in improving the social welfare of the community.

    Great changes have transformed the Canadian Arctic, often to the disadvantage of the Inuit people. After decades of seeing changes forced on them, today the Inuit have embarked on a cultural and political renaissance and are working to take back power over their lands, communities, institutions and future.

    Canada’s Inuit leaders have been instrumental in setting up the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), with representatives from all countries where there are Inuit people. Inuit people have renewed pride in their culture, and are strengthening it through innovative locally designed television programmes and a network of radio stations. Well-organized and outspoken youth councils have been forming in Inuit communities across the Canadian Arctic. They have raised questions not only about government paternalism and environmental destruction but lack of accountability among the Inuit leadership. A new generation of Inuit have also broken down barriers to higher education, enrolling in record numbers in post-secondary institutions.

    Climate change continues to have a serious negative affect on the health, food security and livelihoods of the Inuit. Researchers fear the North’s changing environment will affect the health of Inuit by decreasing access to traditional foods from the land. Early break-up of ice in the spring is especially a concern since it reduces access to seals. Inuit in all regions of the circumpolar world are reporting changes to the natural environment as a result of climate change (global warming), which may be the ultimate, long-term threat to Inuit culture. The range of these changes is well known: melting permafrost, thinning and ablation of sea ice, receding glaciers, ‘invasion’ of species of animals not previously seen in the Arctic, increased coastal erosion, longer and warmer summers and shorter winters.

    Current issues

    A new Partnership Accord was agreed between the Government of Canada and the representative body of the Inuit, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, in May 2005. The Partnership Accord foresees the negotiation of a ‘Government of Canada-Inuit Action Plan’ to be drafted by 2006. Implementation of this Action Plan will be monitored and evaluated by a joint steering committee comprised of two senior officials from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, and from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. The Partnership Accord is political in nature, and begins by acknowledging the constitutional recognition of Inuit as an Aboriginal people of Canada, living in Nunatsiavut (Labrador), Nunavik, Nunavut, the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and many centres in southern Canada.

    The housing crisis remains a critical issue for the Inuit, and leaders are requesting that the Government of Canada act immediately to address the housing crisis in an Inuit-specific way. They seek clear, concrete commitments to ensure new houses can be built. The Government of Nunavut plans to use C$11.25 million to build 100 new homes by 2007. The funds come from a C$200 million Northern Housing Trust approved by the Government of Canada.

    On 1 December 2005, the Nunatsiavut government came into being, marking the last of the Inuit land claims agreements to be negotiated in Canada. The Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) signed a land claims agreement with officials of the federal and provincial government on behalf of Labrador’s 5,000 Inuit people in January 2005. The Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Danny Williams, also formally apologized for the forced resettlement of some Inuit during the 1950s.

    The LIA filed its original land claim in 1977. The Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement (LILCA) paves the way for an autonomous government in Nunatsiavut, covering 72,520 sq km of northern Labrador. The Inuit will become the owners of 15,800 sq km of land – 2 per cent of Labrador’s land mass – and they will co-manage the remaining area. The Inuit also will have special rights along the coast to 44,030 sq km of sea. More than three-quarters of Labrador’s eligible Inuit voted to ratify the agreement in a referendum held in 2004. The land claim agreement gives members of the LIA land, mineral and marine rights, C$130 million in compensation, provincial royalties from resource development, and another C$120 million to establish self-government. The Inuit will gain the right to control health, education and justice in five communities.

    At the end of 2005, the ICC submitted a communication to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claiming that the US failure to control emissions of greenhouse gases is damaging Inuit livelihoods in the Arctic. The communication was filed on behalf of the ICC by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). The communication asks the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the harm caused to Inuit by global warming, and to declare the US ‘in violation of rights affirmed in the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other instruments of international law’. The US is not party to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights.

    Inuit leaders have said they oppose and seek clarification of the decision announced on 2 May 2006 by The World Conservation Union (IUCN) to upgrade the status of the polar bear to ‘vulnerable’ on the Red List. It is felt that to upgrade the polar bear’s status to ‘vulnerable’ at this time, while populations remain robust, unacceptably exaggerates the situation. Inuit leaders, members of the IUCN, reported that they were not consulted or warned ahead of time of this change of status. Hunting and conservation of the polar bear is an important feature of Inuit culture and livelihood. Animal rights activists (see, for example, the International Fund for Animal Welfare) have renewed their calls for an end to the seal hunt in Canada, citing animal cruelty. Inuit groups have applauded the Canadian government’s request for formal consultations with Belgium at the World Trade Organization. The government alleges that the European country’s April 2007 ban on the import of Canadian seal products violates international trade rules.

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