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Inuit Social and Historical Context

Allison Crawford, MD, FRCPC

Map of circumpolar peoples


The polar region is shared with other indigenous peoples, including the Yupik and Inupiat of Alaska and Russia, and Inuit of Greenland, with whom Inuit share biological, cultural and linguistic links. " Inuit are divided into two closely related groups based on language, environmental factors and cultural traditions. The first is the Yupik of Alaska, Nunivak and St. Lawrence islands and the Chukchi Peninsula. There are approximately 25,000 Yupik living in Alaska and 1,300 in Russia. " The second group includes the Inupiat of north Alaska and eastern Russia, the Inuit of Canada, and the Inuit of Greenland. Of these 152,000 Inuit, 2,000 live in Russia, 50,000 in Alaska, 45,000 in Canada and 55,000 in Greenland. Striking continuity in language and culture is seen across this vast geographic area." There is a contemporary movement to unite indigenous circumpolar peoples, based on shared interests, including the environment; economic development and cooperation; and cultural exchange.

Cultural Origins – Migration Map


Approximately 8500 years ago, there were peoples living in small communities along the coastline of the Bering Land Bridge. They subsisted on marine animals hunted along the shorelines and islands. During warmer seasons hunters and their families would move inland to hunt." Sivullirmiut means the first people. In Inuit legend these early people were often called Tunnit. Anthropologists use the terms Pre-dorset to identify the Sivullirmiut. " Approximately 5000 years ago, settlements of Sivullirmiut moved to Northern Alaska. Adaptation to the geography of arctic sea ice produced the skills and techniques that have become part of Inuit cultural heritage. This adaptation continues to define Inuit culture, through tools, skills, material culture, and art."


Arctic People in Canada

Virtual Museum: edu/ method=preview&lang=EN&id=10028


The map on the previous page shows waves of migration, from west to east, across time. " Over the last 1000 to 1500 years a second wave of migration occurred. Groups of Taissumanialungmiut, people of long ago, moved eastward across Canada. Taissumanialungmiut are often referred to as Thule by archaeologists. They encountered and displaced other earlier groups, such as the Dorset peoples. The eastward movement created the Inuit territories of Canada.

Map of Inuit Nunangat


There are 4 Inuit regions in Canada, collectively known as Inuit Nunagat. " Each region includes land, water and ice. This geography is integral to Inuit culture and way of life. The four regions are: " Inuivialuit (western Northwest territories); Nunatsiavut (Labrador); " Nunavik (Quebec); and " Nunavut."

Map of Nunavut


There are 3 regions in Nunavut: " Kitikmeot, capital Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay) " Kivalliq, capital Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)" Qikiqtalluk, capital Iqaluit " The area of Nunavut has been inhabited continuously by Inuit for approximately 4000 years. " The replacement of European names by Inuit place names is an important step in reclaiming and asserting an Inuit-centered sense of place and identity." The current population is approximately 31,900 people, mainly Inuit. Official languages are Inuktitut (70%), Inuinnaqtun (1%), English (27%) and French (1%). "

Knud Rassmussen Early 1900s

Umiaks 1875, C. Rassmussen

Much of what is written about Inuit history comes to us from Western explorers and ethnographers, such as Knud Rasmussen and Frans Boas." The first written account of the area now known as Nunavut was in 1576 by English explorer Martin Frobisher. " While these accounts remain a valuable document of the past, for Inuit and non-Inuit alike, it is helpful to remember that these explorers were viewing Inuit culture from the outside, and through their own partial perspective and prejudices.

Inuit Oral History

“Southerners don’t want to understand Inuit ways. They’re ignorant about our culture, don’t consider our opinion and treat us like we know nothing. Inuit culture is oral and we keep knowledge in our minds. Even without text, our culture is full of wisdom”

Rita Nashook, Iqaluit quoted in Keavy Martin

Richard Harrington, 1949 /Library and Archives Canada/PA-140582

A more immediate source of knowledge of Inuit history is carried in Inuit oral history – the means of carrying the past into the present, and passing information down through generations. " Alongside accounts by Westerners, this cultural knowledge can enrich our understanding, and challenge stigmatizing stereotypes of Inuit that have come from outside of the culture. " Recognizing Inuit as the most important source of information about their own culture can also begin to return voice and power to Inuit. "

Inuit Oral History

"I have been asked by many people about how long the Inuit have lived in our lands. I tell them that I don’t have to know the answer to that question because we have been here from the beginning. That is what our stories are all about, and it is how we were taught to understand our world." " T.Q. Kanaksuk, April, 1979

Nunavut Qajanartuk. Kenojuak Ashevak, 1992

An important distinction between Western historical perspectives and when Inuit speak about their ancestry and cultural heritage, is that Inuit do not break time into chronology. In other words, they do not divide the past from the present into a “prehistory”. The “past” remains an important part of the present." Inuit oral history remains very alive, and is continually being added to. Current technologies, including community radio, a satellitebased Inuit television network (Izuma) and the utilization of the Internet, are revitalizing and sustaining oral history."

Inuit Oral History – the Epic of Kiviuq One of the oldest mythic stories, told by Inuit across the arctic for thousands of years, is the epic of the great shaman Kiviuq.

Qiviuq’s Journey, illustration by William Noah

Explore the story as told by Nunavut elders: "

Contact and Colonization 1500s

CONTACT European explorers

1700s 1800s

Whaling" " COLONIZATION with establishment of permanent whaling stations


Decline of whaling

Late 1800s

Missionaries Fur trapping economy established


Hudson Bay Trading Co expands posts into Arctic "

This 1715 map is highly suggestive of European attitudes towards the polar regions. It is completely surrounded by scenes from the Arctic whaling industry, a reminder of the fortunes to be made in this inhospitable land (Library and Archives Canada, NMCÂ 21059)

Contact and Colonization early 1900s

RCMP established posts"



Social Welfare credit

Education, including residential school"


Government-sponsored relocation to Grise Fiord in High Arctic


Relocation to Resolute Bay

Medical treatment in southern facilities (TB)

1951, Craig Harbour, NWT [Nunavut]. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Wilfred Doucette, National Film Board of Canada, PA-176633

Mobility and Settlement

Thomas Kublu Source:


Emily Takatak Source:


July Papatsie Source:

Children in school in Iqaluit (then Frobisher Bay), summer 1959

Inuit Power Curve

Source: Nunavut Sivuniksavut

Inuit Power Curve This graph depicts the impact of colonization on Inuit autonomy and power. Canadian government intrusion into Inuit life restricted Inuit rights and freedoms, and impacted traditions. HOWEVER, this graph also shows the efforts of Inuit to reclaim these freedoms, and to reassert their power, efforts that continue today.

Nunavut: Land Claims Process and Self Government

A critical step in regaining autonomy and power has been the move towards self government, which started in the 1960s, culminating in the creation of the Territory of Nunavut in 1999.

Nunavut Coat of Arms

Timeline 1960s Inuit and Eskimo Association 1971

Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (“Inuit will be united in Canada�) founded by Tagak Curley


Inuit present the Nunavut proposal to federal government "


NWT referendum supports creation of Nunavut"


Canadian parliament passes the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act and Nunavut Act" Establishment of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc (NTI) to ensure land claims agreement is upheld"


April 1, territory of Nunavut joins the federation of Canada

Medical System under colonialism Introduction of disease – shortly after contact, likely by whalers. " Charles Francis Hall, Arctic explorer, Frobisher Bay area, 1861-1862" wrote about the health conditions that Inuit had to confront and predicted that Inuit would not survive: "

"The days of the Inuit are numbered. There are very few of !

them left now. Fifty years may find them all passed away, ! without leaving one to tell that such a people ever lived." "

Geraldine Moody, Inuit men and boys aboard whaling ship, Erik Cove, Ungava, 1904

Missionaries as first “southern� health practitioners

Missionaries were used by the Government of Canada to provide both healthcare and education. One missionary wrote: " "Medical work helped a great deal in building up an influence which afterwards became a dominant factor in turning people to Christ. They readily saw the value of proper treatment for disease, and even their conjurers came to the missionaries when suffering. Afterwards many of them reasoned that since the teachers were there to do good, their religion must be good too."!

Tuberculosis Community settlement life starting in the late 1940s-1950s created the conditions for rapid spread of infectious disease, particularly tuberculosis. Beginning in 1946 the Canadian Government started screening Inuit for tuberculosis to try to control the epidemic Large-scale evacuation of people suspected of having TB and other serious conditions was implemented. By the mid-1950s 7-10% of Inuit had been hospitalized with TB in southern Canada Screening and evacuation to southern sanitoria " occurred on Canada Coast Guard Ships," such as the C.D.Howe


C.D. Howe Many people sent south were exposed to severe culture shock, stigma and racism, linguistic isolation, and estrangement from their families

Thomas Kublu Source:

Inuit woman looking past tupik and qarmat towards C.G.S. C.D.HOWE anchored in Pangnirtung Fiord, July 1951. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Wilfred Doucette, " National Film Board of Canada, Still Photography Division, PA-166461

Inuit board the C.G.S. C.D. Howe, Eastern Arctic patrol vessel for medical examination and eye check, July 1951. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Wilfred Doucette, National Film Board of Canada, Still Photography Division, PA-189646.

Inuit traveling south to the tuberculosis sanatorium in Hamilton, Ontario - note the identification envelopes Inuit were required to wear around their necks (This undated image was published in issue #70 of Inuktitut Magazine in 1989 with photo credit given to Public Archives Canada) Source:

Mountain TB Sanatorium, Hamilton, ON

1955, Local History and Archives, Hamilton Public Library.

Strange Ladies. 2006 Pitaloosie Saila, Cape Dorset

Implications of History Historical trauma – the traumatic consequences on communities and individuals – of these policy decisions will be discussed in a later module. However, the colonial origins of the health system continues to have implications for Inuit in the present day. For some people and families these impacts may include:" - fear of health care and lack of trust in health providers" - avoidance of procedures " - lack of adherence with treatment plans" - a continued power imbalance between health provider and patient" - stereotypes of Inuit that persist

Current Health System Management and delivery of health services in Nunavut is overseen by the Territorial Government - Department of Health, Government of Nunavut. " Regional offices are located in each of Nunavut’s three regions, which manages the delivery of health services at a regional level: Pangnirtung (Qikiqtaaluk region); Rankin Inlet (Kivalliq region); and Cambridge Bay (Kitikmeot region). Iqaluit operations are administered separately. Based on a primary health care model; for example, visits to family physicians, consultations with nurses or nurse " practitioners " 24 local health centres in communities

Pond Inlet, Health Centre

Current Health System continued Specialist services are accessed primarily from referral centres in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Yellowknife, Edmonton and Toronto More that 25% of the department’s total operational budget is spent on costs associated with medical travel ($53,294,450) and treatment provided at outof-territory facilities ($53,853,392)

Current Health Indicators Health Indicators of Inuit Nunangat within Canada 1994-1998 and 1999-2003 • Life expectancy in Inuit Nunangat was an average 12.2 years less than for all of Canada as a whole during 1999-2003, and this gap was shown to have been widening. • Infant mortality in Inuit Nunangat is almost 3 times that of Canada as a whole. • Low birth weight seems to have been increasing for Inuit Nunangat, while dropping across Canada as a whole. • The mortality rate for Inuit Nunangat was twice that of Canada as a whole. • Suicide/self-inflicted injury, respiratory disease, and unintentional injury are among the highest causes of death in Inuit Nunangat. • Deaths due to cancers and suicide/self-inflicted injury rose over these periods, and were some of the highest causes of mortality in Inuit Nunangat."

Social Determinants of the Health of Inuit These health indicators are not the result of some innate biological disadvantage, they result from health inequities caused by social determinants of health (SDH). Health inequities are the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries; the result of a failure of public policies SDH will be reviewed in the next module.

Resources Canada's Relationship with Inuit: A History of Policy and Program Development – Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada" Canadian Arctic Exploration" ITK Social Determinants of Inuit Health in Canada, 2007" Kiviuq Legend Qikiqtani Truth Commission Virtual Museum of Canada - Inuit origins and heritage method=preview&lang=EN&id=10028

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