The Inuit in 2011: A Snapshot and Retrospective

This time last year the Inuit in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut territory, were battling the Arctic equivalent of a heat wave: Temperatures hovering around freezing were making roads slushy and icy, obliterating the blizzard conditions that they are used to driving in. That caused a bit of mayhem on the roads.

At the moment, temperatures seem to be back on track, with temperatures on Monday January 2, 2012, hovering at –20 Fahrenheit.

That was one notable event in Northern territory in January of 2011. Plenty of news both large and small came out of Canada’s northern regions.

January also saw the arrest of Father Eric Dejaeger, a pedophile Catholic priest who had preyed on Inuk children in Baker Lake and Igloolik during the 1970s and 1980s. He had been hiding out in Belgium for years, having fled there before a court appearance in Canada. He went undiscovered until a series of articles in the Belgian press about abusive Catholic priests flushed him out.

Also in January 2011 an intriguing report was released: The Conference Board of Canada, in its study “Kids These Days,” found that northern Canada, with its largely youthful Inuit and aboriginal population, could be a key to the country’s economic future. In a January 6 report the leading think tank said that the country’s youthful northern population—mostly in Northern Saskatchewan, Nunavut and Northern Manitoba, with nearly 30 percent under age 15 in some areas—represents “immense untapped potential” that will be crucial to Canada’s future success.

This is especially true given that 93 percent of the country’s population is concentrated below the Conference Board’s north-south dividing line and 80 percent of the country’s land mass is above it, the National Post said.

Also in January, the region kicked off an anti-tuberculosis campaign to get a handle on the scourge once and for all.

Later that month the Inuit got some good news: Although the European Union had quashed Canadian seal-products sales, China had stepped in with a deal to buy seal products. The new agreement covers edible products like seal meat and oil, the latter used in fish-oil capsules sold in health-food stores.

At around the same time, the narwhal trade suffered a setback when Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) banned the export of tusks and other narwhal products from 17 Inuit communities. Inuit were angry not only because they were not consulted but also because they said the narwhal population was thriving and would not be hurt by the number harvested.

In February a new-old educational era was ushered in with the certification of five elders to be on par with teachers in status in Nunavut schools. These Innait Inuksiutilirijiit were imbued with the same status as establishment-trained teachers, in recognition of the value they bring to a child’s development.

A scare and a save: In mid-February Willie Nastapoka, 15, and Kasudluak Kasudluak, 17, were lucky to be alive, said Simeonie Nalukturuk, a ranger who helped search for the boys in the northern reaches of Quebec after they disappeared following what should have been a day-long polar bear hunt. They ended up surviving, miraculously on the ice for four days after their snowmobile gave out.

February also unveiled a new interactive map of sea ice, an online tool that charts the permutations of that ice, accompanied by explanations of the role the ice plays and its significance. It was unique combination of Inuit traditional knowledge and scientific research that enabled a team of scientists and cartographers from Carleton University in Ottawa, working with Native hunters, elders and other experts, to map the ice around Baffin Island, Nunavut.

Knowing about the ebb and flow of sea ice is especially essential these days, as the Arctic thaws and the question of resource development edges to the fore. In May an agreement was signed among nations comprising the Circumpolar Region that finalized the Inuit position on such ventures set out guidelines for how to proceed in this changing environment. It was signed in Nuuk, Greenland, by international Inuit leaders just before the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in mid-May, the Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Resource Development Principles in Inuit Nunaat laid out conditions that entailed striking a balance: Resource development that occurs “at a rate sufficient to provide durable and diversified economic growth, but constrained enough to forestall environmental degradation and an overwhelming influx of outside labor,” the accord said.

The June murder-suicide of Vivian Sula Enuaraq and her two young daughters by her husband, Syvlain Degrasse, left Iqaluit reeling in grief and the territory calling for more mental-health services given a suicide rate that’s 11 times higher than in the rest of Canada.

Passionate about suicide prevention and sporting Inuit-made fashion, Malaya Qaunirq Chapman went to Toronto in search of not just the title of Miss Canada International but also with a mission to bring attention to the life, and troubles, of her fellow aboriginals up north.

The 22-year-old, who models clothes for organizations based in and around her hometown of Iqaluit, Nunavut, will be vying not for a beauty or swimsuit prize but for a college scholarship and a chance to represent her favorite charity. Her more deep-seated goal is to bring attention to the troubling suicide rates plaguing her region, as well as what is being done to combat them, the Nunatsiaq News reported.

In June, Nunavut took a look at its tourism industry and kicked off programs to draw cruise ships to the area. It was a bid to “help the communities become more economically active, productive and self-reliant,” said Peter Taptuna, Nunavut’s economic development minister.

A major event for Inuit came in August, when the Inuit of Quebec finally got justice—and compensation—from the provincial government for the harm caused to their way of life by the slaughter of up to 1,000 sled dogs, or qimmiit, in the 1950s and 1960s. They received $3 million in compensation under the agreement signed between premier Jean Charest and Makivik Corp. to acknowledge that killing the Inuit’s primary means of transportation stripped them of their ability to hunt, trap and fish, and thus had lasting, detrimental effects on their way of life. Soon after, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), an organization representing the Inuit from the Baffin Region, High Arctic and Belcher Islands, called on Ottawa to do the same.

A cultural milestone was reached in August, too, with the successful conclusion of Iqaluit’s first bowhead hunt in 100 years yielding a 70-tonne, 14-meter-long whale large enough to feed hundreds of Inuit.

Conducted on Frobisher Bay by a dozen hunters in six boats, the event rekindled a tradition that had been put on hold by fears that the animals, which Inuit have hunted for centuries, were not numerous enough to withstand a hunt. Although limited hunts had been held in surrounding communities, this one held special meaning to the Inuit of Iqaluit.

“From elders to young children, this shared experience is a special memory that will be talked about for generations to come,” said Nunavut Member of Parliament (MP) Leona Aglukkaq, who is also the Minister of Health and Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, in a statement.

A few days later the north had its heart ripped out when a plane carrying 15 people from Yellowknife to Resolute Bay crashed near its destination airport, killing 12 and injuring three.

The Boeing 737, First Air flight 6560, smashed into a hillside just short of Resolute Bay’s airport on August 20. Rescuers of the three survivors pulled from the wreckage of First Air flight 6560 included military personnel on hand for periodic Joint Task Force North’s Operation Nanook Arctic sovereignty exercises. The responders were scheduled to simulate a plane-crash rescue on Monday August 22, but the exercise was canceled on Sunday as the real-life tragedy unfolded.

One of the dead was the six-year-old granddaughter of the businessman who had chartered the flight; among the survivors was her seven-year-old sister. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, visiting Resolute Bay on a previously scheduled trip related to Operation Nanook, offered comfort to the bereaved community.

On the whimsical front, an intrepid whimbrel seabird flew from Nunavut through Hurricane Irene to the Caribbean, astounding the scientists who were tracking it. The hardy bird, named Chinquapin by its taggers, was en route to Brazil.

In September, aboriginal MP Romeo Saganash said he would run for the vacant seat of his mentor, Jack Layton, who he credited with convincing him to run for Parliament, a seat he had won in the May election. If elected, Saganash, who represents the riding of Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou, would be the first-ever aboriginal to head a major political party in Canada.

In November the Canadian government listed polar bears as a “species of special concern” under the Species at Risk Act, disturbing the Inuit people who are wary of any more restrictions being placed on the hunting of this spiritually revered animal and are worried about public safety given an increasing number of bears wandering through communities. Environmentalists thought the ruling didn’t go far enough in protecting the bears. The Inuit also called for the use of more Inuit Traditional Knowledge in such decisions and said that not enough had been employed in this case.

Also in November Canada’s first Inuktitut app was launched. The Canada Council for the Arts put its grant-application information into an app for iPads, iPhones, the iPod touch and Androids in the language of the Inuit, with the goal of attracting musicians, artists and writers of the far north to the programs. With 3,000 to 6,500 artists living in Nunavut, there is a lot of talent to plumb.

As the year wound down, the third of three regional Inuit associations that the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation has tapped for funding to build a new Nunavut Media Arts Centre came through,with a $200,000 donation from the Kivalliq Inuit Association (KIA). The Qikiqtani Inuit Association donated the land that the building will sit on, as well as $100,000, Northern News said, with the Kitikmeot Inuit Association giving $200,000. The center hopes to be up and running by 2013.

The year ended on a bit of a sour note, at least in Pangnirtung, where thieves broke into the post office and stole, or trashed, nearly all the packages that had arrived and were awaiting delivery. But all was not lost, as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was simultaneously delivering presents to families all over the north as part of its annual toy drive.

For more highlights, see the Nunatsiaq News roundup.


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The Inuit in 2011: A Snapshot and Retrospective