Inuit, which means "people," is a word used to describe a group of Aboriginal peoples found in the cold Arctic regions of Canada. At one time, the Inuit were widely known as Eskimos. The name Eskimo is believed to have originated from the French word esquimaux, and means "one who nets snowshoes." The Inuit people now view Eskimo as an insulting term. The Inuit in Canada face many threats to their culture and their way of life. The biggest challenge for most Inuit communities is to adapt to modern society without giving up the things that define them as Native people.
Inuit Populations in Canada
The Inuit represent just a small percentage of Canada's Native population. According to the 2011 Census, there were 59,445 Inuit in Canada. This represented 4.2 percent of the country's total population of Native peoples.
Most Inuit in Canada are found in four regions. One of these regions is Nunavut, which is located in the Canadian Arctic and is Canada's largest territory. Almost half of all Canadian Inuit reside in Nunavut. This territory is known for being home to many Native peoples. Most other Inuit people live in Nunavik in Québec, Inuvialuit in the Northwest Territories, and in Nunatsiavut in Labrador. In total, fifty-three communities of Inuit people live throughout northern Canada.
Arrival and Settlement in Canada
Archaeologists believe that the earliest Inuit people lived in northwestern Alaska. The sea was an important source of food in these Alaskan communities. In particular, the early Inuit relied on whale species such as the bowhead whale for food. The Canadian waters around Baffin and Somerset Islands were rich with this food source, which may explain why the Inuit began migrating to the Canadian Arctic.
Some historians believe the first Inuit people arrived in Canada about one thousand years ago. They did not come all at once, but rather in small groups that probably consisted of a few dozen people. At the time of their arrival, another Aboriginal group that the Inuit called the Tunit inhabited Canada's Arctic. Within just a couple of centuries, however, these people disappeared. The Inuit effectively replaced this population, establishing numerous villages and settlements along the coast of Canada's Great White North.
Traditional Way of Life
The lives of many Inuit are similar to those of other Canadians. For instance, most Inuit live in houses, purchase food and clothing from nearby stores, and use snowmobiles or other vehicles to travel. Until as recently as a few decades ago, however, many Inuit communities had a very different way of life.
Traditionally, the Inuit did not live in permanent dwellings. Instead, they moved throughout the year to be closer to their food supply. In the summertime when there was no ice, they built tent-like shelters covered with animal skins. During the colder months, they lived in sod homes. Sod homes were made by digging holes in the ground and using rocks, wood, sod, and bone to construct walls and a roof. Contrary to popular belief, most Inuit in Canada did not live in igloos during the winter months. They typically slept in these shelters made of ice and snow only when they ventured away from their camps to go hunting.
The harsh weather in the Arctic made growing and foraging for edible plants impossible during most months of the year, although they did gather berries in the summer. They obtained most of their food through hunting. Common food sources for the Inuit people of Canada included not only whales, but also caribou, seal, polar bears, and smaller fish and game. The Inuit used almost every part of the animals they killed. After removing the meat, they used the skins to make tents, blankets, and clothing such as boots and coats. They made useful tools and frames for summer shelters out of the bones, while they used the oil as a source of fuel for lamps.
When the Inuit had to travel considerable distances, they used three main modes of transportation. If they were traveling by sea, they often used kayaks. This type of watercraft consisted of sealskin covers that went over wood or bone frames. The Inuit people could sit in the middle hole and glide through the water using just a single paddle. A less well-known type of boat used by the Inuit was the umiak, which resembled a large rowboat. It was the better option when the Inuit were hunting large sea mammals such as whales and walruses. The Inuit people mainly relied on dogsleds for traveling significant distances over land.
Traditional Religion of the Inuit
The traditional religion of the Inuit people was based on a deep reverence for nature and all living things, including the animals they relied on for food. Many of their ceremonies paid respect to the animals they hunted. The Inuit believed that all nature's creatures and even inanimate objects such as the sea had spirits or souls just like people. This type of religion is known as animism. Traditional Inuit communities in Canada also had shamans, which the Inuit called angakkuit. They believed that these religious leaders could communicate with the spirits to determine how to satisfy them and avoid their anger. Inuit shamans were thought to have other extraordinary powers as well, such as the ability to cure the sick and foresee the weather.
Resettlement and Current Challenges
The Inuit are unique among Native groups in Canada because their contact with early Europeans was generally quite limited. The most obvious explanation for this is that the Canadian Arctic is such an inhospitable region. The Europeans who came to Canada did not desire the land or the resources found in northern Inuit communities.
In fact, it was not until around the 1950s that the lives of many Inuit people were forever changed. At that time, people from outside the Arctic began arriving in the remote region. They converted many Inuit to Christianity, tried to impose their own laws, and introduced alcohol into many communities. They also brought disease. Because the Inuit had never been exposed to these illnesses, they had no immunity to fight them.
After World War II, the Canadian government set up permanent settlements for the Inuit people in the Canadian North. These settlements included houses, stores, schools, and health care facilities. Within about fifteen years, almost all Inuit people lived in these communities. Although the government may have meant well, these settlements effectively ended the Inuit people's traditional way of life.
In 1971, an organization known as the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) was founded as an advocacy group for Inuit affairs. The Canadian government granted the Inuit self-government in 1999 when it formally established the Nunavut Territory. Many Inuit, however, felt they were ignored by lawmakers in Ottawa and did not receive a fair share of government funds and attention. In January 2016, new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (1971-)met with Inuit leaders at the ITK office in Ottawa. Among the topics discussed were housing, health care, infrastructure funding, and increased Inuit participation in government.
In the modern era, the Inuit of Canada face many challenges, including overcrowded housing and a lack of employment opportunities. Nevertheless, most choose to remain in their communities to enjoy their strong family ties and unique culture that now characterizes modern Inuit societies.