Inuit | Canada

Nunavik, my icy homeland

In northern Canada, the indigenous population has always lived in balance with nature - but then Europeans found their way to the icy desert. The newcomers harvested its raw materials. A personal story about life on the periphery of North America
Several children jump on upturned canoes along the coast.

Children play on the beach in Iqaluit, Nunavut on wrapped canoes from the Hudson's Bay Company, the oldest incorporated company in Canada, founded in 1670



A woman stands in a wintery landscape. She is wearing a thick jacket with fur trim and thick gloves. She is gazing into the distance, her expression confident and cheerful

I write this from my home in Kuujjuaq, an Inuit community in Nunavik, northern Quebec, Canada. We’re located about 1,500 kilometres north of Montreal, at a point where the northern treeline meets the Arctic tundra.

It is now early June – the beginning of springtime in the Arctic, that brief period between winter and summer when life is miraculously renewed. The snow, apart from patches here and there, will soon vanish. Our delicate plants, such as the purple saxifrage, fireweed and poppies, suddenly freed from their covering of snow, are greening again. The snow buntings – qupannuaq – always the first to arrive, are being followed by flocks of other migratory birds, among them geese, ducks, loons and terns.

People, meanwhile, are happy to escape for a short time. They leave their settlements and return to the old spring camps at the mouth of the Kuujjuaq or in Ungava Bay where the same Inuit families have often been gathering for generations. This is a time of storytelling where we remember who we are.

Here, our language, Inuktitut reclaims its rightful place and our children participate fully in traditional daily activities: learning and absorbing all the essential skills required to survive and thrive on the land.

There is no word for "nature" in our language. The separation that the Western world makes between humans and nature is alien to the traditional Inuit view, and even seems dangerous to us. According to Western thinking, nature is to be conquered, tamed, exploited or, in the most harmless case, used for "recreation".


“According to Western thinking, nature is to be conquered, tamed, exploited or, in the most harmless case, used for ‘recreation’”


In contrast, the Inuit see themselves fundamentally part of nature it and not as living outside of it. This unity with nature is symbolised by our traditional accommodation: In winter we live in “Illuvigait”, snow houses, in summer in “Tupiit”, tents made from animal skins.

Our special relationship with nature is reflected in our relationship with the animals that feed us: on the one hand, the “Puijiit”, marine mammals such as seals, whales and walruses; on the other, the “Pisuktiit”, land animals, such as caribou and polar bears.


No other people are as reliant on animals as the Inuit. In one of the most inhospitable regions on earth, meat has always provided all the necessary nutrients. Hides from the animals have long been used to make shelters and clothing. The blubber, the fat layer of the marine mammals, was used as fuel for soapstone lamps, the "Qulliiq". Apart from berries and roots, which were collected at the end of the short Arctic summer, there were no plants to fall back on if the hunt was unsuccessful.


My ancestors first came into contact with Europeans around 200 years ago in Ungava Bay. From that moment on, our union with the natural environment was called into question. At the beginning their impact was barely noticeable: At first, the Arctic offered nothing worth exploiting in the European imagination.


Our land was dismissed as a barren wilderness, inexplicably inhabited by a few nomadic "heathens". With its icy seas, even in summer, the Arctic seemed like an enemy that had to be heroically conquered, for example in the search for a north-west passage to the "riches of the Orient”.


In the end, however, the inevitable happened: in the Artic, as everywhere else where Europeans "discovered" indigenous peoples, trade and Christianity followed. We called the new arrivals “Qallunaat" or "white people". The first to arrive were employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, who established a trading post on the eastern shore of Kuujjuaq in 1830. At the beginning of the 20th century, an Anglican mission station was founded, followed by a Catholic one in 1948.


Gradually, we began to accept these foreigners in our country, and over time we also learnt about their way of life. The newcomers in turn forbade us to practise our own form of spirituality, shamanism, drum dancing and throat singing, and eventually a large proportion of our people converted to Christianity. During this first phase, which lasted from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1950s, we came to terms with the constant presence of traders and missionaries in our country.


“Nobody could have known it at the time, but the European traders planted the first seeds of consumer behaviour”


We continued to live in large family groups scattered along the coast of Ungava Bay. But in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Canadian government suddenly began to take an interest in "their territories" in the far north.


More attention was paid to the area when the Canadian and US military set up the "Distant Early Warning Line", a chain of radar stations that stretched north of the Arctic Circle from Alaska to Baffin Island in Canada, intended as a warning system for possible missile attacks by the USSR. As more and more mineral resources were discovered and exploited, Inuit were relocated from these areas, some of them to the Canadian wasteland, the tundra.


In the early 1950s, several people starved to death there. It took some time before the Canadian government took action and began to move Inuit to settlements founded by the Hudson's Bay Company or the missionaries. This facilitated the administration of the Canadian "Eskimos", as we were known as at the time. We were seen as a problem.


The European traders brought many useful goods with them, especially metal objects, such as sewing needles, knives, cauldrons, traps and firearms. Later, woven fabrics and foodstuffs such as flour, lard, sugar, tea and, of course, tobacco were added. Nobody could have known it at the time, but this sewed the first seeds of consumer behaviour - a development which gave rise to new eating habits and new diseases.

We were accommodated in newly built houses and our children were taught English at school. Some government measures seemed tempting at the time, such as welfare, social housing and the provision of health services. Nowadays, however, we see these offers for what they really were: Coercive measures under the guise of welfare.

My own family moved to a settlement in 1957, earlier than most Inuit living in the Canadian Arctic at the time. I was born there, in Old Fort Chimo, where the Hudson’s Bay Company still operated a trading post at the time. Initially, we expected that this new world in which we suddenly found ourselves would be based on similar principles to our old one. But that was not the case.

All our traditional character-building teachings were thrown overboard and our social values began to erode. In the settlements, we lived in a kind of bubble, disconnected from nature, trading autonomy for dependence.

“In the settlements, we lived in a bubble, disconnected from nature”

On the surface, all our basic needs were taken care of, but we increasingly lost our purpose in life. This is also one reason why many of us drifted into addictions and self-destructive behaviours, exacerbated by unemployment and poverty. This downward trend has continued over several generations.

In the most horrific way, this is also reflected today in the suicide rate among young Inuit, which is among the highest in the world. I remember how shocked I was as a teenager when I heard that a young Inuit woman had taken her own life. Traditionally, suicide was extremely rare in our society.

I am sure that this tragic development, all the depression and the high suicide rate, is linked to the sedentarisation and the accompanying erosion of our culture and values - and in particular, of course, to the traumatic forced relocations, the slaughter of our sled dogs and the various forms of abuse by people in positions of power.

It turned out to be deeply dependent on external political and economic forces that were completely at odds with our way of life. For a while, we thought our patience would pay off. But soon we felt that we had lost control over our lives and especially over the education of our children.

They were taught according to the concepts and rules of the state schools in the south, which were completely alien to us. There they received an education that had nothing to do with the knowledge and skills we needed for life in our country.

The resettlement from the countryside to the villages and, in some cases, to urban environments caused great damage and suffering to the Inuit community. However, in most settlements there is at least a hard core of families committed to preserving our traditions. They strive for the same respectful stewardship of the land and its resources that allowed us to survive before relocation.

Today, however, the challenges facing our already endangered way of life are compounded by climate change. It is making it even more difficult to live off what nature has to offer. In addition, the snow and ice cover of the Arctic, over which we walk and on which we hunt, is becoming increasingly unpredictable and uncertain. Our hunters are always at risk of breaking in on unexpectedly thin ice or drifting out to sea on floes that suddenly break off.

“Ever since raw materials were discovered, the Arctic is no longer seen as an ice desert, but as the world’s next energy source”

Against this backdrop, it is particularly absurd that our rich Arctic mineral and oil resources are being developed right before our eyes, with facilities and pipelines that are destroying the environment.

Our concerns and fears are regularly brushed aside by representatives of our government. Ever since raw materials were discovered here, newcomers no longer see the Arctic as an ice desert, but as the next super energy source for the world.

Yet the future of the Arctic environment and the Inuit living there is inextricably linked to that of our planet. Our Arctic home is a barometer for the health of the planet: If we can't protect the Arctic, can we really hope to save the forests, rivers and farmland in other regions?