The Inuit’s Adjustments to Western Culture

The small city of Iqaluit in the Canadian Arctic.
An elderly Inuk woman in 2011 testifying about the long term effects of the residential school system of the 20th century.
An Inuk driving a motor boat in the northern Hudson Bay region.
Teatime for two Inuk girls in 1935.

As explained in the previous chapter, there are still Inuit who use the traditional dog sled hunting for their subsistence. Their lifestyle, however, has become increasingly difficult to sustain in recent decades, as the Arctic ice cap has receded. This is because without the frozen water, dog sleds cannot be used for effective ocean transport to rich fishing waters or seal breathing holes anymore. Instead, traditional Inuit hunters are increasingly confined to being on land, which significantly limits their chances of finding enough to eat.

In part because of the changing Arctic climate, Inuit have begun using motorboats, snow mobiles and other modern tools to bring in sufficient catches. This is in line with the Westernization of Arctic society in general, which sees Inuit nowadays driving cars, using the Internet and drinking soda, just like most other people in Canada. Quite disconcertingly to some, with many Inuit embracing Western culture in this way, there is a prospect of traditional Inuit culture, with its special relationship to nature and sled dogs, dying out in the foreseeable future. This concern, furthermore, is heightened by long-term trends showing that the Inuit are gradually abandoning their barter economy, as well as their respective languages and religious beliefs.

Residential schools

Though changing lifestyles is not necessarily negative in itself, the way in which fast lifestyle changes have been implemented in the Arctic is sometimes a source of bitterness among the Inuit people. This is because large scale cultural transformations — the receding ice set aside — were forced upon them in the mid-1900s through obligatory residential schooling for Inuit children. As part of the same greater government plan, moreover, entire Inuit families were relocated from rural areas and incentivized to learn English and adjust to Western norms.

The Canadian government’s aggressive mid-20th century schooling and relocation policies, admittedly, led to Inuit becoming better adjusted to life in modern Canadian society. However, it tragically also led to Inuit feeling culturally disoriented and believing that life lacked purpose. This, in turn, then spurred high rates of alcohol addiction, violence and suicide, which the Inuit community is still grappling with today.

A new reality

For the suffering that forced cultural uprooting has caused, the Inuit population has received official apologies, and selected individuals have received economic compensation. However, no one can turn back the clock, and the Inuit realize that they have no choice but to cope with the current situation. In the last decades, therefore, the Inuit have asserted themselves and their culture anew, and political lobbying has resulted in increased autonomy. Even so, the introduction of Western culture and media and better communication infrastructure have made the Arctic peoples aware that there are alternatives to subsistence hunting and year-round cold temperatures. As a result, a significant number of Inuit are now voluntarily traveling in and moving to other parts of Canada and trying out other lifestyles.