Looking Back
The Early Years
The Road to Nunavut
What Price Nunavut?
The Next Generation
Inuit and The Land As One
Living with Change
Our Language, Our Selves
Inuit Art: The New Reality
Hunters and High Finance
The Subsistence Economy

A Public Government
The First MLAs
The World Looks North
What's In A Name?

Map of Nunavut

Inuktitut - Nunavut 99


"We stressed that we're in a very high-cost area. In other agreements, a cap is placed on resource royalty provisions when the standard of living of an aboriginal group becomes equal to the general population of Canada. In our situation . . . there's no cap."
— Paul Okalik, an assistant chief negotiator for Inuit on the land claim


Nunavut must develop a
thriving, modern economy to support the political and cultural aspirations of its people. Understanding
today's economy and how
the challenge will be met
requires a look back —
way back

By Kenn Harper

[Whales and traders] [The Hudson's Bay Co.] [Government looks northward] [Prospects]

he social and economic unit for pre-contact Inuit was the camp, which usually meant the extended family. Each camp was held together by a strong-willed individual: a camp boss. Complex rules determined the sharing of the game, for sharing was important for survival. Alliances were formed through hunting partnerships and strategic marriages of children — the improvident hunter survived, but barely, and often on the largesse of an extended family.

Wider trade relationships also existed. Meteoric iron was traded from group to group. Driftwood, and later wood from the wrecks of exploration and whaling ships, was a valuable commodity for coastal dwellers trading with Inuit farther inland. In the southern Keewatin (now Kivalliq), both trade and skirmishes occurred with Chipewyan and Cree from the subarctic forest, while Inuit of the western Kitikmeot traded with Dene of the Mackenzie Valley.

Whalers and traders

The seasonal arrival of whalers from Europe and America, beginning in the early 1800s, brought with it a different kind of trade, and radical changes to the lives of many coastal Inuit. The Europeans brought foreign objects — guns, bullets, tea, cloth — that made life easier, yet which also brought a dependence on the white man's return.

Dependence on imports has been a hallmark of northern life ever since. Dependence increased when whalers established permanent shore stations in communities such as Pangnirtung. Many Inuit abandoned traditional camp life and congregated near the shore stations as paid labor. This was a cashless society, and Inuit were paid in trade goods. To this day in the Baffin Region (Qikiqtaaluk), the Inuktitut word for Saturday is sivataaqvik — the time when you get your biscuits.

It was once again a mixed blessing for the Inuit that independent traders quickly filled the void when bowhead stocks declined in the late 1800s. The traders expected the Inuit to hunt, and to trade the results of that hunt with them, usually for the same motley assortment of trade goods that the whalers had provided. The object of the hunt was traditional game — seal for their skins, walrus for their hides and tusks, narwhal for their tusks — and the Inuit kept the meat. The traders discouraged Inuit from living in large communities: effective hunting was best done over a wide geographic area. Inuit middlemen arose to trade with those Inuit who were far removed from trading posts. Among these were Stephen Angulaalik in the Kitikmeot, Kanaaka in southern Baffin, and Ilatnaaq in the northern Keewatin.

The Hudson's Bay Co.

The reign of the independent traders was short. In the early 1900s, the Hudson's Bay Co. (HBC) established its own posts throughout the Arctic, indenturing men to hunt exclusively for them for five-year periods. By the 1930s, when fur prices on world markets were high, the trapping of white foxes brought relative affluence to many Inuit.

Iqaluit airport

  The Iqaluit airport

During these years, a number of initiatives were introduced, usually by the HBC, to help some Inuit become more self-sufficient. There was boat-building in Kimmirut and southern Hudson Bay, and fox-farming in Pangnirtung. But the Inuit who benefited from these efforts were few: they were the Kabloonamiut — the settlement Inuit, as the anthropologist Vallee called them. Most Inuit still lived in camps, and the Inuit of the camps lived hard lives indeed.

Government looks northward

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the arrival of the Canadian and U.S. military in Nunavut. The military brought with it wage labor and increased dependence on southern goods when it created airbases in communities such as Iqaluit (Frobisher Bay), and numerous Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line stations across the North, but by 1950, in the barren lands of the Keewatin, Inuit were starving. Caribou migration patterns had shifted, moving Canadian writer Farley Mowat to write on the plight of "the people of the deer." This situation, coupled with an increasing interest in non-renewable northern resources, finally turned the attention of non-military southern officials northward. First came northern service officers to administer welfare, then school teachers. In the 1960s, Inuit were urged to abandon their traditional camps and move into settlements. Dependence on outsiders and the wage economy became firmly entrenched throughout Nunavut, though this sometimes brought its own miseries, as when animal-rights activists destroyed the northern sealskin industry in the early 1970s.

Nunavut's Wage vs. Non-Wage Economy

People who participate in labor force 
(wage economy)  
People who do not participate in  
labor force (non-wage economy)  
Population of Nunavut  

Sources: 1996 Census of Canada, 1994 GNWT Labour Force Survey

In the two generations since Inuit left the land, government influence has become all-pervasive in the Inuit economy. Some argue that a general sapping of individual initiative has taken place, and that only now, with the settlement of land claims and the establishment of a de facto Inuit territory, are Inuit in a position to regain their lost independence.

Inuit efforts at taking control of their own economic future did not begin with the creation of Nunavut. In the 1950s and 1960s, government encouraged the formation of local co-operatives. Despite — or because of — massive infusions of government money over the intervening decades, most have been only marginally successful.

Today almost every community has a Northern store (the modern take on the HBC trading posts of yesterday), and most have a co-op and other private enterprises. Both federal and territorial governments have provided incentives for northern businesses, and the incentives have been greater for Inuit-owned businesses or those training and employing Inuit.

The modern Nunavut community provides jobs: in government, municipal services, teaching and nursing, clerking, transportation, maintenance, and in entrepreneurial pursuits. It provides a subsistence living in hunting and trapping. For some it provides a good living as artists, or as wage laborers in seasonal construction. And in each community, professional-level jobs are increasingly held by Inuit. But for most Inuit, life has become a tenuous mix of wage labor and hunting. Family and extended family partnerships — often invisible to the outsider — ensure that the hunter has access to cash for machinery and gas, and the wage laborer has access to country food and skins for clothing. But with few exceptions, the small communities remain heavily dependent on government dollars.


Nearly half of Nunavut residents are under the age of 20, whereas this group represents just 27 per cent of Canadians as a whole, meaning that job creation cannot hope to keep up. Unemployment is high. So is disillusionment, as evidenced by high rates of suicide and substance abuse. The education system has not succeeded in graduating Inuit professionals — doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants — and so non-Inuit, some of whom become committed to making Nunavut their long-term home, hold almost all of these jobs.

The myth that all Inuit are natural artists has also been dispelled, to the dismay of many who relied on the selling of soapstone carvings for their livelihood. Many warehouses are today filled with unsalable Inuit art and craft items. Governments and Inuit organizations are addressing this dilemma, and a strategy is being developed to support a true art market.

Mining has always been important in Nunavut. From the fool's gold that tricked English explorer Martin Frobisher in the 16th century, to the Kitikmeot copper that supplied Inuit with weapons and tools, to the mica mines of Kimmirut at the turn of the present century, minerals have been sporadically exploited by both Inuit and non-Inuit. Modern mining in Nunavut began in Rankin Inlet in the 1950s with a nickel mine. Many believe that Inuit in the Keewatin acquired their well-known entrepreneurial streak from their experience working at the mine. Nanisivik, a lead and zinc mine in operation since 1974, is the longest-running mine in Nunavut. Nanisivik has often been called a failure because it never achieved the goal of 60 per cent Inuit employment. Yet it is a major success story because of its consistent achievement of 20 to 25 per cent Inuit employment at a time when no other employers, including the federal and territorial governments, could claim statistics anywhere close. Mining today holds great promise for Nunavut.

Tourism, often cited as a panacea for Nunavut's economic woes, is not. Despite unparalleled physical beauty and exotic wildlife, high airfares and poorly developed infrastructure conspire to slow growth. Tourism today remains only a small piece in the puzzle of northern economic development.

A major part of putting the puzzle together will be the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA). When Inuit set out to settle their land claims with the federal government, it was not enough for them to have some Inuit land, and to trade ownership of the rest of the land for cash compensation. There had to be incentives for Inuit ownership of businesses, and Inuit employment.

  With only 21 kilometres of inter-community roadway, Nunavut towns and hamlets rely heavily on an annual "sealift"

Article 24 of the Nunavut final agreement compels the federal and territorial governments to adopt policies that maximize the involvement of Inuit in Nunavut business, through outright Inuit ownership, Inuit majority ownership, joint ventures with non-Inuit firms, and employment. Questions remain about how Article 24 should be applied, but its very existence has led to a radical change in the way business operates in Nunavut, and a very obvious increase in Inuit involvement in business at all levels. Meanwhile, Article 23 of the settlement calls for training to work toward the goal of a representative public service in which 85 per cent of civil servants will be Inuit.

A unique phenomenon in the evolution of northern business is the rise of the "birthright corporation." Nunasi Corporation, headquartered — one hopes temporarily — in Yellowknife, is owned by all the Inuit of Nunavut. Each of Nunavut's three regions has its own economic development corporation, owned beneficially for all the Inuit of that region by the regional Inuit political organization as its economic-development arm. These birthright corporations are more than just powerful and diversified businesses: they generally contain a component of social-development agency as well, though many private businesses, both Inuit and non-Inuit owned, complain of the dominance of the birthright corporations in the competition for northern business.

While the capital and the regional centres in Nunavut are thriving, life remains tough in most Nunavut communities. For this reason, the Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC) recommended a decentralized model for Nunavut's government, allowing the economic boost of the creation of the government to be shared with the maximum number of citizens. It was a noble recommendation, and it was endorsed by the federal and territorial governments, and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), which administers the implementation of the NLCA for Inuit. It will take determination and political will to ensure its success, but the people of Nunavut deserve no less.

Food Costs

  Toronto Iqaluit
   2 litres of 2% milk $  2.79 $  5.71
   1 dozen large eggs $  1.65 $  2.95
   1 loaf white bread $  0.89 $  2.59
   Bucket of KFC chicken



With the dawn of Nunavut, most of its citizens remain oblivious to the extent of their dependence on the continued largesse of the federal taxpayer. But the situation is improving. With the leadership of the Inuit political organizations and governments, and the partnerships being fostered between Inuit and non-Inuit business, growth is being encouraged in every sector of the northern economy, be it mining, transportation, renewable resource development, or tourism. Determined Nunavut leaders will have to be, like camp "bosses" of centuries past, strong-willed individuals, willing to draw on traditional Inuit values and skills, as well as the talents and energies of relative newcomers, to create a thriving Nunavut.

Businessman Kenn Harper of Iqaluit is also a historian, linguist and author who has lived 30 years in the Arctic.

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