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

The wired world is here to stay, but, hopefully, so too is the direct and
sustainable relationship between Inuit and the natural world.
bear skin THE
bear skin ECONOMY

By Larry Simpson

icture an Inuit hunter on the land or sea ice observing a caribou herd or a seal at a breathing hole. The hunter naturally relates their well-being to his own, both in the short term and in the longer term.

Now picture a white-shirted man watching the big board at a stock exchange, forever aware of the impacts of such things as currency devaluations or commodity market fluctuations on the other side of the world, and the impact of these on his own fortunes. Are these realities opposites? Perhaps not. Can one participate in both worlds? Ideally, yes. The wired world is here to stay, but, hopefully, so too is the direct and sustainable relationship between Inuit and the natural world.

The subsistence economy is not typically measured in Gross National Product, yet the dollar value of the subsistence economy is astounding. Consider that the replacement-cost value of country food harvested in Nunavut is estimated at a minimum of $30 million, or at least equal to the cost of food imports from Southern Canada. Consider, too, that country food is generally much more nutritious.

Sarah Kunuk and Christina Choinard of Iqaluit enjoy the latest from Nunavut's growing sealskin fashion industry    

Then there is the value of byproducts of the hunt that help to drive Nunavut's arts and crafts industry. There is caribou antler for carvings, narwhal and walrus ivory for carvings and jewelry, and sealskins for murals and small garments and toys. While Nunavut's arts and crafts industry is currently in a slump, it is nevertheless worth many millions of dollars per year to Inuit.

We must consider, too, that clothing made from animal skins has both a replacement value and a survival value — nothing has yet surpassed the insulating efficiency of caribou clothing.

Finally, there is also an important cash-economy element to the subsistence economy. Cash revenues are earned from the subsistence economy by selling sealskins within and between communities as the byproduct of the seal hunt, and by selling arctic char, caribou, or whatever has been hunted. Some of that money is needed to buy gas, hunting equipment and supplies to finance the cost of future hunts. Of 500 pounds of frozen arctic char piled on a qamutik (a sled pulled by a dogteam or snowmobile), the hunter may sell 100 pounds of the fish for, say, $1.75 per pound. This $175 will cover the cost of harvesting the other 400 pounds. But that 400 pounds of fish has a replacement value — or real value — of $2,000 as food on the table (hamburger or chicken at the local Inuit Co-op or Northern store would cost the hunter at least $5 per pound). Recognition of this fundamental reality is one reason the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) created Nunavut's resource-management bodies. The NLCA and territorial government help provide for outpost camps, hunter-support programs, elder and youth conferences, income reform and more, ensuring that subsistence uses of wildlife will always take priority over commercial or tourist quotas when conservation is required.

The importance of maintaining the subsistence economy is nowhere more tragically obvious than in the decline in the early 1970s of the eastern Arctic seal hunt, and the dire social effects of its collapse. What many of the animal-rights activists responsible for the market's decline choose not to see is that the subsistence economy represents a relationship of man with the natural world that has spun a complex web of cultural beliefs, values, and attitudes that can sustain ecosystems that include man. The subsistence economy is the tie that binds Inuit to the natural world, and all over the world it has been shown that "to use is to protect."

The subsistence economy has become a rare treasure. Hunting is about food on the table, but it is also about respect for the land, and building and maintaining ties with kin groups and with fellow residents. The subsistence economy is also the wellspring of traditional knowledge, or IQ (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit): once dismissed as the outdated opposite of good western science, it is now recognized as having value for aboriginal and non-aboriginal people alike in our attempt to understand how life interrelates on the tundra or in the sea.

Nunavut will never see Ford plants and other big manufacturers. Yet the new territory may remain one of the few places on Earth where people successfully straddle tradition and innovation, "the land" and the Internet.

Larry Simpson of Iqaluit is a sector development specialist, renewable resources, with the Department of Sustainable Development, government of Nunavut.

Back to top Next chapter