Inuit simply means "people." Inuit were originally known by Europeans as "Eskimos" - a pejorative term roughly meaning "eaters of raw meat.
Inuit simply means "people." Inuit were originally known by Europeans as "Eskimos" - a pejorative term roughly meaning "eaters of raw meat." The majority of Inuit inhabit the northern regions of Canada, known as Nunaat or "homeland," populated with small, scattered communities and villages throughout the Arctic from Alaska to eastern Greenland. In 2006 Statistics Canada estimated that 50 485 people, about 4% of the Aboriginal population, identified themselves as Inuit.
Approximately 80% of all Inuit live in Nunaat, with half living in Nunavut followed by Nunavik in northern Québec, Nunatsiavut, located along the northern coast of Labrador, and the western arctic (Northwest Territories and Yukon) known as Inuvialuit. Statistics Canada reported that between 1996 and 2006, the First Nations population increased 26%, which is 3.5 times the growth rate of 8% for the non-Aboriginal population of Canada.
Culture and Communities
There are 8 main Inuit ethnic groups: the Labrador, Ungava, Baffin Island, Iglulik, Caribou, Netsilik, Copper and Western Arctic Inuit (who replaced the Mackenzie Inuit). There are five main Inuit language dialects in Canada: Inuvialuktun, (Inuvialuit region in the Northwest Territories); Inuinnaqtun (western Nunavut); Inuttitut (Eastern Nunavut dialect); Inuttitut (Nunavik dialect); and Inuttut (Nunatsiavut). (see Languages of Aboriginal People) In the 2006 census almost 70% of Inuit reported having knowledge of the Inuit language and almost two-thirds described Inuktitut as their mother tongue (first language learned). The language usage was strongest in Nunavik and Nunavut, where more than 9 out of 10 Inuit could converse in Inuktitut. In contrast, the figures were 27% in Nunatsiavut and 20% in the Inuvialuit region. Although the language and its use remain strong among the Inuit, the number of speakers has been gradually decreasing, prompting the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, territorial and federal governments to establish Inuktitut curriculum in schools.
Traditionally, the Inuit were hunters and gatherers who moved seasonally from one camp to another. Large regional groupings were loosely separated into smaller seasonal groups, winter camps (called "bands") of around 100 people and summer hunting groups of fewer than a dozen. Each band was roughly identified with a locale and named accordingly - eg, the Arvirtuurmiut of Boothia Peninsula were called "baleen whale-eating people." Today, many types of food such as fruit, vegetables, and milk must be transported long distances to northern communities, which results in higher costs, limited availability and food that is not fresh. However the availability of "country food" through harvesting and sharing partially explains the high percentage of Inuit who consume country food. A report released in 2005 found that an overwhelming majority of Inuit adults living in Nunaat harvested country food, which includes seal, whale, duck, caribou, fish and berries. Country foods remain an important food source for many Inuit, and almost all families in Nunaat (96%) share country food with people in other households.
During roughly 4000 years of human history in the Arctic, the appearance of new people has brought continual cultural change. The ancestors of the present-day Inuit, who are culturally related to Inuppiat (northern Alaska), Katladlit (Greenland) and Yuit (Siberia and western Alaska), arrived about 1050 AD. As early as the 11th century the Norse exerted an undetermined influence on the Inuit. The subsequent arrival of explorers, whalers, traders, missionaries, scientists and others began irreversible cultural changes. The Inuit themselves participated actively in these developments as guides, traders and models of survival. Despite adjustments made by the Inuit over the past 3 centuries and the loss of some traditional features, Inuit culture persists - often with a greater reflective awareness. Inuit maintain a cultural identity through language, family and cultural laws, attitudes and behaviour, and through their acclaimed Inuit art.
The Inuit have never been subject to the Indian Act and were largely ignored by government until 1939, when a court decision ruled that they were a federal responsibility. The Inuit negotiated the Nunavut territory ("Our Land") with the federal government to define Inuit and Dene lands in the NWT. Some Inuit still follow a nomadic way of life, but others are involved in the administration and development of northern Canada - in business, local and territorial politics, teaching, transportation, medicine, broadcasting and the civil service. See also Aboriginal People: Arctic.
Many Inuit in northern communities face significant challenges, such as living in some of the most crowded conditions in Canada. A 2006 survey found that in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Québec, and Labrador, more than 15 000 Inuit were living in over-crowded conditions, and were the most likely to live in households with more than one family. Although the Inuit population is young (median age of 22 years, compared with 39 years for the total Canadian population in 2006), the living conditions and lack of access to healthcare partially contribute to an increase in chronic health conditions, including obesity and diabetes. Despite these challenges, the traditions that tie the Inuit to their land remain strong today and even with high unemployment, substandard housing and low income, most Inuit do not move away from the communities in which they were raised.
In 2006, Mary May Simon was elected national leader of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the organization that represents the interests of Inuit people.