Inuit —Inuktitut for “the people” — are an Aboriginal people, the majority of whom inhabit the northern regions of Canada. An Inuit person is known as an Inuk. The Inuit homeland is known as Inuit Nunangat,which refers to the land, water and ice contained in the Arctic region. The term Inuit Nunangat may also be used to refer to land occupied by the Inuit in Alaska and Greenland. In 2011, using data from the National Household Survey, Statistics Canada estimated that 59,445 people in Canada, about 4.2 per cent of the Aboriginal population, identified themselves as Inuit.

In 2006, approximately 80 per cent of all Inuit in Canada lived in Inuit Nunangat, 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.

Language and Ethnic Groups

There are eight main Inuit ethnic groups: the Labrador, Ungava, Baffin Island, Iglulik, Caribou, Netsilik, Copper and Western Arctic Inuit (who replaced the Mackenzie Inuit). Inuktitut, the Inuit language, has five main dialects in Canada: Inuvialuktun (Inuvialuit region in the Northwest Territories); Inuinnaqtun (western Nunavut); Inuktitut (eastern Nunavut dialect); Inuktitut (Nunavik dialect); and Nunatsiavumiuttut (Nunatsiavut). (See Languages of Aboriginal People)

In 2011, 37,615 Inuit, reported having conversational knowledge of an Inuit language or dialect. In Inuit Nunangat as a whole, 82.8 per cent of Inuit reported conversational ability in Inuktitut. Inuktitut usage was strongest in Nunavik and Nunavut, where the ability to converse in Inuktitut was 99.1 per cent and 89 per cent respectively. In contrast, the figures were 24.9 per cent in Nunatsiavut and 20.1 per cent in the Inuvialuit region. Amongst Aboriginal peoples in Canada, the Inuit have the highest proportion reporting an ability to speak an Aboriginal language at 63.7 per cent. Declining usage of Inuktitut prompted the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami — the national voice of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat, founded in 1971 —to establish Inuktitut curriculum in schools. Beginning in the 1960s, federal and territorial governments also worked to establish Inuktitut language programs, though for some, justification was partly based on the assumption that establishing such educational traditions would facilitate transition to English or French. While the number of Inuktitut speakers has grown, it has done so at a slower rate than the general Inuit population, thus the proportion of speakers has decreased from 68.8 per cent in 2006 to 63.3 per cent in 2011.

Traditional Culture and Life

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 — the Arvirtuurmiut of Boothia Peninsula were called "baleen whale-eating people."

In contemporary northern communities, many types of food such as fruit, vegetables, and milk must be transported long distances, resulting 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 a majority (68 per cent) of Inuk adults living in Inuit Nunangat harvested country food, which includes seal, whale, duck, caribou, fish and berries. Country food remains an important food source for many Inuit, with 65 per cent of households getting at least half their meat and fish from country food, and approximately 80 per cent of Inuit Nunangat families sharing country food with people in other households.

During roughly 4,000 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 Inupiat (northern Alaska), Katladlit (Greenland) and Yuit (Siberia and western Alaska), arrived about 1050 CE. 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 three 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 much acclaimed Inuit art.

Moving Toward Self-Government

The Inuit have never been subject to the Indian Act and were largely ignored by the Canadian federal government until 1939, when a court decision ruled that they were a federal responsibility, though still not subject to the Indian Act. What followed were policies that enforced assimilation into a “Canadian” way of life. Formerly nomadic peoples were transformed, sometimes through forced relocation, into sedentary communities, and disc numbers were introduced to supersede an Inuit naming system that did not correspond to administrative needs. Disc numbers — so-called because they were distributed on small leather or pressed-fibre discs initially meant to be worn on one’s person — imposed a government sanctioned name on Inuit who may have been known by several names throughout their lives and depending on context. The system used location-based serial numbers. For example, filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk’s disc number is E51613. The imposition of disc numbers remains a culturally traumatic event, and has been criticized as fostering structural inequality.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Inuit began organizing politically in response to assimilative policies and government restrictions on traditional lands. In order to lobby effectively for land claims, Aboriginal rights and self-government, a group of Inuit people formed Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (then known as Inuit Tapirisat of Canada) in 1971. The organization supports and advocates for the interests of all Inuit living in 53 communities across Inuit Nunangat. Such interests represent an array of interconnected issues and challenges, including social, cultural, political, and environmental concerns.

First proposed by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in 1976, and supported by plebiscite in 1982, the Nunavut territory was agreed to in principle in a land claim in 1990, and formalized with the Nunavut Act in 1993. A strong base of politically experienced leaders allowed for a relatively smooth transition to official territory status in 1999. Three other land claim agreements in Inuit Nunangat support some level of Inuit self-government. The Makivik Corporation, through the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, is working toward a self-governing Nunavik, as is the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation for Inuvialuit. Nunatsiavut has been self-governed since 1 December 2005 after the implementation of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement and the Labrador Inuit Constitution.

Contemporary Challenges

Despite gains made in self-government and other fields like business, teaching, transportation, medicine and broadcasting, many Inuit in northern communities face significant challenges, such as living in some of the most crowded conditions in Canada. Since being moved to permanent settlements in the 1950s and 1960s, Inuit have lacked adequate housing and have suffered related health problems. A 2006 survey found that in Inuit Nunangat 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. Living conditions and lack of access to healthcare partially contribute to an increase in chronic health conditions, including obesity, diabetes and respiratory infections. The suicide rate among Inuit youth is markedly higher than for the rest of Canada, making suicide prevention a key priority for continued cultural growth.