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The Inuit of Nunavik

By Ludger Müller-Wille

Nunavik, the "Great Land" in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, is the modern name for the ancient homeland of the Quebec Inuit. Mainland Nunavik accounts for approximately 500,000 square kilometres, or one-third of Quebec's territory. This culturally and socio-economically distinct area also includes the offshore islands that were once occupied by Inuit and are today important to them for fishing, sealing and hunting.

The Inuit

The Inuit (meaning "the People," from "inu-" = human being and "-it" = many) are the Aboriginal inhabitants of Arctic Canada including the northern reaches of the Quebec-Labrador peninsula, where their ancestors occupied coastal areas as far back as 4,000 years ago. The prehistoric populations were hunters who frequented the coast and islands to fish and kill marine mammals (seals, walrus and whales) and also ventured inland for fish, caribou and fowl. They were highly mobile, living in skin tents, sod houses and snow houses, depending on the season.

Community life centred on small kin groups. In the interior and south along the coast of Tasiujarjuaq (Hudson Bay), they met Algonquian-speaking peoples (Cree, Naskapi or Innu). In two settlements, Chisasibi (Mailasikkut) and Whapmagoostui (Kuujjuaraapik/Grande Baleine), the two cultural communities now live side by side. The Inuit of Nunavik are divided linguistically into speakers of the western Tasiujarjuaq coast dialect and of the northern and eastern Nuvummiut Tarranga dialect, which is contiguous to the dialect of the Labrador coast.

The emergence of Nunavik

The region of Nunavik was first occupied and settled by the prehistoric ancestors of the Inuit, who mainly used the coastal areas for seasonal campsites, fishing, and the hunting of sea and land mammals. With the influx into the area of Euro-Canadian institutions (fur trade, missions, schools and administration), the Inuit gradually concentrated in locations that form the 14 present-day settlements along the coast of Nunavik.

Henry Hudson and his crew, who met Inuit on the islands and at the coast of Nuvummiut Tariunga (Hudson Strait) in 1610, were the first European explorers to visit the region. The Inuit lands became known to outsiders through subsequent explorations by the Hudson's Bay Company after 1750, by Moravian missionaries from the early 1800s, and by Canadian scientific expeditions between the 1880s and 1900.

Since that time Nunavik has been gradually integrated into the socio-economic, political and administrative system of Canada and Quebec, a process that was hastened by the military installations established there in the 1940s and 1950s and, since the 1960s, the development of mining and hydro-electric activities and the creation of administrative structures. Most of the Inuit of Nunavik surrendered their Aboriginal title and rights to their homeland by negotiating and signing the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, thus clearing the way for an immense hydro-electric project. Today, the region is striving towards self-government to meet the future needs and demands of a rapidly growing population.

The physical environment

Nunavik is dissected by a large number of lakes and rivers that drain into Ungava (Ungava Bay) and Tasiujarjuaq (Hudson Bay). They serve as access to the interior, where renewable resources are utilized by the Inuit. Starting in the 1950s, the Labrador Trough, a mineral-rich geological fault running west of Ungava to the core of the peninsula, underwent major socio-economic development. However, mining activities ceased in the Schefferville region in the early 1980s.

The physical environment of the area is composed of open tundra in the northern parts and northern woodlands (spruce, larch and pine) in the south. The treeline, a fringe zone between these vegetal conditions, runs between Tasiujaq (Lac Guillaume-Delisle) in the west and Ungava in the northeast. The larger part of the region is characterized by continuous or intermittent permafrost.

The climate is influenced by the continental landmass and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Winters are long, cold and rather dry; summers are short, cool and wet. Spring and fall have frequent storms and unstable conditions. The temperature range is between -40oC in January and +10oC to +20oC in July. There are around 25 frost-free days per annum. Snow cover can be expected between October and June and reaches up to 200 centimetres. The coast is usually ice-bound between November and June, and the navigational period is therefore rather short. Nunavik's northernmost locations experience long days in the summer (20-22 hours of daylight in June) and short ones in the winter (5 hours in December).

Today, Nunavik continues to bear the imprint of a vibrant Inuit culture, one that combines traditional values and heritage with modern achievements

Source: "Wrapped in the Colours of the Earth. Cultural Heritage of the First Nations" Exhibition Text, McCord Museum, 1992

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