The term Arctic peoples in Canada is generally used to describe the indigenous Inuit population, who have enjoyed almost exclusive occupation of the Canadian Arctic for thousands of years. The Arctic comprises those inland and coastal areas north of the treeline. In areas close to the treeline, Inuit and other Aboriginal peoples have traditionally occupied similar environments (though rarely at the same time), and have hunted and fished similar game species. Nevertheless, the terms Inuit — itself a generic term — and Arctic peoples are often used interchangeably. The Arctic is one of six cultural areas contained in what is now Canada. Unlike provinces and countries, these cultural areas do not have strict boundaries, and instead refer to areas in more general terms.


The arctic regions are characterized by long daylight hours in summer with moderate temperatures. Winters are long and cold, and at more northerly locations there is a midwinter period when the sun is entirely absent. Plant cover may be continuous, especially in well-watered locations, although rocky outcrops and barren dry areas are common. Trees are entirely lacking in the Arctic, though low shrubby plants occur, including several varieties of edible berries. Landforms are variable, from lake-studded lowlands to glacier-strewn alpine areas.

People and Language

There are eight main Inuit groups in Canada: the Labrador, Ungava, Baffin Island, Iglulik, Caribou, Netsilik, Copper (or Kitlinermiut) and Inuvialuit. The Inuvialuit (sometimes known as the Western Arctic Inuit) moved into the western Canadian Arctic from Alaska in the early 20th century, largely replacing and subsuming the Siglit, whose population had been decimated by several smallpox and influenza epidemics. The Sadlermiut, in northwestern Hudson Bay, died out from foreign disease following contact during the early 1900s (see Epidemic;Aboriginal People, Health).

The land, water and ice occupied by the Inuit in the arctic regions of Canada, Alaska and Greenland is often referred to as Inuit Nunangat. In 2011, there were nearly 60,000 Inuit in Canada, 73 per cent of whom lived in Inuit Nunangat.

Inuit in Canada traditionally speak Inuktitut, of which there are many different dialects (see Aboriginal People, Languages). However, because of improved travel opportunities and the development of Inuit-language radio and TV programming, language differences are diminishing (see Communications in the North; Aboriginal People, Communications). Traditionally, there was no written language, but after contact with missionaries, Inuit widely adopted writing systems; and since 1920, the adult literacy rate has been almost 100 per cent. In 2006, approximately 83 per cent of Inuit living in the Arctic reported a conversational ability in Inuktitut.

Social Organization

Historically, Inuit communities contained 500–1,000 members. The most important social and political unit was the regional band, several of which together constituted the larger groups within which marriages occurred and all members spoke a similar dialect. Regional bands would customarily congregate for short periods during the winter months, when people would gather in sealing or hunting camps.

During the rest of the year, Inuit lived in smaller bands, often composed of two to five families. Each household generally consisted of a married couple and their children, though elderly or unmarried relatives might also be present. Many economic and social activities involved inter-household co-operation, and widespread sharing was, and still is, a fundamental characteristic of Inuit social life. Most families who chose to live together were closely related, with leadership of the group generally assumed by the oldest active member.

Family Structure

Marriage was nearly universal among Inuit and customarily took place in early adulthood; it was common for the young couple to reside close to the parents of one or the other spouse. Many households included adopted children, an indication of the high value accorded to children. Children were an important means of establishing valued inter-family relationships through adoption, betrothal, adult-child relationships established at birthing ceremonies and naming practices. The family was an important economic unit, relying on a decided division of responsibilities among all household members, including children and elderly relatives.

Inuit society associated birth with several socially significant rituals. Among some groups, in addition to an attending midwife, there was another adult who served as the child's ritual sponsor, assuming responsibilities for the child's moral upbringing. Throughout life special terms of address were used; and in the case of a boy, his first killed game animals, and in the case of a girl, her first sewn items, were presented to this adult. Naming occurred at birth and had special significance, as Inuit names included part of the identity and character of the name bearer.

Betrothal of children could occur at any time, even before birth. Young people promised to each other used a special form of address, and their families related in ways appropriate to the future relationship. Marriage, an exceptionally stable institution among Inuit, was customarily preceded by a period of trial marriage. Polygamy, having multiple wives, and more rarely polyandry, having multiple husbands, also occurred, but were not common practices.

Traditional Subsistence

Most Inuit groups based their economy on sea-mammal hunting, particularly seals. In summer and fall many groups hunted caribou or moved to favoured coastal locations to hunt and fish a variety of game species. Fishing and food gathering (for bird eggs, shellfish and berries) were important seasonal activities, as were hunts for polar bear and whale. Though high value was placed on fresh food, people also preserved and stored goods for future use. Drying and caching in cool areas were common techniques, although several special techniques (such as storing in oil) were also used.

Traditional technology was based on locally available materials, principally bone, horn, antler, ivory, stone and animal skins. In some areas people used grass or baleen (the material used by whales to strain krill and plankton) for basketry, or substituted wood or copper for antler or bone, and bird or fish skins for animal skins. Many Inuit inventions are considered technological masterpieces for their resourcefulness and strength of design, like the igloo (igluvigak), the toggling harpoon head and the kayak.

There was an important relationship between location of settlements and seasonably available food resources. The composition of settlements might change periodically in response to social needs and desires to interact with kinsmen residing elsewhere. Many hunting methods became more effective when several hunters worked co-operatively, e.g., during winter seal hunting.

Transportation and Dwellings

All Inuit used sleds and skin-covered boats, though regional variations in both design and use were common. Dogs historically served as hunting animals, locating seal breathing holes in the sea ice, hunting muskoxen, holding bears at bay and serving as pack animals in the summer. Men used single-seat kayaks for hunting sea mammals, and for hunting caribou in rivers and lakes. In Alaska, large skin-covered umiaks were used for whale hunting, although in the Canadian Arctic (and Greenland) women more often used such boats to transport households from place to place.

The skin tent, often with a short ridgepole, was generally made from sealskins and weighted down along the ground with rocks. Among the Caribou Inuit, the tent was often conical shaped and constructed from caribou skins. When suitable snow was not available for igloos, or when away from the sites of sod and stonewalled houses, tents served as temporary shelters.

Igloo design varied. At winter settlements, the main living chamber could be quite large, perhaps four metres in diameter and almost three metres in height. In addition, igloos featured chambers for storage and an entrance passage, and often, extra living chambers attached to the side. In some regions it was customary to line the walls with caribou skins for insulation. Most igloos had a snow sleeping platform and a window (made from clear lake ice) set into the roof. Smaller, less elaborate igloos are still used during winter travel. In the western Arctic, where driftwood logs were available, permanent dwellings were constructed for winter use. Windows in this case were made from translucent animal skin parchment.


Inuit skilfully manufactured footwear and clothing from animal skins. Even though parkas, gloves and boots followed a similar basic design, regional variations in pattern and technique persisted. Most Inuit made sealskin footwear for both winter and spring/summer use; the latter were entirely waterproof. In some areas, caribou skin replaced sealskin, especially for winter boots.

The parka traditionally consisted of an inner and outer jacket, usually of caribou fur. Some groups wore sealskin parkas in spring through autumn and caribou fur in winter. Women's clothing was often more elaborate than men's, with a voluminous hood on the tailed and aproned parka. Women carried infants in a pouch against the woman's back, not in the hood. There was little bodily adornment, save for the practice of women's facial and arm tattooing.

Religion and Mythology

Prior to contact, Inuit religious leaders were shamans who underwent lengthy and arduous training. Shamans were intermediaries between the Inuit and the various spiritual forces that influenced activities. Inuit life required strict adherence to various prohibitions and rules of conduct, so the role of the shaman was usually to determine transgressors and to prescribe appropriate atonement (see Aboriginal People, Religion). Early missionary activity was similarly constituted, with many new rules and prohibitions introduced and penitence demanded after sinning. In the 20th century, the intensive efforts of missionaries led many Inuit to adopt Christianity; ordained Inuit clergy or catechists serve a large number of communities.

Inuit mythology, a system based on oral traditions and used to explain and instruct daily life, has experienced resurgence as a vehicle for cultural vitality. Programs exist to support the oral traditions and encourage interaction with traditional stories through youth and elders. Young Inuit are expected to learn by example, through close association with adults. Many of the values and beliefs of the society are demonstrated implicitly in behaviour, e.g., the constant sharing of food and other commodities was a manifestation of the value of generosity and co-operation, and a negation of stinginess, greediness and selfishness. Reinforcement of these lessons was contained in stories that the elders enjoyed telling, especially to children.

Art and Culture

The traditional musical instrument was the drum, up to a metre in diameter, made by stretching a skin membrane across a wooden hoop. Among Western Arctic Inuit, several sitting drummers usually accompanied one or several dancers, whereas elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic drumming was an individual performance at which the drummer stood and chanted, swaying rhythmically with the drumbeat. Following contact with outsiders, instruments such as concertinas, accordions, fiddles, harmonicas, jaw harps and, more recently, guitars became widespread. Square dancing, often in extended and intricate performances, sometimes without a caller, has remained very popular. "Throat singing" occurred among some groups, usually performed by two women producing a wide range of sounds from deep in the throat and chest. This art is still practised in the Arctic.

Artisans made decorative art by sewing skins or inscribing on utensils. Recent innovations in Inuit art, e.g., soapstone carving, printmaking and wall hangings, stem from traditional skills, sometimes using new materials or techniques. Skills in creating string figures and other games that develop memory, manual dexterity and patience, continue to be practised. Many Inuit compete in physical challenges that test one’s ability to high-kick (one and two foot varieties), kneel-jump, and many other feats of strength and dexterity. Many of these games are featured in the Arctic Winter Games, held every two years in a new location across the Arctic, including Alaska and Greenland. The Games attract competitors from Inuit Nunangat (including Alaska and Greenland), as well as from arctic regions of Europe.


Evidence exists of settlement in the Arctic by Norse travellers in the 14th century. However, the first sustained contact with outsiders occurred between Moravian missionaries and Labrador Inuit in the late 18th century. Fleeting trade contacts were established at a few other locations in the Arctic, but most contact occurred nearly a century later. During the latter half of the 19th century, explorers and commercial whalers introduced various trade items to the Inuit, though it was only following the end of commercial whaling, effectively at the time of the Second World War, that trading posts became more or less permanently established in the arctic regions.

Inuit were largely ignored by the federal government until 1939, when they were deemed the government’s responsibility. Following the Second World War, there was an intensification of government activity, including the establishment of schools, nursing stations, airports and communication installations, and housing programs in the newly established settlements and hamlets. These impositions caused much cultural tension, as many Inuit were forcibly relocated to areas with which they were unfamiliar, or were given disc numbers in lieu of names, for ease of government administration.

Cultural Change

Since contact with outsiders, many changes in Inuit society and culture have occurred. The early adoption of iron tools, firearms, cloth and wooden boats altered or replaced certain material items. The spread of Christianity resulted in the loss of many traditional religious ideas and practices, and Canadian law has been superimposed on customary law in areas concerned with marriage, dispute settlement and wildlife management (see Aboriginal People, Law). Even the language has changed; written Inuktitut, for example, uses Arabic numerals — the same numerals as English and French — alongside syllabics.

Many items traditionally used by the Inuit remain in use by all peoples in the Arctic; among these are harpoons used in marine mammal hunting, sealskin boots and caribou parkas required for winter hunting, igloos and sleds used in winter travelling, and techniques of preparing animal skins and sewing skin clothing. Important elements of the value system have also resisted change, including traditional childrearing practices, concerns about environmental matters, the continued survival of the Inuit language and culture, and respect for individual autonomy (see Inuit Co-operatives).

Contemporary Life

In the early 1970s, a national organization, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, was established to protect Inuit cultural and individual rights. The organization created several agencies in response to expressed needs. An Inuit Language Commission, for example, was formed to seek the best means of ensuring the increased use of Inuktitut for governmental, educational and communications purposes, and a Land Claims Office was established to research and negotiate Inuit land claims.

Many of these issues, such as protection of the arctic environment, are international in scope. Therefore, an international Inuit organization, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, was formed with committees seeking to strengthen pan-Inuit communication, cultural and artistic activities, and international co-operation in environmental protection. This organization has affiliation with numerous international bodies, including the United Nations, thereby ensuring that Inuit concerns become widely understood throughout the world.

Despite the achievements of Inuit in numerous fields, many still face significant challenges, among them overcrowding, food scarcity, chronic health issues and high rates of youth suicide.