Inuit culture and the threat of climate change

Inuit culture and the threat of climate change

The inhabitants of Nunavik have been able to perpetuate their traditional way of life, despite decades of attempts at assimilation. But their territory and its fauna are more than ever threatened by the climate crisis.


“As you can see, we even have a golf course. But people prefer to hunt and fish,” drops out, smirking, Mary Arngak as she drives down the dirt road that winds through the hills between the village of Kangiqsujuaq and the shore of Hudson Strait, more than 1,800 kilometers north of north of Montreal.

This is where this Inuit, passionate about the traditional culture of her people, owns a “cabin”, a one-room camp that is at the heart of the way of life of many Nunavik residents. In his village of about 1000 inhabitants, “each family has its own cabin, usually located very close to the coast. And it is bequeathed from one generation to another,” she explains. This small house serves as a lodging place for the practice of hunting and fishing, two crucial activities in their diet.

“I love coming here every weekend. It’s very quiet, ”said the former mayor of Kangiqsujuaq when she arrived on site. For the occasion, Mr.me Arngak took care to bring dried beluga meat, but also “muktuk”, which is in fact the skin and fat of this cetacean that passes not far from the shore during its seasonal migrations. The whole thing is eaten after being dipped in beluga oil, which she keeps in a boiler stored under the balcony of her cabin. “We eat everything, even the pectoral fins and the caudal fin, which we call “the feast for women”. We also use the intestines to make sausage,” she explains, cutting pieces with her uluk, a traditional knife used only by women.

For the Inuit of Kangiqsujuaq, beluga hunting is not only a means of subsistence, it is also, and above all, a stakeholder in the life of their community. “We hunt belugas from May to July. It is an important activity for the village. It is announced on the radio, the school closes and everyone gathers at the wharf to share the meat of the beluga whales that the hunters are going to fetch by boat. Everyone is entitled to their share. We catch 30 to 40 a year,” summarizes Mary Arngak.

The Inuit hunt beluga and caribou, but also seal, as their nomadic ancestors did hundreds of years ago. “We hunt it all year round and we eat everything, even the liver, the brain and the eyes. The bearded seal is also ideal for making boots, because its leather is thick. And fermented walrus meat is excellent,” she says.

“But we are careful with all the animals we kill. For example, Arctic char are not fished for the simple pleasure of putting the fish back in the water. We only take what we eat. And when the hunters of Kangiqsujuaq had the opportunity to reconnect with the perilous hunt for bowhead whales in 2008, “the meat was shared with several other communities in Nunavik”, recalls hunter Noah Annahatak, who was the first to spear this animal weighing more than 40 tons.

Defend your language

Mme Arngak also introduced the To have to edible plants around his village and harvesting mussels directly from the shore. This resource is abundant in the very rich waters fed by the strong tides in the bay where the village is located. “In winter, we dig a hole in the ice and go down under the ice, at low tide, to pick them up. You can eat them on the spot. »

The food intake from the region’s resources is all the more essential for the Inuit since the 14 communities scattered along the very vast coast of Nunavik are supplied mainly by boat. In Kangiqsujuaq, it passes twice a year, in July and October. He was there precisely at the time of the passage of the To have to, much to the delight of the villagers, who otherwise have to rely on products transported by air. Result: prices are at least two or three times higher at the cooperative than in grocery stores in the south of the province.

The former mayor who became director of Parc national des Pingualuit is, however, visibly proud of the great vitality of Inuit culture in her community. “Kangiqsujuaq is a village that tries to keep Inuit traditions alive. We fought for Inuktitut to be taught in school. Now, the first years of the students are spent in Inuktitut. And on the radio, we speak Inuktitut. It helps young people to learn it. »

More than 95% of the approximately 13,000 Inuit of Quebec speak their language, a feat for a people who have long been despised by governments, who have imposed on them their education system in English, sedentarization and the abandonment of traditions that are nevertheless well anchored. in their culture. “We were nomads. We followed the animals for hunting and fishing. We lived in igloos in the winter and camps in the summer. My mother was born in an igloo. But the government forced us to gather in the village, which was a former trading post, in the early 1960s. It was a way of forcing us to go to school and it was also a condition for receiving assistance from the federal government. As people were hungry, they had to accept”, says Mary Arngak.

Disturbed climate

These traumas have left traces that are still very present in communities hit by particularly damaging social ills, such as drug addiction, violence or suicide. Stakeholders met in Kangiqsujuaq, but who did not wish to be identified, confirmed this sad reality.

Even today, the Inuit fear the judgment of visitors and passing workers, after decades of ostracization and misunderstanding, in particular because of their habit of eating raw meat, sitting on the ground. “Some are ashamed because we have been called savages. When a person knocks on the door, we know that it is a white person, because the Inuit do not knock on doors. And some hide the boxes on which they put the food under the couch. We’re still trying to be comfortable with you, ”drops Mme Arngak.

After the hardships of the last decades and the struggles to finally be able to reconnect fully with their culture, the Inuit must also face the impacts of the climate crisis, which directly threatens their way of life intimately linked to the cycle of the seasons and the presence of the ice. On the coasts of Nunavik, this ice season, which generally takes place from November to May, “will be shortened by more than six weeks” by 2050, according to the chapter on Quebec in the federal report “on regional perspectives”. on climate change, published in August.

Movement between communities is also increasingly disrupted by “unpredictable weather conditions”, melting permafrost threatens infrastructure and global warming risks causing the decline of species essential for subsistence hunting and fishing. Already, laments Mary Arngak, “the elders of the village are seeing significant changes”. What to fear for the future of the way of life of its fellow citizens, which it strives day after day to keep alive.

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