If you give an Inuit a snowmobile...

If you give an Inuit a snowmobile... McGill University

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McGill Reporter
October 19, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 04
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > October 19, 2000 > If you give an Inuit a snowmobile...

If you give an Inuit a snowmobile...

In the midst of a particularly trying week, do you ever find yourself thinking that the country tune, "You Can Take This Job and Shove It," was spot on?

Photo Geography professor George Wenzel
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Although they probably wouldn't phrase it in those exact terms, many Inuit earning salaries in the north are arriving at pretty much the same conclusion, according to geography professor George Wenzel.

The Inuit's frustrations don't have much to do with lame-brained bosses or goof-off co-workers. It's more complicated than that. It ties into the disruptive effects that an increasing reliance on the money earned through jobs is having on their way of life.

"Culturally, the Inuit perceive themselves as hunters," explains Wenzel, a longtime observer of life in the north. Hunting has been an intrinsic part of Inuit society for centuries.

"Hunters supply food to their families and communities and tightly knit bonds based on kinship ensure that food is distributed fairly."

But things have been changing.

Increased contact with southern society cemented money as an inescapable part of life in the north. Money became a greater factor in the lives of the Inuit, as it became necessary to purchase a growing list of essentials. Initially, hunting too was a money-making proposition; pelts were turned into bucks for Inuit communities. But a well-organized animal rights movement in the 1980s led a successful campaign that stigmatized the wearing of fur in North America and Europe.

"The world market for seal skins collapsed," notes Wenzel. "The fur trade is essentially dead."

Meanwhile, hunting itself developed into a much more expensive proposition. Dogs and sleds became outmoded, replaced by powerful snowmobiles.

Snowmobiles are pricey items -- to buy, maintain and repair. With the disappearance of southern markets for fur, the hunt lost its ability to pay for itself.

Job creation schemes too became part of the shifting environment. Governments are used to viewing the creation of jobs as a good thing. But the jobs and the growing reliance on the money they bring in are resulting in effects that governments didn't envisage, says Wenzel.

"For one thing, the jobs are really only available to a small portion of the community, because so many of them require the ability to read and write in English." The unemployment rate hovers at around the 60 per cent mark.

The pressure on those who do have jobs to share the wealth is intense because so many other members of the community don't have the same access to money.

Because of the tight ties of kinship, people holding down jobs are expected to hand over a big chunk of their income. "It's practically impossible to refuse. They're left with very little money for themselves."

In addition, "the jobs are not really socially rewarding. They tend to be truck drivers or file clerks. There aren't many people who would say, 'I really like my job.'"

The people with salaried work, typically women and younger Inuit, are growing resentful of their lot, Wenzel suggests. "The traditional system isn't working to their advantage."

With the creation of Nunavut, more jobs will likely flow away from small communities and towards the bigger northern towns.

"Inuit will be leaving the social support systems that are so important to them and that will have ramifications. But there's another question. Will people send the money they earn back home or will these jobs be viewed as an escape from those obligations?"

Sometimes Inuit want to leave the jobs to go back to hunting, but find themselves in a Catch-22 bind.

"They may like to quit and hunt instead, but they can't if they're unable to afford the maintenance of the equipment they use for hunting. It costs $800 to replace a track on a snowmobile.

"To be a successful hunter, you need the time and energy to devote to it. There are no shortcuts to catching seal or caribou. You can't predict that it will take you two hours to catch something. It doesn't work that way. It's not something you can do on weekends on top of having a full-time job."

Furthermore, Inuit are increasingly reluctant to lend out their snowmobiles to other hunters, because the costs of repairs are prohibitive. "And if someone else has your snowmobile, you can't do any hunting yourself."

In terms of community standing and self-regard, having a job just doesn't compete with the status given to hunting.

"When you catch food, you're able to feed others in your community. That represents a huge psychic reward.

"The way Inuit perceive money is very different from the way we look at it. Its only value among the Inuit is in how it's used."

"It's more important to buy a snowmobile and stay connected to the land [through hunting] than it is to pay your bills. I can't tell you how often friends of mine up north have had their phones disconnected."

Wenzel argues that, apart from its cultural significance, hunting also makes good economic sense given the high cost of living in the north. As a result, government programs should encourage hunting, he reasons.

"It can cost $150 a day to feed a family of four. A kilo of hamburger costs $10 up there; a 30-kilo seal can be had with a one-dollar bullet. And a good-sized seal feeds six to eight people for a day or two."

Wenzel has been active in encouraging governments to recognize hunting as a vital element of life in the north. His research helped effect changes to the Workers' Compensation Board's regulations for Inuit hunters.

Compensation payments to injured hunters used to be based on the money they were able to earn from hunting. Wenzel successfully argued that, given the communal nature of Inuit society, the value of the hunters' work in providing food to others in the community needed to be part of the equation in determining disability payments.

He also helped develop hunter support programs on a small scale in Nunavut. The programs provided access to equipment for anyone who wanted to hunt, "particularly for those who had difficulty in accessing equipment. Young people, for instance, often have no opportunity to establish themselves as hunters."

He would like to see similar programs created on a larger scale.

Wenzel has studied the Inuit for 30 years, spending a portion of almost every year living among them in Clyde River. His work isn't spurred by purely objective concerns.

"The Inuit are exceedingly gracious to outsiders. They tend to be seen in a highly romanticized way or as an anachronism, but they have an extremely vibrant lifestyle. They're sharp people.

"No one ever goes hungry if there is food. No one ever goes without shelter.

"There are lots of things happening around them right now that they have limited control over. I hope my work can help them fit some of these changes to their way of life, instead of having to alter their lives to fit into these changes."

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