"That which we have always known to be true"

McGill researcher champions the importance of Inuit Traditional Knowledge in the Contemporary World.

Future Ready is a long-read research series published by Research and Innovation. In this article, Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer, co-author of The Globe and Mail’s bi-weekly Indigenous Leaders column, reports on McGill’s first Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ): Traditional Knowledge in the Contemporary World Virtual Roundtable, and examines more broadly McGill's efforts at Reconciliation and Indigenous education. Portrait of McGill researcher Marianne Stenbaek by internationally renowned Inuit artist, Jonasie Faber.


As the Indigenous resurgence movement grows and efforts at Reconciliation blossom across Canada, Universities from coast to coast to coast are transforming their engagement with Indigenous issues and education, and redefining their relationships with local Indigenous communities.

In March 2021, Aaju Peter, Inuit cultural advisor and lecturer, began a ceremony with the lighting of the sacred Qulliq, a traditional lamp. The Qulliq’s lighting opened McGill’s first Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ): Traditional Knowledge in the Contemporary World Virtual Roundtable, organized by McGill’s Professor Marianne Stenbaek. The event was supported by funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and inspired by the McGill Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education. The Quilliq's light reflected the roundtable’s thematic emphasis on historical and contemporary Inuit cultural practices, and the day proceeded with more than a dozen diverse presenters and panelists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, sharing their knowledge, research, and experiences with nearly 500 participants.

McGill has committed to a long-term strategy to transform its approach to Indigenous education, programming, representation, and relationships. In 2016, led by Provost Christopher Manfredi, the University launched the Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education, and in 2017, created a new position, the Special Advisor of Indigenous Initiatives. These two concrete actions have supported greater Indigenous recruitment efforts for both students and faculty, and increased support for Indigenous research projects across departments. Within this new chapter, there has also been exciting work happening around Inuit Qauijimajatuqangit (IQ) at McGill in partnership with diverse Inuit scholars, organizations, and communities.

How We Know What We Know

Inuit Qauijimajatuqangit (IQ), also referred to as Inuit traditional knowledge, can be translated to ‘that which Inuit have always known to be true’. This way of knowing and being is based on historical and more contemporary observations by Inuit which have been passed on, mostly orally, over several lifetimes. Traditional knowledge exists in many forms, reflecting the diversity of Indigenous peoples of the world, each with their own epistemologies shaped by the land they inhabit, their way of life, their language, and the unique history of their people.

In Nunavut, Inuit elders have identified and helped to develop a contemporary framework for IQ, which is grounded in four overarching laws or maligait. All cultural beliefs and values are associated with the implementation of these maligait, ultimately contributing to ‘living a good life’, which is also described as the purpose of being. In a report by the National Collaborating Center for Aboriginal Health on IQ and wellness in Inuit communities, these maligait are described as working for the common good, respecting all living things, maintaining harmony and balance, and continually planning and preparing for the future.

“Elders describe maligait (natural laws) as the most fundamental laws entrenched in Inuit society that respect one’s place in the universe, the environment and in society. These laws speak to interconnectedness in the world and the spiritual supports available to aid in survival.” (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Education Framework, Nunavut Department of Education)

Based on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and maligait, Inuit societal and cultural values incorporate traditional Inuit knowledge into everyday practices and serve as the foundation for much of modern Inuit government, education, and society. According to the Government of Nunavut, these values include: respecting others, relationships and caring for people (Inuuqatigiitsiarniq); fostering good spirits by being open, welcoming and inclusive (Tunnganarniq); serving and providing for family and/or community (Pijitsirniq); decision making through discussion and consensus (Aajiiqatigiinniq); development of skills through observation, mentoring, practice, and effort (Pilimmaksarniq/Pijariuqsarniq); working together for a common cause (Piliriqatigiinniq/Ikajuqtigiinniq); being innovative and resourceful (Qanuqtuurniq); and respect and care for the land, animals and the environment (Avatittinnik Kamatsiarniq).

Elders [continue to] articulate how and why Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit –traditional beliefs, laws, principles, values, skills, knowledge and attitudes – are so well suited to Inuit today. In doing so, the Elders are not advocating a return to the past, but a grounding of education in the strengths of the Inuit so that their children will survive and successfully negotiate the world in which they find themselves today.” (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Education Framework, Nunavut Department of Education)

Indigenous lands, epistemologies, wisdom, languages, ways of life, and wellbeing are inherently interconnected. This traditional knowledge, passed on through generations, has allowed Indigenous peoples to survive and find both individual and collective balance throughout history. Therefore, it is no surprise that these ways of knowing and being are still key to the holistic wellness of Indigenous peoples and communities today. Wellness is a product of Indigenous peoples living as sovereign people in full dignity; being connected to their language, culture, community, and ancestors; and being encouraged to embrace their whole selves. Further, Indigenous traditional knowledge holds many answers to today’s challenges surrounding balanced living, sustainability, and mental health for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. IQ could not be more relevant or essential in the contemporary world.

“Relationships are pivotal to this type of work, so I’m incredibly thankful to have so many wonderful collaborators from different walks of life on board” – Marianne Stenbaek

A Force for Cooperative Work

Stenbaek is a leading force in the work on IQ within the University, where she teaches courses on media, Inuit and First Nations literature, and Northern Regions. Her significant track record in the field is confirmed in conversation, where her lifelong passion and devotion to the empowerment of the peoples of the North is reflected. For decades, she has carried out extensive research in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland and has championed co-operative work with Inuit in the circumpolar regions. In addition to her role as a professor, she has also served as the Director of the Center for Northern Studies and Research at McGill as well as the President of the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies. She has edited ten books on Nunavimmiut writings with Minnie Grey, a notable Inuit leader from Nunavik, as well as helping to bring Inuit Qauijimajatuqangit initiatives and research to life at McGill.

Throughout her career working with Northern peoples and communities, Stenbaek has sought to understand the importance of IQ and its place in modern society in the North. With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Stenbaek organized the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: Inuit Traditional Knowledge in the Contemporary World Virtual Roundtable, with the stated goal to advance the discussions and work around IQ at the post-secondary level. As she prepared for the event, Stenbaek reflected upon how grateful she was to the hundreds of individuals and organizations coming together to support this event: “Relationships are pivotal to this type of work, so I’m incredibly thankful to have so many wonderful collaborators from different walks of life on board,” she said.

Elders sit on the floor of the Knowledge Sharing Centre at the CHARS building, Ikaluktutiak Credit: Alex Fradkin

The Virtual Roundtable was supported in part by funds from a SSHRC Connection Grant, which support events and outreach activities to exchange knowledge and to engage with participants on research. The aims of the roundtable included to showcase Inuit culture and wisdom, and to explore how Inuit traditional knowledge is relevant to contemporary society, both for Inuit and non-Inuit peoples. Featuring Inuit and non-Inuit scholars, artists, and activists from across Inuit Nunaat and Lower Canada, the day comprised of three sessions: “We Believed in the Words of Our Elders”; “Our past, Our Present, Our Future”; and “Honoring the Timeless Creative Genius of the Inuit.” Presentations were delivered by leaders in the field, including Aviâja Egede Lynge (Director of the Center for Children's Rights, Greenland), and Peter Berliner (Professor Emeritus Community Psychology, Danish School of Education), Dalee Sambo Dorough (International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council), and Lars Kullerud (President of the University of the Arctic).

The dynamic list of presenters also featured Provost and Vice-Principal, Academic, Christopher Manfredi who co-presented with Isabelle Laurier (Senior Project Manager and Art Curator at EVOQ Architecture) of the exhibition, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: “Building Partnerships for Reconciliation through Art, Architecture, and Traditional Knowledge.” Provost Manfredi’s participation occurs within the context of the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education. The Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Exhibition tells the story of how Inuit artists were commissioned to produce artworks that would convey their version of IQ and its relationship to modern sciences. The artworks are permanently installed and built into the very architecture of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Iqaluktuutiaq, Nunavut. The project celebrates Inuit culture and communities within the world, while demonstrating how art can be used as a tool for reconciliation. Manfredi and Laurier described how the CHARS could be used as a model of a holistic approach, integrating art and science.

Image by EVOQ Architecture .
The exhibition, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: Art, Architecture and traditional knowledge, curated by Isabelle Laurier, on display at La Guilde, Montreal, in 2017.

Preceding the presentation, Provost Manfredi expressed hope about McGill’s proposed campus Master Plan, which intends to display Indigenous art on campus. This is one part of the greater vision to cultivate a welcoming environment for Indigenous students at McGill, guided by the Universities’ commitment to Indigenous success.

As the roundtable ended, an exciting announcement about McGill’s growing engagement in the Arctic was shared by Lars Kullerud (President of the University of the Arctic). Kullerud revealed that McGill had renewed their membership in UArctic, a network of universities, colleges, research institutes, and other organizations concerned with education and research in and about the North. This is certainly a hugely positive step for the progress of IQ and Arctic research at McGill, demonstrating a clear institutional commitment to collaborative work and research in the North.

Building Bridges between Peoples, the Past, the Present, and the Future

Overall, the roundtable was a breath of fresh air in both content and approach because of its unique bridge-building between incredibly diverse peoples, communities, and topics. By bringing new voices forward, celebrating community partners, and harnessing the power of collaboration, it enriched the international conversation on IQ in a new and exciting way. What’s more, it set a positive example for collaboration on Indigenous research topics by emphasizing Indigenous epistemology, language, identity, and sovereignty, and focusing on the collective vision, values, and progress of communities. The sessions focused on the practical applications and implications of IQ for Inuit people and communities as well as non-Indigenous allies, made intergenerational connections, and clearly connected the concepts of Indigenous tradition and innovation.

In the 21st century, the Arctic is at the intersection of some of the world’s most pressing issues such as climate change, increased resource development, and sustainable technologies. Further, the Inuit are facing complex opportunities and challenges, such as self-government movements, participation in international political forums, as well as legal challenges and land-claims. The relevance and importance of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit in resolving these issues cannot be overstated.

The IQ Virtual Roundtable is only the beginning of what will prove to be an important and challenging process for educational institutions from coast to coast to coast. Looking ahead, higher education institutions across Canada must increasingly incorporate Indigenous epistemologies, develop partnerships with local Indigenous peoples and communities, and incorporate indigenization principles into their strategies. Responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 94 Calls to Action as well as supporting Indigenous empowerment and excellence is not a trend, but rather a new direction in Canadian education and society.

In this new chapter, it is individuals such as Stenbaek, working with tremendous care and humility together with Indigenous leaders and communities, that help bring these changes to life. Through her efforts in the IQ  Virtual Roundtable, and more importantly, through her lifelong commitment to empowering the peoples and communities of the North, she has brought thousands of people and organizations together from all walks of life in the aim of a better future for all. Stenbaek provides us with a great reminder that it is not in silos, but through collective commitment, action, and collaboration across our society that meaningful change will occur.

Watch the recording of the IQ Virtual Roundtable


Contributor Bios: 

Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer is a traditional Kanien'kehá:ka woman from the community of Kahnawá:ke. She holds a B.A. in Psychology and Brain Sciences from Dartmouth College and a M.A. in Educational Leadership from McGill University. Wáhiakatste is an Organizational Consultant in leadership, education, and indigenization. Additionally, she authors the bi-weekly Indigenous Leaders column in the Globe and Mail, furthering public education on Indigenous issues and leadership. Wáhiakatste is a lifelong advocate for environmental protection, youth empowerment and Indigenous rights.

Jonasie Faber is an internationally renowned Inuit artist based in British Columbia. He spent his formative years in the village of Alluisup Pa, on a fjord in Southern Greenland. At the age of 10, he and his family relocated to Denmark. Longing for the sea and the spiritual independence and freedom of his boyhood, he left home at 14, working his way around much of the world as a ship hand. His popular Inuit artwork is internationally collected, and displayed at the Vancouver International Airport, Ottawa's Canadian Museum of Civilization and galleries around the world.


About the Series:

Future Ready is a special series published by Research and Innovation. These long-reads dig deeply into a range of research subject matter, from virtual reality spinal surgery to “radical listening” as a strategy to mitigate climate change. The connecting thread is the commitment of McGill’s researchers to respond to some of the core challenges of our time—and to anticipate the path ahead—through collaborative work with local communities and other stakeholders.

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