10 Things You Didn’t Know About Nunavut Culture
“O Canada! Our home and native land!” Known for its natural beauty, kind and compassionate people, and sprawling cities, Canada is the second largest country in the world and is made up of ten provinces and three territories that stretch across an impressive 3.85 million square miles. With the southernmost region as the most popular and visited thanks to cities like Toronto and Vancouver, Canada’s northernmost territory of Nunavut is often considered the most forgotten region of “The Great White North.” Officially separating from the Northwest Territories and becoming Canada’s largest territory on April 1, 1999, Nunavut may be the largest by land but it is the smallest in terms of population.
Attracting very few Inuit settlers because of its arctic climate and remote location, Nunavut offers an extremely different and unique lifestyle apart from the rest of Canada to nearly 32,000 residents who are scattered across over two dozen communities. So what is life like in Nunavut and how do the Inuit people survive and thrive? From a culture rooted in dancing and singing rituals to its wildlife population, water supply and more, join us as we travel north to uncover 10 surprising things you probably didn’t know about Canada’s truly unique Nunavut culture! Let’s get started!
#10 – Woman’s Day
Welcome to Nunavut! For more than 4,000 years, very few people have lived in the northernmost and largest territory in Canada in what is known today as Nunavut. Inhabited primarily by brave Inuit people already familiar with the remote arctic terrain, Nunavut’s history is vague because of the value placed on oral traditions over actual written documents in the Inuit culture. Though historians believe early Nunavut dwellers had some contact with the outside world via Norse sailors, they believe much of the area’s culture and history has been carried on by women. Inuit women play a crucial role in the survival of their families and neighbors, which is especially true in Nunavut where women teach their children at an early age to have a great respect for nature and its unpredictability. Nunavut mothers also show their children how to adapt to the climate as well as how to exploit it for their benefit and survival. Women are also the key holders to their ancestor’s hunting rituals and are expected to pass on such traditions in an effort to share their family legacy of survival in Canada’s coldest terrains.
#9 – Water Isn’t Wasted
Water, water everywhere—or, maybe not! If you live in the United States, chances are you’re well aware of America’s water usage especially in California where they are currently in the midst of a drought. So, just how much water do Americans actually use? According to recent studies, the average household in California uses an average of 360 gallons of water per day, which just might be the reason the “Golden State” is running short. On the low end of the spectrum, the rest of Americans use an average of 100 gallons of water each day, which is still quite shocking compared to Nunavut. Residents in Nunavut are only allowed to use 60 gallons of water in their home each day unless they plan on hauling water from the Arctic Ocean, which sounds like a chore in itself! To supply the nearly 32,000 residents with water, a truck travels through Nunavut looking for red lights outside of each home that signal if the water tank needs to be topped off or not. Oil is distributed in a similar way but is delivered only once in the summer when residents receive a year’s supply of oil meant to keep their families and the rest of the community comfortable and warm until the next season.
#8 – Caribou
Much like traveling to Australia offers an exotic array of wildlife like kangaroos, koalas and dingos, traveling to the Canadian arctic doesn’t disappoint especially in Nunavut. Among the most populated wildlife in the region are caribou that actually outnumber the native Inuit people by a ratio of nearly ten to one. Often seen traveling in packs and effortlessly trouncing through shoulder-deep snow, the caribous undoubtedly make for a beautiful sight that the locals have come to enjoy. Other than sharing the beautiful arctic tundra with caribou, the Nunavut people also enjoy a variety of other wildlife including ox, tundra swans, beluga whales, polar bears and seals. And, while the diversity among the animals is very much appreciated, the 680,000 square miles of Nunavut will always be known for having the largest population of caribou in the world. Where else would they live than in a climate that averages highs near 60 degrees in the summer and lows of -30 degrees during winter?
#7 – Catching a Cab
“Taxi! I need a ride!” When it comes to big cities in the United States (and around the world), there are dozens of transportation options including everything from buses, cabs and Uber to planes, trains and automobiles that are ready to take us anywhere we need to go. However, in Nunavut, transportation is a little harder as many communities aren’t big enough to warrant a taxi service let alone public transportation. That is, however, except for the capital city of Iqaluit where you’ll find the only cab in the entire province. Stretching across 20 square miles, almost everything in Iqaluit is within walking distance for the town’s growing population of nearly 7,000 residents. Home to the highest number of Inuit people and also some of the youngest, Iqaluit offers a local cab line to its residents that will travel anywhere for the low price of $6. And, just in case you aren’t up on your cab rates, a trip from Manhattan to New York’s JFK International Airport will cost you a whopping $52 plus tolls, making Nunavut’s cab fare a real deal if you ask us!
#6 – Dry Land
Don’t bet on liquor to keep you warm on those cold Nunavut nights! The further north you go in the Western hemisphere, the stricter the laws are regarding alcohol. In Alaska, there are plenty of areas that are dry (or prohibit alcohol) but in Canada, Nunavut takes the title as the country’s last outpost of prohibition. While the communities across Nunavut have established their own restrictions, there are seven areas that have banned alcohol completely leaving another 14 to impose extremely strict booze regulations. As a result of such restrictions, bootlegging is an incredibly popular and profitable pastime that keeps the local law enforcement busy as they try and stop southern bootleggers from bringing their alcohol north. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police department estimates that 95 percent of all police reports have to do with alcohol as bootleggers bring in around $10 million per year on alcohol sales alone. Obviously a widespread problem in Nunavut, legislators are beginning to wonder if prohibition is worth the trouble after all.
#5 – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Much like the way large cities offer dozens of transportation options, they also typically offer garbage and recycling programs for citizens to reduce, reuse and recycle. However, despite the Inuit people’s vast appreciation for nature and the land, Nunavut isn’t populated enough to support any sort of recycling program. Instead, Nunavut citizens have taken matters into their own hands by collecting their garbage and recyclables until they are ready to make a trip south to shop for groceries where larger cities offer more amenities like recycling and garbage collection. There is, however, another way that Nunavut citizens can use their garbage thanks to a local innovator named Bill Mackenzie. Combining his love of gardening, the need for food and the lack of a garbage program, Mackenzie purchased a greenhouse and started a compost on his property. He takes a list of people around town who want to grow their own vegetables and picks up their trash to compost on his farm. Helping his neighbors grow their own crops, Mackenzie’s dreams have come true as he and his fellow Nunavuts live successfully off the land.
#4 – No Chains
Say goodbye to the dollar menu and fancy coffee! It’s estimated that there are currently 250 McDonald’s locations in New York City—that’s only one restaurant chain in only one city! It’s a completely different story in Nunavut, however, as the Inuit people have never seen a dollar menu, enjoyed a Big Mac or tasted a Starbucks Frappuccino. Why? Because Nunavut only knew local retailers and restaurants until 2010 when the Canadian chain, Tim Horton’s, opened their doors in the middle of winter to bring donuts and coffee to the arctic region. With only one large retailer in the area—no, it’s not Walmart or Costco—Nunavut people rely on the northern based chain known as North Mart for everything from groceries and fresh produce to clothing and toiletries. And, while both North Mart and Tim Horton’s have locations scattered across Canada, Nunavut is home to the northernmost location of each chain and heavily relies on their services to provide the necessary support and sustenance for their remote region. After all, who doesn’t love donuts and a cup of coffee when it’s 30 below freezing!
#3 – Dance Party
Despite the modernization of Nunavut with grocery and food chains like North Mart and Tim Horton’s arriving, traditional Inuit culture is still very much alive and well. When Europeans first came to the area thousands of years ago, they brought along musical instruments both to ward off unwanted wildlife near their campsites and for entertainment. In doing so, they taught the native Inuit people the art of dancing, which became a vital part in the region’s culture that is still seen today. Nunavut was once known for its traditional drumming and throat singing but, thanks to modern music and media, that part of Inuit culture has faded. Now loving everything from country and bluegrass to classical and rock music, Nunavut citizens are also huge fans of rap music and have even produced a couple of rap artists that have enjoyed moderate success. Don’t worry, though, the Nunavut people haven’t completely forgotten their roots and continue the tradition of throat singing and drumming at their annual Arts Festival that also features a circus and breakdancing competition!
#2 – No Connections
Despite being the size of Europe, Nunavut only has 25 communities in its entire province with the only means of traveling between the communities generally limited to boat. Why? With minimal transportation options in only the capital city of Iqaluit (remember the single cab line?) and no fancy or carefully planned interstate system, Nunavut only has roads within the communities themselves. This means that the only option for leaving the area is by waterway, which proves incredibly difficult during Nunavut’s frigid winters! Thankfully, Nunavut citizens do have another option if they plan on traveling along the coastal towns of the region. Adventure Canada established a cruise line that makes stops along each of the coastal communities that allow the Inuit people to enjoy one of their favorite pastimes: visiting with family. With the ship well-maintained throughout the year and life in the area already difficult, we imagine a short cruise along the coast might be just what the Nunavut people need to lift their spirits from those long, cold wintry days.
#1 – Groceries Are Expensive
A dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, bananas…what else do we need from the grocery store? Americans are used to going to the local market (or even gas station) to pick up a half gallon of regular or organic milk for an average price of $2.20. But, as you might’ve guessed, things are different in Nunavut since the region doesn’t have the luxury of dairy farmers. As a result, a half-gallon of milk costs citizens an average of $12.50! Talk about an expensive dairy cow! With everything else priced two to three times higher than the rest of Canada and the United States, Nunavut residents have little choice other than to plan ahead and buy a winter’s worth of groceries during the summer. Benefiting from a sealift that cuts through the ice to make it up to the northernmost region, it feels like Christmas day for the Nunavut community as their pre-ordered goods are delivered well in advance and far cheaper than buying everything at the last minute.