Arctic Canada includes the land north of 60°N, plus the adjacent areas of Northern Québec and Labrador, and comprises about 40 percent of the land area of Canada. The Canadian constitution recognizes three groups of indigenous peoples: the Inuit, the Métis, and the Indian, who in the Arctic include Dene and Yukon First Nations. Together, the indigenous groups make up over 47,000 people, or about half the population in the area.

Peoples of Canada

The ancestors of present-day Inuit probably traveled from Eurasia eastwards across northern Canada to Greenland. Most, but not all, of today’s Inuit communities are located on the tundra north of the treeline, and along the coast.

The Inuit of Canada reside in northern Labrador, Nunavik, and Nunavut.

Dene and Métis of Northwest Territories and Yukon First Nations
The Dene include several different groups with their own languages: Chipewyan, Gwich’in, Dogrib, and a number of distinct Slavey groups. The Métis are descended from French fur traders and Indians.

The Dene and Métis communities are in the western region of the Northwest Territories, and within the northern extent of the treeline. The Dene make up 29 percent of the population in the western Northwest Territories and Métis 12 percent of the population in this region. The total number of indigenous residents is over 12,000.

The indigenous peoples of the Yukon include fourteen First Nations, each with its designated historic and current harvesting territories.

Non-indigenous residents
The non-indigenous residents of Arctic Canada are more likely to live in territorial or regional centers, such as Yellowknife, Whitehorse, and Iqaluit.

Hunting and fishing are important for providing food

Hunting, fishing, and gathering are important activities in the economy of indigenous societies, but people also participate in the wage economy as opportunity arises. Harvesting practices are a mixture of traditional technologies, developed from what was available from the land, and new materials. Guns are used for hunting, for example, but so are harpoons and spears. In the eastern Arctic, the blinds that are used during seal hunts on the ice are now made of cloth instead of skins.

The harvests are shared among people on the basis of kinship and other ties, and sharing, gift-giving, and exchange are all elements of the country-food economy. Recently, there have also been efforts to commercialize specialty northern foods, such as Arctic char, outside the Arctic.

A wide range of plant and animal species are used in the Canadian Arctic. The figure below shows the harvest level in the different Inuit regions and in the Yukon Territory. In 1989, the total harvest in the Northwest Territories was estimated to be about 5 million kilograms, or 232 kilograms per person per year, excluding commercial fish catches.

There is very little information about the harvesting activities of the Dene and Métis communities, with the exception of fur-bearer species and commercially significant fish. The general picture is that marine mammals are less important in the Yukon and Dene/Métis regions and that people rely more on terrestrial mammals and freshwater and anadromous fish.

Employment figures indicate that subsistence activities are important, as almost 40 percent of the indigenous population in Dene communities were not part of the labor force according to a survey in 1991. Almost 38 percent of people over 15 years of age answered that they used non-cash activities to provide for their families. A slightly larger percentage said that they had lived on the land in the previous twelve months. An estimate of the per-capita harvest suggests that the communities are self-sufficient in their protein requirements.

Yukon First Nations also rely heavily on subsistence activities. About one third of the people in the 1991 Aboriginal People’s Survey said that they had lived on the land in the previous year and 30 percent support their families with activities that are not part of the cash economy.

Among non-indigenous residents of Arctic Canada, hunting and fishing are popular activities, but rarely as extensive as for the indigenous communities of the region.

The diet includes a variety of country foods

Average annual indigenous subsistence production in Arctic Canada. Dietary studies support the picture of a high reliance on subsistence production. Even if store-bought foods are also common, country foods contribute a significant portion of the daily nutrient intake.

The traditional diets are more balanced than a diet of foods imported from southern Canada, which have higher levels of sugar and more saturated fats. Country foods are more economical than purchasing food in the store, which becomes especially important in communities where many people are not employed or have incomes below the poverty line. Country foods are also important for reinforcing social relationships that are central to culture and the subsistence economy.

The diet varies between communities and between families, but detailed studies provide some examples of what people eat. In Aklavik in the Northwest Territories, more than half of the Inuit households consumed caribou, beluga, hare, muskrat, whitefish, cisco, burbot, inconnu, Arctic char, ducks, geese, cloud berries, cranberries, and blueberries. Caribou was the most common food.

The types of food eaten also depend the time of year. In Aklavik, fall is the season for hunting caribou, Dall sheep, and moose, as well as ducks and geese. Winter brings trapping of small fur bearers and fishing. When the ice breaks up in April, muskrat are caught for their pelts as well as their meat. The waterfowl return, and are used as food until they begin to nest. Fishing resumes after ice breakup. Spring is the time for gathering roots. Summer is whaling time, and people travel out to the Yukon coast to hunt beluga. Willow tops, bird eggs, and wild rhubarb supplement the diet. As fall approaches again, it is time to dry fish and caribou meat and to pick berries.

Among the Dene, a few diet studies have been done specifically to be able to estimate the load of contaminants. These surveys show, for example, that women in Fort Good Hope eat moose in summer, barrenland caribou in winter, and ducks in the spring. Other important foods are inconnu, whitefish, cisco, and blueberries. In the winter, moose, rabbit, whitefish, and loche were part of the diet, and in the spring woodland caribou. Men had similar eating habits, but with less seasonal variation.

Another studied community is Colville Lake. Women reported eating large quantities of whitefish, barrenland caribou, and ducks in the summer. Trout, barrenland caribou, duck, and loche were the typical spring foods. The Colville residents ate a much higher proportion of country foods than at Fort Good Hope. In general, men ate more country foods than women, and older people more than younger.

A third study, of the communities of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, and Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, showed that people ate country foods six times per week and that animals from the land made up one-third of the diet.
Four Yukon First Nation communities have been studied extensively to look at what people eat: Haines Junction in the traditional territory of the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation, Old Crow, which is a remote community on the Porcupine River relying heavily on the caribou herds that migrate through their land, Teslin at Teslin Lake, and Whitehorse, which is the territorial capital with a more diverse population.

Virtually all households in the survey used moose and salmon, as well as berries and other plant foods. Many also used caribou, hare, ground squirrel, beaver, ducks, grouse, chinook salmon, sockeye salmon, coho salmon, whitefish, lake trout, and Labrador tea. In total, mammals accounted for about half of the traditional food, fish for one fifth, berries for one-fifth, other plants for one-tenth and birds for one-twentieth. People got most of their food from hunting and fishing.

Health is improving

Health conditions for Canadian Natives have improved dramatically in the past half a century, but mortality rates are still higher in the north than for Canada as a whole, and life expectancy is lower. For example, life expectancy among Inuit doubled between the early 1940s and the 1980s, when it reached 66 years. Life expectancy has continued to improve but is still four to five years lower than the Canadian average. In the Northwest Territories, infant mortality was 28 per thousand births in 1981-85 compared to 144 two decades earlier. However, infant mortality is still three times as high as for Canada as a whole. Major problems include poor water and sewage disposal systems and crowded housing.

One of the serious threats to health is the extremely high percentage of smokers. By age 19, 63 percent of Indians and Inuit smoke, compared with 43 percent for non-natives. Smoking is the most likely explanation for a recent increase in lung cancer among Inuit in the Northwest Territories.

The heavy reliance on country food seems to reduce the risk for certain health problems. Indigenous groups in the Canadian Arctic have among the lowest age-standardized prevalences of diabetes in the country. Diabetes is one of the most prominent health risks associated with changes to a more “western” diet.

Much of the improvement in health has come with better health care, such as the nursing stations that are now available in many communities. Hospitals are centralized in major cities, but traveling clinics provide some specialty care that would otherwise not be locally available.