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Why Inuit men are falling behind

“A coping mechanism seems to be lacking”



In the first four years of Nunavut’s creation, the territory had nearly four times as many people in jail as the national average — virtually all of whom were Inuit men.

That number, combined with the high number of young men who make up the majority of suicides in the territory, illustrates a stark counterpart to the success story, statistically speaking, of Nunavut’s women — who are rapidly outnumbering Inuit men in the workplace and in higher education.

Abraham Tagalik of Arviat calls these kinds of statistics a “red flag,” and says this is something he’s given a lot of thought to.

He’s observed several innate differences between men and women — and the way that they are raised — that contribute to the imbalance.

Young women are usually put to work: washing dishes, doing laundry and looking after the other kids, Tagalik says. Boys, on the other hand, are often spoiled with rifles and snowmobiles and aren’t expected to contribute to the household at all.

“They are never made to think of others other than themselves. They think they’re special, which is good, but as an Inuit society, we love them to a fault.”

In Tagalik’s view, girls learn at a young age to bite their tongue and work things out for themselves.

“They’re more capable of looking out for themselves when they get older,” Tagalik says. “They’re better with finances. They’re better with looking after kids. They’re better at being resourceful and working out problems.”

In men, however, “a coping mechanism seems to be lacking.”

Too often that results in what Tagalik, fearful of generalizing, calls “the ultimate selfish act” — the taking of one’s own life.

Archie Angnakak of Iqaluit takes a similar view. He relates the differences between men and women to their traditional roles as Inuit living on the land.

Men learn to hunt. That means staying silent, observing keenly, and doing what you see others do. In the meantime, women stay in camps, laughing, sewing and talking, figuring out what needs to be done next and making sure that food is cooked and skins are cleaned.

“There’s prioritizing in keeping a camp going,” Angnakak says. “That fits into an office setting more than being out there on the land.”

Not only are the two communication styles very different between men and women, but in Angnakak’s view, the traditional skills boys are expected to learn as hunters put them in direct conflict with a modern-day workplace or classroom.

“My whole generation went through this,” Angnakak says. “We were expected to ask questions in school. And then, when we got out of school, when we go out on the land with mom and dad, we’re expected to keep our mouth shut and watch by learning, so we couldn’t ask.”

Angnakak says he’s noticed that women question more in the workplace than men. This, he says, gives them an advantage when it comes to adopting the professionalism, the ability to distance their working lives from their personal lives, which is an alien concept required in the modern workplace.

Those traditional skills also create another, more easily observed conflict. Too often, young Inuit men must choose whether to accept a career in the industrialized world, or to carry on the traditional hunting culture.

“If you were looking at the statistics of hunters, I think it would also show that there’s a lot of guys that hunt,” says Tagalik. “There’s a lot of guys that are gainfully employed in that field, but we tend not to show these positive things.”

Or in Angnakak’s words: “Very skilled hunters… that’s another form of education. They have abilities, they have the knack, they attain skills that you and I will never see in texts.”

Traditional skills need to be valued and recognized, Angnakak says.

“When we get recognition our spirits and our morale is boosted up, and that’s all we have to do is recognize it.”

Recognition means more than a round of applause for the hunters who supply the meat for community feasts, or the seals and polar bear for community elders.

But hunters are not recognized in our society in the same way that successful businessmen are. For starters, hunting doesn’t pay, which means it no longer supports a family.

In Tagalik’s view, traditional hunting skills also need to be taught in a more holistic and less piecemeal way. That means finding a whole new approach to passing on traditional knowledge.

Today, boys might learn to hunt, but at the end of a day’s hunt, they don’t necessarily take the skins to the women, or the meat to the elders. That means they learn to shoot, but they don’t learn the purpose of the hunt: to sustain a community.

But changing the way skills are taught is the kind of shift that can only happen at the community level, Tagalik says, using left-wing politics as a model for sharing resources, skills, hunting supplies and food.

“We create Inuit organizations with humongous operational costs and they’re just above our heads up there, they’re not really at the ground level. Our communities are craving for control and yet there’s no real mechanism to give them that control. You have hamlet councils, but their focus is narrow. There’s really no ground support for people in a holistic way.

“I think aboriginal government, Inuit government, hasn’t really happened with the land claim.”

Angnakak says that, in his opinion, it’s possible to find a way to reconcile two conflicting value systems in Nunavut, and the money is there to do it.

“We’ve had an Inuit government for over 10 years now, and yet nobody’s spearheading it trying to figure things out,” Agnakak says.

“Maybe the ladies will do it for us.”

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