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Labour History in Arctic Canada?

Posted by Heather E. McGregor
18 April 2014 - 7:53am

This month’s theme on “Teaching the Past” - labour history - challenged me to look for how one might go about inquiring into this topic, and what one would find, in Arctic Canada. One of the most intriguing teaching resources from the past I have come across is a book called Then and Now in Frobisher Bay by Thomas H.W. Martin, edited by Neil Sutherland for the Gage World Community Study series, published in 1969.

It begins by asking readers: “How and why have the Eskimos of Frobisher Bay changed their ways of living? -- What have they gained? What have they lost? How do you know - or do you?”

Of course that last, nominally cheeky - but completely appropriate - question “ - or do you?” is what makes this book an interesting critical thinking tool, long before critical thinking was en vogue the way it is now. The book’s commentary, photos and direct discussion questions engage readers in putting what they learn about the Arctic in perspective, using a comparative anthropological view. While colonial attitudes towards Inuit are evident in the book (such as “In Frobisher Bay, the top man is sent there from Ottawa by the Government of Canada”), in other ways it provokes thoughtful questions that do not exclusively rely on a one-way gaze towards the “exotic Other”, such as: “How, where and what did the Arctic nomads learn before there were schools? What have you learned that way?”

What can we learn from this book about labour history in Frobisher Bay, now called Iqaluit? Elders remembered how, in their life times, income was secured by hunting and some trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company. A community member says about more recent times, “And we Eskimos have learned how to sell Arctic char and carvings in the cities far away.” Other evidence of wage employment opportunities include working for the Northwest Territories council, as elected officials, or in carpentry and house maintenance. We learn however, “There are not enough jobs for them all, and the government has to pay most of the cost of building and running the town.” And later, “Many Eskimos have jobs only in the short summers, or no jobs at all. The Government gives them money for rent and food and clothing. This is welfare.” While the warrants and merits of welfare in the Arctic during this era can be debated, what we come to understand is that there was not a simple correlation between settlement in communities (occurring largely after World War II) and employment in the Arctic. In fact, it has been both a persistent problem and, I would argue, an opportunity to think differently about work, ever since.

The questions remain, what have they gained and what have they lost? (One might ask the same about peoples at other times/places in Canada, when they began participating in wage employment more frequently). Labour - as we often think of it - consists of a business or organization, a manager, a time clock or regular schedule, hourly or salaried pay, possibly a union and worker’s safety regulations. Such opportunities have been inconsistent over time and space in the Arctic. Many such jobs North of 60° have been tied to non-renewable resource extraction projects, government economic stimulus projects, or waxing and waning seasonal initiatives like tourism or parks management. Some government services like education, health care, municipal services, and housing have persisted or offer ongoing employment to Inuit residents. But in other ways those organizations and jobs within them are less than consistent. They are often shaped by the coming and going of staff and managers from outside the North for short periods of time, or frequent staff vacancies, and have often made working for such organizations feel intensely changeable. Government services are also subject to government funding cuts, and other types of changes to mandates and priorities.

Many northern residents maintain a mixed income with more than one job, subsistence harvesting, arts and crafts, childcare, or other pursuits combined with their wage employment. In some cases this mixing produces some household instability, but in others it suits individuals, families and communities by providing flexibility. While the Inuit language is now an official language in Nunavut, businesses are often run in English, so non-wage production activities (sewing, hunting or arts and crafts) can also facilitate Inuit language and cultural preservation. They also allow families to spend more time together.

The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and Inuit Impact & Benefit Agreements associated with resource development projects stipulate priority hiring for Inuit beneficiaries, and yet have not produced the type or volume of employment desired by Inuit. Amongst other reasons, this has led to a major lawsuit by Inuit against the Government of Canada. However ironically, working for Inuit representative organizations that negotiate, implement and manage benefit initiatives such as these have been a growing source of employment for Inuit, in regional centres at least.

Here's what we find when examining labour history in the Arctic: deep connections with environmental conditions and ecological relationships; significant influences of political changes over time; intersections with linguistic and cultural imperatives; mixed approaches that are not exclusively wage-oriented; and colonizing/decolonizing structures and movements. Considering labour history as a way into this context might better define, and redefine, what it means to work in northern and rural Canada.

How have you taught rural, northern or Arctic work histories that do not align with industrial, manufacturing or labour models seen in urban and sub-urban regions?

Photo credit: "Soudlo, Pangnirtung Eskimo woman using sewing machine. [Saulluq]." Library and Archives Canada / PA-210313 Open access