41 Historic Photos Of The Inuit People Taken Before Canada Stamped Out Their Way Of Life

Published August 24, 2021
Updated August 26, 2021

See rare images of the Indigenous Inuit people who thrived in the Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland before they were forcibly relocated and their culture was all but erased.

Inuit People In A Tent
Inuit Woman With Children
Inuit Hunting Party
Inuit Girl Playing A Drum
41 Historic Photos Of The Inuit People Taken Before Canada Stamped Out Their Way Of Life
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Before contact with the Western world, the Inuit were a nomadic people. They lived as hunters, setting up temporary homes before moving on to the next hunting grounds. Inuit culture meant traveling on dog sleds and kayaks and making tools from stones and animal bones.

Thanks to their skills in hunting, building igloos, and designing warm coats, the Inuit thrived in places that many people would describe as uninhabitable — the Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. There, they created a unique and resilient culture that lasted for centuries.

But in Canada, the white population that eventually began to encroach upon the Inuit people didn't understand their lifestyle. The settlers wanted to make the Inuit more "modern" — and they also wanted to exert more control over the Arctic region that these Indigenous people called home.

So, in the 1950s, the Canadian government forcibly relocated the Inuit, forcing them off their lands, slaughtering their sled dogs, and pushing their children into "assimilation" schools — from which some never came back. The Inuit tribes and their way of life were never the same again.

Explore some rarely-seen photos of the Inuit people just before — and just after — their forced relocation in the gallery above.

Inside The Relocation Of The Inuit People

Inuit People

Wikimedia CommonsA group of Inuit children, photographed by Captain George E. Mack. Circa 1925.

Up until the mid-20th century, the Inuit people in Canada flourished in the northernmost parts of the country. Made up of a variety of tribes, the Inuit enjoyed a unique culture separate from the other two recognized groups of Indigenous people in Canada — the First Nations and the Métis.

By that point, white Canadians had already made efforts to assimilate the Indigenous people who lived in the southern parts of the country. It was only a matter of time before they targeted the north as well.

Canada's push to "modernize" the Inuit people — and exert more control over the Arctic region of the country — came to a head in 1950, as the Soviet Union began to contest Canada's sovereignty over its northern territory.

To prove that the territory belonged to them and to do what they thought would improve Inuit life, the Canadian government forcibly relocated the Inuit tribes as part of the High Arctic Relocation Program.

The government ripped the Inuit from their nomadic lifestyles and settled them into communities, where they had to stop hunting and start buying food in grocery stores. Terrified of the Inuit's sled dogs, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers often slaughtered their animals.

Like other Indigenous groups in Canada, the Inuit were forced to put their children in "residential schools" to assimilate into Canadian culture. Government officials would pull kids away from their parents and homes and take them to these schools, where they were forced to learn English and adapt to the school's strict rules, otherwise, they'd be viciously beaten.

As one Inuit survivor named Piita Irniq put it: "I was forcibly removed, taken, kidnapped by a Roman Catholic priest and a government man in August of 1958 so that I could be taken, like all of my generation of Inuit, to go to a residential school. We were taken away from our parents."

Many children who attended these schools ended up feeling disconnected from their people and culture by the time they came home. But even more tragically, some of these children never came home at all.

In the span of just two months in 2021, over 1,300 unmarked graves were found at the sites of four former residential schools across Canada. And since there were once more than 130 of those schools in the country, it's feared that more tragic discoveries may be unearthed in the future.

The Lives Of The Inuit People In Canada Today

Inuit Culture

Wikimedia CommonsInuit elders pictured in 2002, enjoying a traditional delicacy called Maktaaq — bowhead whale blubber.

The relocation program changed Inuit culture forever. It also brought massive spikes in depression, drug abuse, and suicides. And though today many Inuit are fighting to give strength to the culture that the Canadian government tried to destroy, the impact of the 1950s will never be forgotten.

Survivors like Piita Irniq have helped keep these stories alive in recent years. "I was born in an igloo and lived in an igloo for the first 11 years of my life," said Irniq, who is now 75 years old, in an interview with Inside Edition. "I think a lot about Inuit moving from igloo to internet in less than 60 years."

Today, more than 65,000 Inuit people reside in 51 communities in the northern parts of Canada. While many of them, including Irniq, think that it's important to publicly discuss their past and the truth about relocation, they are also asking for accountability in the present — and the future.

They want non-Indigenous people who live in Canada to educate themselves about what really happened to the Inuit people in the past — and to put more effort into mending their often strained relationship with the Inuit tribes and the rest of the Indigenous people who live in the country.

As for the surviving residential school staff members who were accused of abuse, the Inuit people are hoping that they will face justice. One former priest named Eric Dejaeger, who was accused of several heinous crimes against Inuit children, has already had action taken against him.

In 2014, Dejaeger was found guilty of abusing 12 Inuit boys, 10 Inuit girls, and one dog — which he abused in front of children. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison. But while his conviction was a ray of hope to some Inuit, Dejaeger was far from the only one accused of horrific crimes, and the Inuit people are fighting for others like him to face the court as well.

But aside from seeking accountability and justice, the Inuit also want the chance to celebrate their culture — and keep it alive despite the trauma of the past. While they no longer live in igloos or travel on dog sleds, they can still learn the languages that have been preserved, wear traditional clothes, enjoy historic delicacies, and help protect the culture that remains today.


After looking through these photos of the Inuit people, check out these historic Edward Curtis portraits of Native Americans. Then, take a look at these early 20th-century Native American masks.

author
Mark Oliver
author
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
editor
Jaclyn Anglis
editor
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
Cite This Article
Oliver, Mark. "41 Historic Photos Of The Inuit People Taken Before Canada Stamped Out Their Way Of Life." AllThatsInteresting.com, August 24, 2021, https://allthatsinteresting.com/inuit-people. Accessed April 21, 2024.