Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

Understanding Our Environment is Key to Promoting Health and Preventing Disease

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Inuit Nunangat

Inuit Nunangat

Canada’s Inuit
Inuit are primarily a northern people who inhabit territories in Russia, Alaska, Greenland, and Canada. In 2011, approximately 59,000 people were identified as Inuit in Canada, with about three-quarters residing in one of 53 communities in the far north. The Inuit homeland, known as Inuit Nunangat, consists of four sub-regions: the western edge of the Northwest Territories (the Inuvialuit Settlement Region), the territory of Nunavut, northern Quebec (Nunavik), and north-eastern Labrador (Nunatsiavut) (Figure 1). In Inuit Nunangat, most people identify themselves as Inuit. The situation is similar in Nunatsiavut and Nunavik, where 89% of people identify as Inuit, and in Nunavut, where 85% of people identify as Inuit. In Inuvialuit, a smaller proportion of people (58%) identify as Inuit. While Inuit share a common culture and traditions, the four Inuit sub-regions in Canada exhibit considerable linguistic and geographic diversity.

Key Determinants of Health
Wherever people live, their health is affected by many interrelated factors or determinants. The Public Health Agency of Canada has identified 12 key determinants of health.1 These are income and social status; social support networks; education; employment/working conditions; social environments; physical environments; personal health practices and coping skills; healthy child development; biology and genetic endowment; health services; gender; and culture. These key determinants have been adapted for those living in Inuit Nunangat2 by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the organization representing Canada’s Inuit people:

• Acculturation
• Productivity
• Income distribution

• Housing
• Education
• Food security and nutrition

• Health care services
• Quality of early life
• Addictions

• Social safety nets
• Environment

While many of the Inuit determinants of health are the same or similar to those developed for the general population of Canada, others are more Inuit-specific, particularly Productivity, Acculturation, and Environment. Productivity refers to the harvesting of traditional foods, sewing, and voluntary work. Acculturation refers to the changes experienced by the Inuit as a result of contact with other cultures. Environment refers to the spiritual, social and physical environments that are so important to Inuit communities.   

Importance of the Environment
The physical environment affects every aspect of Inuit life. The land provides sustenance and shelter as well as being the foundation of culture and knowledge.3 Inuit have detailed knowledge of their local environments and are sensitive to environmental change and attuned to recognizing its effects. In fact, the environment and human health are not seen as distinct phenomena by the Inuit but as closely linked.

From 2002 to 2005, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami conducted workshops across Inuit Nunangat to help community members record their observations of events related to climate change and describe the impacts and local adaptations taking place as a result of these events. Some of the results of this large-scale study were summarized in a diagram about the effects of unpredictable weather (Figure 2), which shows how impacts such as fewer hunting opportunities and increased reliance on store-bought food require adaptations such as country food exchanges within and between communities. This study makes it clear that changes in climate are having real effects on the overall health of Inuit, and that any discussion of health outcomes must include discussion of the physical and social environments.

  • 1. Public Health Agency of Canada. What determines health? Accessed 12 March 2013.
  • 2. Inuit Tapirit Kanatami (ITK). Determinants of Inuit health in Canada: A discussion paper. Ottawa, ON: Inuit Tapirit Kanatami; 2004.
  • 3. Inuit Tapirit Kanatami (ITK). Unikkaaqatigiit: Putting the human face on climate change. Ottawa, ON: Inuit Tapirit Kanatami; 2005.