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The traditional economy

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Much of the economic activity taking place in Nunavut right now revolves around the mining industry.  With multi-million – if not billion – dollar budgets, huge contract services and labour force requirements, not to mention global scale, it’s understandable that mining companies are huge players in the territory’s economy, and their activities get a lot of attention.

But it’s important not to overlook the more traditional economy, which is still very much alive in Nunavut. Arviat especially has a reputation for being one of the more traditional communities in the territory, in terms of harvesting activities and arts and crafts production. Inuktitut is also the first language in over 90% of homes here, one of the highest rates in Nunavut.

Harvesting the land

Hunting, fishing, and trapping are all common ways that Arviammiut provide for themselves, their families, and their friends, and it’s quite common to see caribou skins drying on somebody’s porch railing, or freshly killed caribou strapped to qamutiks as a hunter returns home.  These harvesting activities are certainly traditional, but a certain modernization has taken place. While many hunters and fishers will harvest to provide food for their families, many also generate income from these traditional skills.

You can find local country foods, especially Arctic char, in the stores, but it’s common to buy caribou, fish, or other country foods directly from the hunters. There is also a fish plant at Whale Cove, and a meat processing plant at Rankin Inlet, both of which buy catches from harvesters for processing and distribution throughout the territory and beyond. Fur trappers have adapted from selling to Hudson’s Bay Company outposts to selling to southern fur auction houses and distributors, often through purchasing agreements with the Government of Nunavut.

Arts and crafts

There’s also a very strong tradition of arts and crafts production in Arviat, and it is known for artwork such as carvings, clothing, decorative wall hangings, dolls, and jewelry. Although much of the clothing is made for use at home, a modernization of the arts and crafts industry has also taken place. The common method of selling an artwork is simply to complete a work and then go door-to-door until you find a buyer, and many carvings and wall hangings are sold this way. Almost every day I will have somebody at my door, either at home or at work, looking to sell artwork. But artists and artisans are increasingly using the internet to sell their work, and to connect with galleries and online shops to increase their sales.

Facebook especially has become a popular way for artists to connect with buyers. There is an Arviat Sell/Swap Facebook group where people post things for sale, trade, or to buy, and you often see homemade clothing there as well as carvings and wall hangings. Recently, a Facebook group based in Iqaluit made the news when the increased demand it generated drove the price of kamiks up to as much as $2,000 a pair.

…local artists are embracing modern methods of marketing and distribution to use and preserve traditional skills and techniques.

Since the 1960s, the Co-op stores (Arctic Co-operatives Limited) have offered  buying and selling services to Inuit artists. Local Co-op stores would buy artworks, especially carvings, from local artists and re-sell them through galleries or auctions in the south. In recent years, Arctic Co-ops have also been selling through their website – www.northernimages.ca – allowing customers to browse and buy through their online store.

And they are not the only place to buy traditional artwork online. Google ‘Inuit Art’ or ‘Nunavut Art’ and you will find many places to buy online, from small carvings for a hundred dollars to large pieces by well-known artists that go for thousands, even tens of thousands. To get an idea of some of the artwork produced and the price it fetches, you can visit the Inuit Art page of Waddington’s Auctions, who recently held their spring sale of Inuit art, and look at their list of prices realized.

Whether they sell door-to-door, through the local Co-op, work with a southern gallery, or post their work on Facebook or eBay, local artists are embracing modern methods of marketing and distribution to use and preserve traditional skills and techniques. I feel lucky to live in such an artistic community where traditional skills are alive and valued. And with each artwork being interesting, attractive, and absolutely unique, I’ll never be stuck for a gift idea.

The views and opinions in this column are those of the author alone, and are not necessarily those of the Hamlet of Arviat, Government of Nunavut, any of its departments or agencies, or anybody else.

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