Inuit Youth in a Changing World

The rapid social changes that have taken place in the Canadian Arctic over the past 20 to 30 years have created a host of challenges and dilemmas for young Inuit. The members of this younger generation are coming of age during a period of fundamental change in northern society. A previously nomadic population has been concentrated into centralized settlements and towns, resulting in population growth and increased economic security. More Inuit are exposed to southern values through travel, schooling, television and radio. Because of all these changes, young people have grown not only more autonomous but have been able to delay the acceptance of adult roles and responsibilities. As a result the patterning and sequencing of traditional Inuit life stages has altered significantly, creating a prolonged adolescent life stage that has up until now been absent in Inuit tradition.

Few regions of the world have experienced such a rapid pace of development and change as the Canadian Arctic. Recognition of the strategic significance and resource potential of Canada's arctic regions has led to an increase in government and corporate involvement with the North and its residents. Such involvement has had both positive and negative consequences for young Inuit. On the positive side, the economy is more secure and schooling and advanced vocational training are more available, creating opportunities for young people that did not exist just 10 to 20 years ago. On the negative side, however, young people face the significant social and psychological stresses incurred by rapid social change, as they strive to find a place in this newly emerging social order. Many young people lack sufficient employment opportunities, are inadequately prepared for advanced high schooling and are unwilling or unable to relocate to larger northern communities where jobs are more available. These adjustment dilemmas have contributed, in part, to the high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and juvenile delinquency which are characteristic of Inuit teenagers and young adults throughout the North.

Inuit Youth: Past and Present

The world of today's Copper Inuit youth is markedly different from that of their parents and grandparents. In the past, young people not only made a rapid transition into adulthood, but faced predetermined roles and responsibilities imposed by the demands of a harsh and unproductive habitat. The Copper Inuit of the Holman region occupied one of the most marginal environments within Canada's Arctic. Gender roles were narrowly defined, and options were extremely limited. A young man could aspire only to be a skilled hunter and provider for his family; a woman could strive to acquire the skills necessary to be an expert seamstress and household manager. Gender roles were learned through observation of and intense interaction with parents and other adult relatives. Because residential units were small and infant mortality rates high, young people had no peers to draw them away from the socializing influence of their parents.

In the past, parents made marriage arrangements, especially for young women, when the child was an infant, and in some cases even before a child's birth.(1) Parentally arranged marriage and child betrothal were most adaptive in a society in which prospective spouses were few and far between and in which female infanticide reduced the number of marriageable females. As a result, parents sought marriage partners for their offspring through kinship and alliance networks. Most young women married at or just before their first menstrual period, and began bearing children three to four years later.

Young men, however, faced a different set of requirements. They were not considered old enough for marriage until they had proven themselves capable as hunters and providers. Until a man could develop the skills and strength necessary to build a snowhouse or hunt large game unassisted, he was not considered mature enough to take on and support a wife. In chronological terms, he would not reach marriageability until around 17 or 18 years of age. He then went through a period of bride service, during which he joined his future father-in-law's household, often while his betrothed was still pubescent. During this trial marriage period, the young man worked with his father-in-law for three to four years until the young couple was considered mature enough to establish a separate household.

The rather rapid transition from childhood to adulthood in traditional Copper Inuit society stands in marked contrast to the situation today. In the past, Inuit teenagers were raised exclusively within the context of small family groups and spent much of the year in isolated hunting/fishing/trapping camps where there were few, if any, activities to distract them from participating fully in assigned chores. Today, a large adolescent peer group dominates the recreational activities of teens. Young people now have a great deal more autonomy than they ever had in the presettlement era. When they are not in school, they pass much of their time with their peers, more often than not engaged in social rather than work activities. The increased economic security of contemporary settlement life now makes it possible for teenagers to delay taking on the roles and responsibilities of adulthood. As a result, young people now make their own decisions concerning when and who to marry, often only consulting minimally with their parents.

Demographic Changes

As of the early 1960s, the Canadian government sponsored population concentration in the Holman region, which significantly altered the demographic profile and social/physical context of contemporary Inuit society. Prior to this program, the regional population resided in isolated, scattered hunting and trapping camps. Through the construction of government-subsidized housing and a school, the government created a regional center from which it could more effectively deliver health care and social services.

Most importantly, the creation of settlements contributed to the unprecedented population growth of Holman and other northern communities. In 1963, for example, the population of the Holman region was 135. Since then, the Holman population has increased to its present size of more than 350. At present, children and teenagers comprise more than 52 percent of the population. Several factors have contributed to the rapid population growth since the early 1960s: (1) the introduction of bottle feeding, which has shortened birth intervals between offspring(2); (2) improvements in prenatal and postnatal health programs, which have lowered the Inuit infant mortality rate; (3) improvements in nutrition, which have probably increased fertility by eliminating periods of nutritional stress; and (4) increased economic security, which now makes it possible for parents to support larger numbers of offspring.

One result of these demographic changes is that the teenage sector is much larger today than it ever was in the past; settlement existence has provided the social context for a large, active adolescent peer group.

Economic Changes

Since the creation of the settlement, residents of Holman and other Inuit communities have experienced a degree of economic security unheard of in either the traditional period or in the immediate post-contact period. Many of the uncertainties associated with a subsistence level of existence have been eliminated by the availability of wage employment, social assistance payments and government-subsidized housing. The introduction of firearms (in the 1920s) and snowmobiles (in the 1970s) has allowed the Inuit to hunt game more efficiently and over a wider area. Most wage-generating and subsistence-hunting activities have become highly individualized, thus diminishing the amount of cooperation and sharing between households. Today's young generation of Inuit is no longer socialized within a value system that emphasizes the importance of mutual cooperation and sharing.

The shift from a predominantly hunting-oriented economy to one based upon wage employment and government subsidy is not without some complications. Although the available wage employment increases economic security, the relative shortage of local employment opportunities limits the income prospects for Inuit teenagers and young adults. The little employment that is available tends to be only temporary or part time. As a result, even older youths who would prefer to be working end up with a lot of free time. Even though young men could go out trapping or subsistence hunting, most display little interest in these activities because the high investment in time and energy far outweighs the return. The anti-trapping and anti-sealing campaigns waged by southern-based animal welfare groups also have undermined the economic viability of such pursuits in Holman and other Inuit communities. Many of the young people interviewed indicated that they preferred high-paying and highly skilled occupations such as carpentry, heavy-duty equipment operation, mechanics, welding, teaching and nursing.

Social and Attitudinal Changes

As Holman integrates with the outside world, its residents are exposed to southern lifestyles and behavioral standards. Much of this "attitudinal assimilation" is due to the introduction of formal schooling. The local school in Holman has been operating since the early 1960s and is staffed by southern teachers who use a predominantly southern Canadian curriculum. Since schooling is compulsory until age 16 (although, in fact, many students quit well before their sixteenth birthdays), children spend much of the day isolated from the socializing influence of parents and other adults. Thus, as expected, children learn more about the southern way of life than about their own cultural traditions. In addition, the Holman school has done much to create a whole category of individuals who, although physically mature, are chronologically labeled as teenagers (or schoolchildren) rather than adults.

In the fall of 1980, television was introduced in Holman and yearly school exchange trips to southern Canada were instituted. Both of these acculturation agents have increased young people's exposure to southern standards of teenage behavior, attitudes and expectations. Television is the most important source of increased knowledge and awareness of current events happening in the outside world. On the negative side, however, Graburn (1982) has gone so far as to suggest that television is a form of cultural genocide: it has reinforced use of the English language, disrupted social visiting patterns and contributed to a generation gap. Young people in northern communities have been profoundly affected by the assimilationist qualities of television programming; it has helped to alter their behavior, their outlook on life and even their language. The word teenager, in fact, was not used widely until after television was introduced in the community. Television not only is a window to the outside world; it is a window to the adolescent subculture of the US and southern Canada!

As a result of these demographic, economic and social changes in settlement life, parents and children interact much less than in the past. When children and teenagers are not attending school, they spend time with their peers. Many parents complain about this dramatic increase in adolescent autonomy, saying that they rarely see their teenage sons and daughters.

Aspirational Dilemmas

As Holman teenagers struggle to acquire the customs and values of Inuit society, they are also mercilessly inundated with the values, social expectations and behavioral norms of southern society. Exposure to southern value systems has raised young people's aspirations at a time when the northern economy is changing, but not expanding sufficiently to accommodate the employment needs of the new generation. Lack of local employment opportunities may partially explain the delay in social maturity among Inuit adolescents.

In school, young people learn within a value system that promises high-paying and challenging careers after high school. High schooling, however, is not provided on the local level; students must be prepared to spend three years attending the regional high school in the territorial capital of Yellowknife. Although an increasing number of young people in Holman recognize the importance of a formal high school degree, few have the skills to complete the required course of study. (It is not unusual for a ninth-grade student in Holman to discover, after taking the high school entrance exam, that he or she is operating at a fifth- or sixth-grade level of academic achievement.) In addition, the stress of being separated from family and friends, combined with the regimented life in the school's residence hall, simply adds to the students' sense of frustration and helplessness. As a result, many drop out after several months or even weeks. Many of those who remain cut classes or turn to drugs and alcohol, which are more readily available in Yellowknife than in Holman. As of the fall of 1987, only five students from Holman had remained in Yellowknife long enough to complete their high school educations. The rest either did not try to attend or dropped out early, passing their time in Holman with casual work and hanging out with friends and peers.

Those Holman teens who are fortunate enough to receive either a high school diploma or vocational training often have to move to another community to find suitable employment, separating them from a close and supportive network of friends and relatives. As a small community, Holman does not have the employment base to support even a moderately sized work force; the young people who choose to stay in Holman have to settle for a combination of low-paying jobs and social assistance. The recent economic depression in the western Canadian Arctic, a result of the abandonment of oil and mineral exploration in the Beaufort Sea region, has made matters worse. With the promise of material wealth and job satisfaction unfulfilled, an increasing number of Holman's youth will turn to alcohol abuse, drug addiction and even suicide as a means of coping with their frustration. In addition, the lack of parental control and parental role models may further aggravate many youths' sense of alienation from the emerging social and economic order.

There is no doubt that further research, preferably of a longitudinal nature in a number of northern communities, is required to develop a full understanding of the wide-ranging impacts that rapid social change has had upon this new generation of Inuit. For example, many of the Holman youths studied in 1982-1983 have begun to raise families and assume important leadership and political positions within the community. How has their collective experience as a transitional generation affected their abilities to operate in a social environment increasingly oriented to the local control of political processes? Will recent settlement of land claims in the western Canadian Arctic and the subsequent creation of regional and village corporations increase local economic opportunities for young people in Holman and other small communities? Hopefully, as such economic and political opportunities become increasingly available, this transitional generation will find it possible to control the direction of their own lives and home communities.


(1) In traditional Copper Inuit society, as in most other Inuit societies, marriage did not imply the same legal, ceremonial or religious obligations as it does in Western culture. The term marriage is used here in a rather loose sense, for lack of a better word. A man and woman were married only after they had established a separate household and were recognized as husband and wife by members of the community. Even today, Inuit consider a young couple living together in a separate household married, even if they have not had a formal marriage ceremony.

(2) Prior to the introduction of bottle feeding, Inuit mothers breastfed their offspring for three to four years, and sometimes up to five years. Recent studies have established that frequent and unrestricted suckling contributes to postpartum infertility. For the Inuit, such prolonged suckling provided an ideal system of population equilibrium, whereby prolonged birth intervals maximized each child's chances of survival. With the introduction of bottle feeding in the 1960s, however, traditional birth spacing altered significantly, resulting in botha shortening of birth intervals and an acceleration in the livebirth rate.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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