Labrador Inuit Visit Greenland

by Jonas Karpik

There is an old Inuit legend that says when the Labrador Inuit and Indians were constantly at war with one another, a bunch of Inuit took their families in their skin umiaks and went away, not knowing where they would end up.  They landed in Greenland and that is why there are Inuit in Greenland today.

Last spring the OKâlaKatigêt Society of Labrador selected two people from its training program to go to Greenland to see their school of journalism and to observe their operation of Radio Greenland.  I was fortunate to be one of them.  Along the way I noted different Inuit communities and how the environment affects their living conditions.

Differences in the environment

We left Nain on June 14, our first stop being Kuujjuaq, Northern Quebec.  As we went further and further away from Nain the hills gradually became lower and flatter.  And we could notice on the shoreline the difference between the high water mark and low water mark of the tides.  In Frobisher Bay this is even greater, the difference between the two must be more than a mile.  The hills in Frobisher are also much higher than in Northern Quebec.

As we flew east from Baffin Island the ice in Baffin Bay got thinner and thinner.  When we approached Greenland there was no ice whatsoever, due to the warm current that runs along southwestern Greenland, causing a year-round open sea.  As we got closer we could see on the horizon the great peaks of Greenland with their glaciers that are millions of years old.

While there was still solid ice in Frobisher Bay, as we got to Nuuk, Greenland, only about two hours flight in a propeller-driven plane, people were water skiing and wind surfing.  Before this trip I had never seen the midnight sun, but while we were in Greenland the sun never set.

Housing conditions

When we arrived in Kuujjuaq, it was apparent that their housing is much better than in Northern Labrador.  They have such beautiful houses it seems that their Kativik Regional Government and Makivik Corporation are responsible for the better living conditions for Inuit in Northern Quebec.

The housing in Greenland is different from in Canada.  The government has built huge apartment buildings in an effort to centralize the Greenlandic people.  One of these apartment buildings is capable of housing 60 or more families.  In Nuuk alone, which is the capital of Greenland, there must be 50 of these apartment buildings, as well as hundreds of one-family houses, which seem to be government-built since most of them are identical.

Most of the water and sewer pipes in Nuuk are underground, but in some rocky places they are on the surface.  In communities north of Nuuk, such as Manitsoq, Sisimiut and Aasiaat, almost all of the pipes are above ground and the water sometimes freezes inside.

In Nuuk there are no electricity or telephone wires going into the houses from light poles, all the wires are underground.  When we went back to Frobisher Bay, all the poles with thick, sagging telephone wires looked messy in comparison.

Country food

Country food available to our fellow Inuit is different in Northern Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Greenland.  The best situation is in Quebec, where each community has a freezer containing caribou meat, char and seal meat which an Inuk, if he is a beneficiary of the Northern Quebec Agreement, can get free when he needs it.

In Frobisher Bay they have a country food store where people can buy such food as caribou meat, char, seal meat and muktuk.

In Greenland they have country food in all the grocery stores and one store in Nuuk specializes in country food.  Most of the stores also sell dried seal and whale meat, dried cod and halibut, and, of course, muktuk.

The most impressive distribution of country food, in my opinion, is the open market down by the old harbor in Nuuk, where the hunters and fishermen sell their catch to the public as soon as they bring it in from the hunt.  They sell it themselves with no middleman.  They sell every Inuk food available in Greenland- seal meat, different types of whale meat, cod, char, halibut, catfish, different types of birds, all types of dried meat and fish and even some wild rhubarb, although I never saw any caribou meat on display.

 Retail stores

In retail outlets in Nuuk you can buy just about anything that is made in the world.  All the stores are so expertly operated, maybe with expertise from Denmark, that when we came back to Canada, the Hudson’s Bay store in Kuujjuaq looked empty and untidy in comparison.  Although the one in Frobisher Bay was tidy, it was not so impressive as the ones you see in Greenland.

One big difference with the grocery stores in Greenland is that most of them sell beer and liquor to anyone who wants it, during regulated hours of the day, while in Canada it is not available to the Inuit, and when it is, it’s under very strict regulations.

Education

They have a technical school in Nuuk which would be equivalent to our vocational schools.  To enter this school you have to have a high school education.

In this school they teach electricity, auto mechanics, boat building, marine engine repair, electronics and every other vocation that one may need to make a living, all in Kalaallisut (Greenlandic Inuktitut).

Greenland has an institution called Ilisimatusarfik (Inuit cultural institute) where they study the Greenlandic language, not just to use if conversationally, but to learn how it affects their culture and history.  The institute’s library has all kinds of books on Inuit language and culture, probably more than anywhere else in the world.

Greenland’s school of journalism at present has 11 students.  To be accepted, students must be bilingual in Kalaallisut and Danish.  Before they start their formal education, they get six months’ practical experience working in radio, television or at a newspaper.

We didn’t stay long enough in Quebec or the Northwest Territories to learn about their educational methods, but it seemed that all the children there speak Inuktitut well.  In Northern Quebec, Inuit children are taught Inuktitut during their first three years at school.

The Inuit are the majority in Greenland and while we were there it was a good feeling not to belong to an ethnic or minority group for a change.

(Taqralik, November 1984, page 70)