Economic and Social Conditions

Prior to the arrival of Europeans during the past millennium, the Indians and Inuit of northern Canada engaged in subsistence economies, most of which were nomadic, where they sustained their communities through continuous practices of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Little is known about the nature of trade between indigenous societies during that time. The published trade discussion concentrates on the involvement of Canada's Aboriginal peoples in the international fur trade and the influence of the HBC and the North West Company.

The economy of Canada's North definitely follows a north-south orientation. Larger communities in the North have north-south transportation and communication networks set up. At the same time, Aboriginal communities in all areas of the north communicate with each other in an east-west manner. For example, the Inuit communities communicate all the way from Greenland to Alaska on a regular basis. The northern peoples of Canada are very much interested and involved in other areas of the circumpolar world.

The Aboriginal peoples of northern Canada are struggling to retain their languages and cultures; at the same time they are attempting to benefit from the economic opportunities of western economies and globalization. Many languages and cultures face extinction in northern Canada. The elders are disappearing, carrying with them the languages, stories, and traditional knowledge that keep whole cultures alive. In some cases, the income-earning potential of tourism can provide the financial resources to enable distinct societies to reclaim their cultures and reactivate their languages. Considerable worldwide interest is emerging for North American and international visitors to experience the cultures and buy handicrafts from traditional industries of Canadian northern peoples.

As the first decade of the new millennium advances, considerable federal government assistance is devoted to improving electronic connectivity in the North, so that the peoples of the North can benefit from digital communication technologies and from distance learning, telemedicine, and entertainment that has become available via the Internet. Such benefits come with a high cost to northern Aboriginal societies. Traditional economies and lifestyles have given way to the norms of western lifestyles and standards of living, as promoted through television, movies, the Internet, and magazines, and this has taken place in one generation. The youth of the North struggle to adapt to these new paradigms of social interaction without the benefit of the wisdom of the elders, since only the older generations know and understand the traditional ways of their forefathers. Hence, high rates of suicide, high teen pregnancy, and low literacy and educational attainment abound. And, in these societies where little financial benefit accrues from resource development by large corporations, high unemployment and low levels of skills in the trades exist.

It is not surprising that the Aboriginal peoples of the North now demand a share of future resource development, as they negotiate new land claims agreements and regional self-government rights. For example, the peoples residing in the Mackenzie drainage basin of the Northwest Territories are adamant that they must share in the wealth of new forestry, petroleum, mining, and pipeline developments on their traditional lands, through both shared ownership and employment.

Coates and Morrison (1992: 107-108) discuss the devastating assaults on the Aboriginal northern economy after 1950. Falling prices for pelts destroyed the fur trade, and the animal rights movements of the 1980s brought international boycotts of Canadian fur products. Also, the expanding resource industries eroded the traditional food supply of northern societies. Large hydroelectric developments at James Bay and in northern Manitoba eliminated large tracts of hunting and trapping territory relied on by the Aboriginal hunters and gatherers. With the dwindling fur trade and food supply came a loss of interest on the part of young people to follow their elders on the land, and jobs in the wage economy were few.

Eventually, such impacts lead to populations that are completely dependent on social welfare payments of various descriptions. The loss of land and culture, combined with exceedingly high unemployment, eventually leads to alcoholism, drug and gambling addictions, family violence, suicide, and school dropouts. Many young people, the men in particular, spend a considerable portion of their lives in jail, beset by an insensitive justice system (Grant, 2002), and the promise of adequate food and clothing while incarcerated.

As discussed by Bone (1992: 208), few wage employment opportunities exist for the Aboriginal peoples in the North. Moving people from their home communities to sources of employment, such as resource-based industry towns, is very disruptive and has not proved successful. An alternative to relocation to resource towns is air commuting, which allows Aboriginal workers access to employment while allowing their families to remain in their home communities.

It has been difficult for Aboriginal peoples to adapt to the expanding wage economies brought on by resource exploitation in northern regions. For many generations, northern Aboriginal peoples have been governed by their hunting and gathering cultures and have lived in subsistence economies. The change from subsistence economies to economies of daily and weekly employment routines is difficult for them to accommodate. Also, with partial dependence upon hunting and gathering for food and clothing, Aboriginal workers often do not choose to work for a daily wage during the seasons when hunting and gathering is necessary to provide for their families.

One indicator for the wage employment difficulties that northern Aboriginal people face is the employment/population ratio for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. This information was charted between 1981 and 1996 for Canada's northern territories, Yukon and Northwest Territories, from Canadian Census data by Canada's Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in a report entitled Basic Departmental Data 2002 (p. 72). Keeping in mind that up to 1996 the Northwest Territories included the new territory of Nunavut, it is concluded that: "Since 1981, the percentage of employed Aboriginals aged 15 and over has increased in both territories," and further:

"However, the Aboriginal employment/population ratios in Northwest Territories and Yukon remain substantially lower than those for non-Aboriginals."

Aboriginal people are making positive contributions to community-based research in many areas of social and economic development through the knowledge and wisdom of their elders, often referred to as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). The primary contributions are in the areas of protected habitats, protected species, renewable resource management, health and nutrition, and persistent organic pollutants. These contributions become important as people struggle to adapt to rapid climate shifts in remote northern regions. Fenge (2001) has provided a summary of Inuit TEK in the field of climate change, and McDonald et al. (1997) have documented the TEK of the Inuit and Cree.

Through academic institutions and northern community organizations, many efforts are under way in Canada to promote the value of knowledge acquisition through research partnerships. Most of these partnership arrangements are funded through Canada's three major funding agencies in support of academic research, namely the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) that includes an Institute of Aboriginal Peoples Health. However, because of the potential for community-based and community-driven research to improve northern social and economic development, the regional development agencies of Canada's national government are also taking an interest in funding. More than ever before, efforts are being made to combine TEK with the knowledge of the western scientific disciplines in addressing the challenges facing northern communities.

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