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Inuit Health Culture Courses

by Nicola on 2012-08-16

Inuit Health Culture Courses

By Dr Nicola J Davies


A recent press release was published by the Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), seeking input from Inuit on Personal Education Credit (PEC). Under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, there is the provision to use the remaining $3,000 of the Common Experience Payment Trust Fund toward PEC.  This article highlights some of the key issues to be considered when deciding which history, language and culture courses and programs should be eligible for funding by examining Inuit health history and culture.


Defining Health and Illness


‘Health’ is the term used to describe optimal balance and harmony within the mind and body.  ‘Illness,’ on the other hand, is the term used to describe a situation where the optimal balance or harmony amongst the essential elements within the mind and body are disturbed in some way. Over thousands of years, Inuit have resourcefully developed and maintained the health of their minds and bodies and, indeed, their societies. The characteristic facets of their traditional diet and culture have been researched extensively and are now well documented. Living in small groups and relying on their physical and mental skills, along with what nature provided, survival meant being physically strong, observant, adaptable and resourceful, and using every part of any food source. The health and strength of the social organization and culture of Inuit was intertwined with and dependent upon the health of the individual community members.

Ulu, the traditional cutting knife of Inuit laid on dried caribou meat.

Photo courtesy of David Ho.

The Health Canada website contains comprehensive information about health issues affecting all Canadians, including Inuit. The Public Health Agency of Canada, on its website, identifies twelve categories of the determinants of health:


  1. Education
  2. Labour force characteristics
  3. Income
  4. Personal health practices
  5. Health services
  6. Culture
  7. Physical environment
  8. Social support networks
  9. Social environments
  10. Child development
  11. Biology and genetic endowment
  12. Gender


The Agency website provides comprehensive and detailed statistics regarding all of these categories, and information about how they relate to one another. They affect not just individuals, but the state of health of the community as a whole.  Government agencies have directed millions of dollars towards identification and improvement of ways in which Inuit health can be restored and maintained. Individual members of the community can take part in research programmes and seek guidance and assistance from the available services in order to improve standards of physical and mental health for themselves, their families and the community.

Inuit Health Culture in the Past

Some Inuit living north of the tree line, the area of Victoria Island known as Copper Inuit, or Kitlinermiut, gathered copper and used it in their daily lives. The gradual introduction of foods, goods and ideas from other cultures brought challenges for their own culture and their health. The transition to a money economy, the progressive introduction of higher levels of social mobility and education, exposure to other cultures and diets, inclusion in the national Government structure and the availability of faster and more powerful means of transport are some of the factors that brought health challenges (and benefits) to the Copper Inuit.

The Copper Inuit have gradually become exposed to the chronic and contagious diseases that affected southern people. Illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, West Nile Virus, Influenza and Tuberculosis, Type 2 Diabetes, Heart Disease and Cancers spread, and the incidence of obesity and conditions related to the use of alcohol and tobacco increased.  Mental health symptoms became more apparent as the traditional lifestyles and beliefs of the people were challenged, under the influence of external forces, and were given labels such as depression by the medical professionals who serviced the communities with increasing frequency.

Inuit learning of culture from their elders and parents.

Photo courtesy of David Ho

Modern Day Inuit Health

Today, the incidence of many of these illnesses and conditions is higher amongst Copper Inuit than amongst the general population of Canada. Youth suicide and depressive illnesses in pregnant women and new mothers, heart disease and tuberculosis are examples. However, levels of health literacy and education are improving, and with the availability of technology, there are opportunities for Inuit to learn about their own health and to undertake courses relating to health issues.

In 2005, because of the increase in conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease amongst native people, the ‘Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide - First Nations, Inuit and Métis,’ published by the Canadian government, was released. The emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental aspects of health are covered in this Guide. The Guide is regularly updated and includes information about the foods that were part of the natural diet. It is directed towards providing dietary options that balance the intake of those foods and the wider variety of fresh, frozen and processed foods available in the stores. One example is that milk and milk products, although available and used traditionally, were not readily available. Therefore, the Guide suggested other traditional sources of the nutrients found in milk, such as seaweed and fish with bones, as an alternative to a complete change to the consumption of imported, processed, dairy products. Interestingly, there are also stories of people utilizing the milk from fresh hunted caribou.

Available Health Courses

The Public Health Agency of Canada offers both facilitated and self-directed learning modules and the Inuit Tobacco-free Network also provides educational opportunities. Fact sheets are prepared for the information of Inuit by Health Canada and these related agencies, and are distributed by health care workers in the communities, at nursing stations and in medical centres in the larger communities.

The Centre for INUIT Health and Changing Environments is called Nasivvik, an Inuktitut word for a place from which the surroundings can be observed. It conducts research into all aspects of Inuit health and provides information which becomes the basis of many programmes offered by Health Canada. The Centre’s website is The focus of the Centre is to educate Inuit about health matters, and to teach and involve them in the delivery of health services to their own people. Achievement of this objective will minimize the problems that can arise when there is a lack of complete understanding of historical and cultural issues when services are delivered by health professionals who come from different cultural backgrounds.

Distance and cost are ever-present obstacles to learning for Inuit living in remote areas. With gradually increasing levels of literacy and the allocation of resources to provide access to the Internet, many more Inuit will be able to engage in the courses available through Government and University websites and to learn about all the factors that affect their health. Initiatives such as those created by The Centre for INUIT Health and Changing Environments have been designed to draw young Inuit students to health care careers and will benefit Inuit communities immensely in the long-term.

Young Inuit learning food preparation from their elders and parents.

Photo courtesy of David Ho.


In conclusion, to ensure that the Personal Education Credit Program is culturally appropriate and accessible to Nunavut Inuit, it is essential to fund courses that respect traditional Inuit lifestyles and culture while also integrating changes emerging due to modern advancements in technology and opportunity.  One way to achieve this is to ensure that such courses comprise the twelve determinants of health identified by The Public Health Agency of Canada, namely: Education; Labour force characteristics; Income; Personal health practices; Health services; Culture; Physical environment; Social support networks; Social environments; Child development; Biology and genetic endowment; and, Gender. The inclusion of these categories ensures a holistic approach is taken to education, taking into a consideration biopsychosocial influences – biology, psychology, and social factors.

It is important that eligible programs do not merely focus on the individual but on the community. This can be achieved by respecting traditional Inuit practices that have previously united communities. For example, courses could focus on increasing the use of traditional recipes that utilize local natural resources. This will help balance Inuit food consumption with the often less healthy imported foods or health ideas. Furthermore, exercise-based activities and courses could be designed for community-wide involvement, enabling Inuit to interact and share in positive and healthy ways. The recent Inuit Games, in the spirit of Olympics 2012, is a shining example of the benefits of communities coming together in a way that increases physical and mental health, as well as social well-being.


Finally, it is important to target young Inuit and the elders who many communities turn to for education and advice. By targeting these populations, the education gained through these courses will be shared down the generations. The generational benefits that can come from the PEC Program demonstrate the sheer importance of the decisions to be made by Nunavut Inuit in terms of those courses that are eligible for funding. With this in mind, it is essential that they seek advice from Inuit as well as health professionals versed in the design and delivery of such courses. 

Author Bio:

Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being.  Her publications can be viewed at Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog:



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