“People of the North” is a series of interviews created in partnership with Arctic in Context and Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities. Every six weeks, Kesserwan Arteau founders, Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan will publish an interview with leaders, innovators, and community members in an effort to highlight the Arctic’s diversity from the perspectives of those who live there.
By Jean François Arteau
Stephen Grasser is a proud Sallumiut, or resident of Salluit—the second most northern Inuit community in Nunavik, Canada, with a population of 1,800 and located on the Sugluk Inlet. He has devoted most of his life to economic development of the Arctic, more recently focusing on issues of food security. He spent his childhood in Toronto, and then lived in Montreal until 1985 before moving to Nunavik.
Grasser is a graduate of McGill University, where he studied arts and English language and literature. As a senior analyst in economic development with the Kativik Regional Government, a supra-municipal body with offices in all 14 communities of Nunavik, he has witnessed and been involved in many of the transformations in the Canadian Arctic since the early 1990s, from the growth of cooperative development initiatives to the introduction of high-speed internet.
KESSERWAN ARTEAU: What do you call your north?
STEPHEN GRASSER: My northern community is called Salluit. It is located in a much larger Inuit territory called Nunavik, although administratively it has gone by European names in the past, such as Nord-du-Quebec and Rupert’s Land.
KA: Where is your north?
SG: Having travelled extensively and living exclusively in this region over the past 30 years, my north is the part of Quebec north of the 55th parallel. In particular, the Hudson Strait communities of Quaqtaq, Kangiqsujuaq, Salluit, and Ivujivik are part of my wife’s kinship group and traditional lands when her family lived a nomadic lifestyle, and I have a stronger affinity to those villages.
KA: What is in your north?
SG: This is a curious question, and I was going to discuss geography, wildlife, climate, vegetation, natural resources, etc. But I want to focus on the people who live there with me. For me, there is no north without Inuit.
About 95 percent of the population of Nunavik is Inuit, a people who have lived along the coastal regions of Nunavik for millennia. While living a nomadic lifestyle, they developed a culture where their ethics were molded by the need to survive in a very demanding environment. Sharing resources, stoicism in the face of loss, hospitality (including toward strangers), forgiveness of transgressions, bravery, self-sacrifice, and a respect for others’ privacy were some of the attributes of this culture. And for better or worse, these ethics still survive today, but in a settled environment.
KA: What is the most beautiful thing about your north?
SG: The elders’ their kindness, humor, and patience are exemplary, and many are eager to teach you about their culture, both past and present. For someone from the south, this still is exciting to me after 30 years.
KA: What is your link to the north?
SG: Southerners who move permanently to Nunavik always have a long and circuitous backstory. Suffice it to say I started teaching adult education in Quaqtaq and Salluit. During the summers, I started to work at a landholding corporation, setting up procedures and training staff. That caught the notice of the Kativik Regional Government, which was looking for someone to do business development in the region. I have worked in that capacity for the last 28 years.
So that’s how I got here, but why did I stay? I meet an amazing woman and together we raised five children. This link to the territory has been further cemented by six grandchildren. And in 2013, I became a Salluit beneficiary to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement through community acceptance [which allows the recipient to vote in all ethnic elections, earn royalties from mining development, and access free education up to doctorate level]. This was one of my proudest moments.
I will be buried there, too.
KA: How does coming from the north make you different?
SG: I’ll split my answer in two. If I can rephrase question, coming from the south to the north is a double-edged sword. On one hand, Inuit are interested in speaking with me about a wide range of subjects: technology, history, politics, society, and more. However, for many years you are an outsider—not really part of the community but tolerated in a friendly way. It is only after you have proven your mettle over many years that you become part of the village. My theory is that they wait to see if you are going to move away, having seen so many southerners come and go over the years.
So when I travel south, I get asked many questions about the social conditions, cultural beliefs, weather, and wildlife of the north. In this way I become some kind of interlocutor between the two cultures. This is not a role I am comfortable with, though; because I straddle both places, I am not fully immersed in either.
To be honest, I think many people in the south believe I am crazy to live where I do.
KA: How does your heritage influence you?
SG: My heritage is through Scottish and German ancestors. The influence of this heritage initially was a hindrance to my appreciation of Inuit society: The staggering birthrate, the different sense of obligation to the “clock” and “work,” the poor success rate at school, and lack of a cosmopolitan worldview were a bit shocking to me. Over the years, however, I have come to understand that these traits carry over from nomadic life, which ended a short three generations ago for many.
KA: Name a few successes in your north.
SG: Thanks for beginning with the successes rather than failures. Education, despite all the talk about the failures of the regional school board, has greatly improved. We are seeing more youth graduating and able to work in administrative positions than in the past. Housing, though not able to provide shelter for a significant portion of the population, is of very high quality. Our cooperative movement is very strong, and able to provide the population with a wide range of services, such as retail, hotels, fuel, and cable television. And the average life span, still significantly lower than in southern Canada, has improved over the decades. I wonder how much closer to the national average we would be, if statisticians factored out suicides and accidental deaths.
And the internet has really opened up doors for our youth in terms of self-expression, access to commerce, and awareness of world events.
There is obvious room for improvement in these areas, but they show we are heading in the right direction.
KA: What are some challenges your north is facing?
SG: On the meta level, we are facing a conflict between conservatism (seen in pushes for cultural and language preservation, as well as environmental protection) and modernity (through economic development, political empowerment, new technology, and different forms of food production) My own view is that a society stubbornly resistant to change is one likely to fall apart, but how much change can be accepted before a society loses it soul?
Many of the challenges arise from the remoteness of the region: the insanely high cost of living due to transportation expenses, the distance to markets for any commercial endeavor, the remoteness of important health services, and the distance (both real and figuratively) from the seats of decision-making.
Access to food is perhaps one of the most important pillars of existence, and in the past Inuit were totally self-sufficient in this regard. But as populations grew and settled into communities, food had to be imported from distant producers. The cost of transport was very high, and nutritional value deteriorated due to time spent in transit.
It galls me to hear of the emphasis placed on traditional country food. As populations grow, they place ever-increasing pressure on the stock of these resources. We are already seeing declines in the numbers of caribou, Arctic char, and beluga whales. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no study identifying the tipping point for each of our traditional foods—the maximum amount families can consume given population declines. But our political and public-health leadership seems obsessed with country food, as if it is an inexhaustible source of nutrition. No one is mentioning the 800-pound polar bear in the room.
We must look into alternative local food production, and fast. Berry and vegetable production can be conducted year round through new hydroponic technologies. Fish farming and ranching of chickens, caribou, musk ox, and sheep could provide the missing protein in people’s diets, although these efforts would be very expensive given current technology. However, this should not stop pilot projects from honing the methodologies and beginning to create sustainable models.
There is another cause for concern: What would happen to us if current transportation and cost-of-living subsidies from the Canadian government were downgraded due to war, change of political priorities, fuel crises, pandemics, or some other cause? We have been living in an almost golden age of stability, but history has shown us that this is the exception.
KA: What would you like the world to know about your north?
SG: Quite simply, it is alive and vibrant—not a frozen, static wasteland full of misery, suicides, and violence.
KA: Name a few misconceptions about your north.
There are many fallacies about Nunavik: that Inuit are lazy and incapable of working steadily, there is an endless supply of wildlife that can sustain the population indefinitely, Inuit pay no taxes, and Inuit are indulged by a welfare state.
KA: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
SG: Should I still be breathing, I would like to focus on food production, especially in greenhouses. I am studying online about hydroponic technologies and firmly believe that with advances being made in alternative energy and heating sources, this can become a significant sustainable effort. Experimentation with livestock also interests me, but there are major obstacles here, especially with the provisioning of fodder.
KA: Where do you see your north in 10, 20, 50, or 100 years?
SG: I hope to see greater self-sufficiency in all aspects of life. Economic development can be greatly enhanced by favorable Impact Benefit Agreements—formal contracts made between private companies and indigenous communities—concerning mining and hydro development. The money from these ventures can be used to launch Inuit-owned and -controlled companies employing Inuit on their own terms.
I also believe that the collective approach to development (co-ops, nonprofit organizations, etc.) provides a much more suitable model than private enterprise. As I see it, for-profits only widen the gap between rich and poor up here, and create social disruption.
I foresee, most importantly, not only the survival but the blossoming of Inuit culture—ethos, language, and customs—after the shockwaves of settlement have finally abated.
I am optimistic about the future.
KA: What are your fears for the future?
SG: My fears revolve around social and environmental deterioration. Global warming is real, and is affecting northern latitudes far more than other places in the world. How will Inuit adapt to this challenge? Will it sound the death knell for traditional hunts and sources of sustenance? Will infrastructural adaptations prove too expensive?
If there is a major collapse of world economies, it will hit all countries hard, but since Nunavik is at the extreme end of the world, such an event would have a devastating effect.
Finally, the rise of corporations and their increasing rights over individuals and societies is extremely worrisome and runs counter to Inuit cultural values. We are seeing oligarchies growing in power all over the world, and some trade deals seem to give these entities more power than elected governments.
I am optimistic in the light of day, but some nights I don’t sleep so well.
Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq.
Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years.