Climate and Cultural Barriers
to Northern Economic Development:
A case study from Broughton Island, N.W.T., Canada

Vol. 5: 91-98, 1995

Clim. Res
Published February 23, 1995
Jill Oakes
Department of Native Studies, and Natural Resource Institute, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R3T 2N2
Canadian Circumpolar Institute, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2J6


It is critical to study climate and cultural factors influencing the handicraft industry in order to combat critical levels of unemployment in northern settlements. The purpose of this paper is to identify the climate and cultural factors influencing production at the Minnguq Sewing Group in Broughton Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. Participatory action research methods, including participation in workshops, observing the decision making processes, and informal interviews were used during the field research conducted from January to August 1991.

Traditional parka of Holman Island.

Information was collected on various aspects of business including product line development, production techniques, management strategies, and funding sources. Climate and culture influenced availability of resources, funding, and training; isolation from consumers and supplies; and integration of new technology. This study will be of interest to scientists studying rural economy, aboriginal economic development, international arts and crafts, cross-cultural clothing, historical clothing, and other related fields.
KEY WORDS: Culture, Arctic, Inuit, Aboriginal community economic development, Handicrafts industry, Cross-cultural economic development, Women in development, Northern business


Industry recognizes the need to understand cultural influences on productivity levels and devotion to producing products (Jamieson 1987, Quigley & Mcbride 1987, Robinson & Ghostkeeper 1987, Department of Economic Development and Tourism 1990, Stabler et al. 1990, Erasmus & Ensign 1991, Weissling 1991, Wuttunee 1992). Climate also plays a critical role in economic development, especially when studying a specific sector of the economy (Goos 1989). In order to develop effective development strategies in the eastern Arctic, climate and cultural factors need to be examined. The purpose of this paper is to identify climate and cultural factors influencing the Minnguq Sewing Group in Broughton Island, Northwest Territories (N.W.T.), Canada, and to relate this information to relevant literature on economic development.

Unemployment has been a serious problem ever since the traditional economy collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s (Stabler & Howe 1990). Stabler & Howe (1990) and Stabler (1989) summarize historical, contemporary, and future unemployment trends for the N.W.T. The birth rate in the N.W.T. is 3 times the national average with over 42% of the population less than 20 yr old. The rapid increase in population, combined with extreme climate, has strong socio-economic implications (Alan et al. 1993). In 10 yr over 6000 new jobs will be needed in order to maintain even the present low employment rate in the N.W.T. (Department of Economic Development and Tourism 1990, Employment and Immigration Canada 1990). Nationally, 5000 aboriginal people must enter the work force annually for the next 5 yr in order to maintain the current low employment rate for aboriginal people (which is double the non-native rate of low employment) (Jamieson 1987, Department of Economic Development and Tourism 1990). Education and specialized training are desperately needed in order to alleviate the high unemployment rate (Department of Economic Development and Tourism 1990, Stabler & Howe 1990, Stabler et al. 1990). Inuit hold 3% of the federal public service jobs in the Nunavut (eastern Arctic) region and 45% of the Government of the Northwest Territory (GNWT) jobs (Inuit Management and Development Task Force 1986). At a time of rapidly growing population and critical levels of unemployment, it is important to understand the factors influencing successful employment ventures.


The Minnguq Sewing Group invited researchers, using participatory action research methods, to help with specific aspects of their business development. Field research was conducted from January to August 1991 in Broughton Island. It was conducted with the assistance of Val Kosmenko, Tamara Tuchak, and members of the Minnguq Sewing Group. Informal interviews with the seamstresses, hunters, and skin preparers were used to collect information on the impact of climate and culture on the product line development, decision making processes, and production techniques. Analysis of collected data identified climate and cultural factors inhibiting and supporting economic development.


A summary of trade and employment activity in the Broughton Island area and specifically at the Minnguq Sewing Group provides an historical context. An analysis of the Minnguq Sewing Centre reveals climate and cultural factors influencing business success.

Broughton Island

The hamlet of Broughton Island is situated on an island with the same name located off the rugged east coast of Baffin Island in the eastern Canadian Arctic. Inuit from this area saw their first non-native in 1606 when William Baffins ship was caught in local pack ice. By the early 1600s, European whalers explored the area and established a whaling station at Kivitoo (65 km north of Broughton Island). This contact initiated the first, long-term trading relationship between these 2 groups in the Broughton Island area. In 1956-57, 61 Inuit moved permanently onto Broughton Island when the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line station was under construction (Kemp1984, Weissling 1991). Fifteen Inuit were formally employed at the time. By 1957 a few Inuit were selling carvings at the DEW line site (Graburn 1978). At this time Inuit womens contribution to the informal economy was limited by a dramatic drop in hunting activities around the DEW line site (because of increased dependency on DEW line site supplies) which resulted in the lack of necessary materials. By 1960, Inuit living near the site resumed active hunting and their standard of living improved dramatically (Weissling 1991). Women were able to contribute to their families quality of life. According to Anders (1966), wage employment earnings rose dramatically with social welfare payments, seal skins sales, construction projects, and fur sales. In 1968, a government-subsidized, territory wide carving and handicraft cooperative was started by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. This provided the first source of formal cash income for Inuit women in Broughton-Pangnirtung area (Weissling 1991). The cooperative now no longer exists.

Today, the population of Broughton Island is 450 (Municipal Records 1991); over 95% are Inuit. The main economic activities are harvesting marine mammals, waterfowl, caribou, and fish for food, guiding non-natives on hunts, taking tourists on dog sled or fishing trips, and selling handicrafts. A few Inuit work at territorial, municipal, Parks Canada, hotel, and retail jobs. Several main sources of income, including the DEW line site, trapping, sealing and carving, have either been terminated or the market has crashed (Department of Economic Development and Tourism 1990). There is a definite need for economic development that considers the Arctic climate, available resources, and cultural attributes.

Minnguq Sewing Group

In the 1960s, Inuit on Baffin Island started to produce clothing for southern export (Graburn 1978, Inuit Fine Art Task Force 1985). The arts and crafts industry provided a link between the pre-1950s land-based economy (hunting and trapping) and the post-1970s commercial production economy (land claims, government assistance). A community initiated economic development project called the Minnguq (Inuktitut for beetle) Sewing Group began in the late 1970s.






Alice Kilika shows a beaded  belt.

This group was started by several Inuit women interested in selling seal skin boots (Oakes 1991) (Fig. 1). They began by using skin donated by their families to make footwear. Their business expanded to about 400 boot sales per year by 1990 and a new product line of bags. The number of seamstresses employed by Minnguq varies seasonally and depends on other community commitments. When requests for products are received, they are announced on the local radio and seamstresses are invited to let Minnguq know if they would like to fill that specific order. Skin boots are the main sales item and sell for approximately $250 a pair (depending on size and decoration). The hunters, skin preparers, and sewers are paid by the piece. Consumers are primarily from the Northwest Territories, although individuals from Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and other southern cities also purchase these products from the Minnguq Sewing Group. Seamstresses advertise their products by word of mouth and by a recently published catalogue.

The territorial and federal government introduced the Canadian Economic Development Strategy (CAEDS) in 1989. An economic development officer began helping Minnguq fill in the seemingly endless pages of paper work for government funding proposals. Funds received from successful proposals were used to pay for consultants, training workshops, and equipment including industrial sewing machines. Non-native consultants were used to train interested women in industrialized skin preparation techniques, production techniques using industrial sewing machines, and product line development skills. A local seal skin tannery was funded to complement Minnguqs activities. Governments must continue to play a positive, active role in economic development (Gillis et al.1987, Stabler & Howe 1990). It is critical for members of the Minnguq Sewing Group to take into consideration the factors influencing their business, including climate and cultural barriers, as well as the beneficial aspects of these factors. These considerations are also important when developing training programs, which will help to build the linkage between traditional and contemporary skills needed to successfully run this business.

Beautiful boots from Copper Mine.