An Abundance of Wildlife Resources
Since time untold, marine mammals have been essential to Inuit life. Not only are they an important source of food, the pelts, bones, ivory and blubber of these animals were also traditionally used for tools, clothing, heating oil, shelters and boats. The species of marine mammals so important to the Inuit are ringed seal (natsiq), bearded seal (ujjuk), walrus (aiviq) and beluga (qilalugaq).
The majestic polar bear (nanuk) is an important symbol of the Arctic that is also classified by Inuit as a marine mammal. Except for Inuit hunters and killer whales, polar bears have very few enemies. Traditionally, the tracking and hunting of a first polar bear marked a young Inuk passage to adulthood.
Inuit have many uses for the wildlife they harvest. For example, seal fat continues to be aged and eaten as a condiment (misiraq). In days gone by, it was transformed into heating oil, an essential source of heat and light during long, cold winter nights. Sealskins are also still a prized material for making warm and water-repellent boots, mittens and other garments. Traditionally, sealskins were also used to make avataq (buoys used for the hunting of marine mammals) and puurtaaq (sacs for the storage of meat and oil).
As for walruses, their skins were once used for building boats, shelters and many types of accessories. Inuit artists use the animal’s ivory tusks for carving, especially jewellery.
Finally, like seals and walruses, belugas are primarily a source of food for Inuit. Not only is the meat eaten dried (nikku), frozen-raw and cooked, but the thick skin (mattaq) is a delicacy, which happens to be rich in vitamin C. Beluga meat and fat is still used today to make igunaq and misiraq. Beluga skin was traditionally used for footwear, boat covers and dog whips.
The history of Nunavik's musk-ox dates back to August 1967. At that time, 15 of these young bovine mammals, captured around Eureka on Ellesmere Island, were transported to an experimental farm located at Old Chimo (Kuujjuatuqaaq), a few kilometres downstream from present-day Kuujjuaq. It was hoped that captive musk-ox could be domesticated to boost socio-economic development. Inuit would use the soft, fine qiviut (musk-ox wool) to make warm clothing for the harsh, cold winters and they would be able to incorporate meat from the animals into their diets during periods when caribou was not plentiful. Though the outcome of this socio-economic experiment did produce the desired results, the introduction of musk-ox to the tundra of Nunavik has been a great success.
In Nunavik, the first animals to be released were three calves. That was in 1973 near Tasiujaq. By the time the experimental farm at Old Chimo terminated operations in August 1983, a total of 52 head had been released at a few sites in the region. The new environment of these musk-ox suited them very well, and they began to reproduce successfully in the wild. Today, the Nunavik population is estimated at more than 2000 head. Since their situation is still precarious however, hunting is restricted by a quota system… while photography is not.
In Inuktitut, musk-ox are called umimmaq (the bearded ones). Musk-ox are one of the oldest species of mammals still living today. About one million years ago, the ancestors of these bovines roamed the steppes of Northern Asia, along with the mammoth. More than 90,000 years ago, this animal crossed the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska to populate North America. Fossils have been found in several sites in Canada and the United States, notably in Saskatchewan, Ontario and New England.
Hundreds of thousands of caribou roam the wilds of Nunavik. For centuries, the lives of many Nunavik Inuit have been closely tied to caribou and their migrations for subsistence and other purposes. For example, before the arrival of the modern world in the North in the 20th century, the hides of these animals were used to make clothing, such as the qulittaq (a parka held in great esteem because of caribou fur's exceptional insulating effect). Thread for sewing came from dried tendons.
Nunavik is an immense region where spring may last for more than three months. The land, its forests and water bodies begin their annual reawakening near the end of March in the southern reaches of the region in communities such as Kuujjuarapik. However spring only arrives near the beginning of June in the north, in communities such as Ivujivik, Salluit, Kangiqsujuaq and Quaqtaq.
Spring marks the return of Nunavik’s migratory birds, large and small. Canada geese (nirliq) and eider duck (mitiq) to name but two species of waterfowl arrive among the first, to build their nests on offshore islands and await the hatching of their young. According to the Québec Breeding Birds Atlas, at the height of summer over 125 species of birds may be found in the southern forests of Nunavik and up to 50 species nest on the Ungava Peninsula above the tree line.
Nunavik also nurtures populations of several birds of prey, well-known emblems of the North. These include the peregrine falcon (kiggavik) and the gyrfalcon (kiggaviarjuk), as well as the rough-legged hawk (qinnuajuaq), to name a few.
Among the handful of bird species that reside year round in the region, it is worth mentioning the nocturnal snowy owl (ukpik) and one of its prey of choice, the ptarmigan (aqiggig). These species have adapted to the Arctic climate and may have feathered legs or be able to change their colouring according to the season.