Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic August 09, 2017 - 9:00 am

Book Review: Too Many People by Willem Rasing

Thirty-year study looks at the breakdown of Inuit customary rules and the rise of criminality and disorder

Willem Rasing's book Too Many People, published by Nunavut Arctic College, is available from Amazon or from Fitzhenry and Whiteside. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)
Willem Rasing's book Too Many People, published by Nunavut Arctic College, is available from Amazon or from Fitzhenry and Whiteside. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)

Willem Rasing’s Too Many People, published this past spring by Nunavut Arctic College, arrives at a timely moment: a year when the people of Nunavut and Nunavik find themselves suffering once more from the painful consequences of yet another rash of anti-social behaviour and lethal violence.

Since the beginning of May, Nunavut has suffered the death by homicide of an 11-year-old boy in Rankin Inlet, the death by homicide of a 51-year woman near Pond Inlet, the police shooting of a 39-year-old Hall Beach man who said on Facebook he wished to die via “suicide by cop,” and the stabbing death of a 30-year-old man in Gjoa Haven.

That’s from a period of only three months. It doesn’t include all the lesser mayhem: multiple property crimes, aggravated assaults, arsons, standoffs and weekly firearm scares.

There’s also the recent explosion of violence in neighbouring Nunavik, where this past June, a knife-wielding Akulivik youth was shot to death by police after he killed three people and wounded two others, and where in July, a 14-year-old girl in Inukjuak was beaten to death, producing nation-wide media headlines.

Where does all this disorder come from? Why does it emerge from a culture in which traits like modesty, non-interference and the willingness to share were essential tools for preserving harmony and ensuring group survival?

Rasing, an anthropologist based at Radboud University in the Netherlands, uses this book, which flows from 30 years of research, to answer those difficult questions. Though his work is confined to Igloolik, Rasing’s observations are likely applicable to numerous other eastern Arctic communities in which culture shock, colonialism and modernization have inflicted similar damage.

He describes how the customary methods of social control that helped the Iglulingmiut survive in small camps for generations, more or less harmoniously, began to disintegrate after the middle of the 1950s, when the Inuit who lived in camps stretching from Fury and Hecla Strait to the Melville Peninsula coast were concentrated into the artificial government-created communities of Igloolik and Hall Beach.

There, the old forms of maintaining social control began to collapse under the enormous weight of new rules and new laws brought by a colonizing federal government, especially after the mid-1980s, when the crime rate began to soar. Traditional camp leaders lost their prestige and a culture gap emerged between those raised in camps and those who went to government schools. Children stopped listening to their parents.

One of the worst developments was the emergence of large numbers of young people, especially young males, pursuing an aimless “thrill-seeking” lifestyle.

He attributes this to a “sequence of interrelated changes,” which include changes in the importance of hunting, religious divisions between Anglicans and Catholics, the trauma suffered by Catholic Iglulingmiut at the Chesterfield Inlet residential school, and the effect of “too many people” jammed together too quickly into one community.

Rasing also delves without fear into well-known examples of cultural conflict between Iglulingmiut and British-Canadian law that more politically sensitive observers might be too timid to confront.

That includes incomprehensible restrictions on hunting, such as the much-derided Migratory Birds Act, along with restrictions on hunting walrus and polar bear that all Igloolik hunters considered to be wrong “because they contravened their moral obligation to hunt.”

But it was the application of Criminal Code laws intended to regulate marriage and sexual behavior that produced some of the most bitter controversies of the 1980s, when the crime rate in Igloolik and the rest of the eastern Arctic began to rise.

“The strongest disagreement with the law involved specific sex laws, notably those that prohibit sexual intercourse with underage females. Iglulingmiut of both sexes and of all ages rejected these regulations,” Rasing said.

He cites the famous case of the three young men who pleaded guilty in 1984 to having sex with a 13-year-old girl—and did not know that what they did was against the law. When a territorial court judge took that into account when imposing a sentence of one week in jail followed by nine months of probation, a moral panic ensued, fueled by lurid stories in News North, the Edmonton Journal and the Ottawa Citizen.

He also cites the case of a mother whose 13-year-old daughter had sexual intercourse with two males, aged 16 and 21, both of whom were charged under the Criminal Code after social workers were informed. The mother got angry with the police.

“She considered the girl old enough to decide for herself; when she was her daughter’s age, she had done the same. Then she left, slamming the door,” Rasing said.

Adding to the confusion, some types of behavior that seriously transgress important Iglulingmiut norms are not usually illegal under Canadian law, such as refusing to share food, lying, bragging or overly assertive behavior, Rasing said.

“The differences between Iglulingmiut culture and Canadian laws have hampered the proper administration of criminal justice,” Rasing said.

He found that one consequence of modernization is an absence of community-wide values and norms: revealed by many different approaches to childrearing, attitudes to material possessions, the preferred language spoken at home, and the value of country food. All that diversity means there are few role models, if any. “There is no uniform, unequivocal standard for acquiring or measuring prestige,” he said.

Another phenomenon is “hidden crime,” such as widespread cannabis use by up to 75 per cent of the population. While that’s been illegal under the Criminal Code for years, many Iglulingmiut believe that using cannabis is harmless, especially compared with alcohol.

“With so many people involved, very few are willing to inform the police about trafficking or possession, as my operational police files analysis confirmed,” Rasing said.

Other “hidden crime” includes domestic violence, some of which is related to residential school trauma, and worst of all, the long-hidden sex crimes committed by the former Oblate priest, Eric Dejaeger on the Roman Catholic side of the community.

At the same time, Rasing praises the resilience of Iglulingmiut, noting that although there are few full-time hunters, nearly everyone, including those who rarely go out on the land, identify with the hunting culture. He also acknowledges a long list of community-based Igloolik institutions created to strengthen and celebrate Inuit culture: the Isuma film company, Artcirq, the Igloolik Oral History Project, the Return of the Sun Festival, and the Rockin’ Walrus music festival.

To do his research, between 1986 and 2014 Rasing conducted extensive interviews with Igloolik Inuit, including elders like Noah Piugattuq, Rosie Iqallijuq, Francois Quassa and many others.

“I visited households; played cards; joined weekly basketball games, teen dances and square dances; frequented the local coffee shop; attended services at the Pentecostal, Anglican and Catholic churches; participated in hunting and fishing trips; and tried to grasp Inuktitut, the Inuit language, as best I could,” Rasing wrote.

He consulted diaries, books, police reports, transcripts from proceedings at the Nunavut Court of Justice and historical documents, including the journals of William Parry and G.F. Lyon, two British naval commanders whose crews, in 1822, were the first Europeans to make contact with the people who lived in and around Igloolik Island.

Though it’s an academic publication, Too Many People is accessible to any reader with at least a Grade 10 level of English comprehension. He avoids theoretical and ideological jargon and uses an empirical approach in which his conclusions flow, without embellishment, from verifiable facts and data. 

Rasing published the first version of this book in 1994, but updated it after visiting Igloolik at various times between 1999 and 2015.

You can order a copy from Amazon or from Fitzhenry and Whiteside Ltd.

And you can find other Nunavut Arctic College publications listed at this web page.

Willem Rasing
Too Many People: Contact, Disorder, Change in an Inuit Society, 1822-2015
Paperback: 568 pages
ISBN-10: 1897568401
ISBN-13: 978-1897568408
$32.95, published by Nunavut Arctic College.

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(17) Comments:

#1. Posted by Rob on August 09, 2017

It would be nice if they used a distributor that didn’t charge as much for shipping to Nunavut as the cost of the book.

#2. Posted by Blizzard guy on August 09, 2017

Painful progress,colonial mind set. Not to mention numerous traumatic events such as mentioned & written in this book are interesting points we went through.The past century has been challenging. Having had to go to Charles Campsell hospital for tuberculosis in Edmonton back in the 1960’s I experienced a mind blowing culture shock when I saw mind boggling achievements civilized society as is called had achieved. How great and alien the dominant society had progressed as I left a small nomadic family to become as some say, “nomadic to plastic high tech eskimos”. with the constitutional rights that were made the law of the land, our culture suffered to the point where our elders were afraid to even raise their voices to give common sense advice to the people. with these rights we are told we have, it has made us think that we have unlimited rights as we see society demanding more and more rights which seem to extend far too much even to the point male, female,transgender…runaway train

#3. Posted by Nunavut Arctic College Media on August 09, 2017

Too Many People is available in Iqaluit at the Nunatta (Main) NAC Campus and Ventures Marketplace.

#4. Posted by Rob on August 09, 2017

Thank you for reply Nunavut Arctic College Media. Unfortunately, I am located in Arviat. I have made the order through a family member in the south who will ship it to me for a more reasonable price.

#5. Posted by 2 Many Sheeple on August 09, 2017

@2 - I was with you until I read that last part. I respect elders very much but we as we heal we have to realize that the church has distorted our views on certain subjects, such as genders and sexuality. Inuit didn’t put much emphasis on gender before colonization. The church brought very strict rules that are still very present in Nunavut today. For some reason we distrust new progressive ideas and label them as colonial poison, yet we latch on to outdated colonial christian ideas that flipped our world upside down. Many progressive youth in Nunavut are breaking that way of thinking, but it seems every year there are more and more evangelical missionaries from all parts of the world coming to Nunavut trying to convert vulnerable people with their extremist views and bizarre definitions of compassion. They also maintain these anti-LGBT views that were brought up long ago to control Inuit. This is a form of colonialism that should be pointed out more, but instead is labelled as IQ.

#6. Posted by Tulugak on August 09, 2017

The author seems to be unaware that at the same time criminal laws were changed in terms of sexual assaults and sexual abuse of children, the mainstream society went through similar chaos. Yet, the assault on Inuit culture started way before the mainstream court system was imposed upon the Inuit: it started with evangelization, carrying the belief the Inuit were barbarians and missionaries had a duty to “civilize” them. While it is true that federal laws (criminal in particular) were new and imposed on the Inuit, some of its features were already part of the Inuit culture. Yet the way mainstream laws were applied, by foreign courts that used a foreign way of dealing with conflict and violence compounded the problem. In truth, it did not work but yet we continue to do the same old ways, adding more judges and lawyers.

Colonization has numerous levels, from the spiritual all the way to social cohesion and control as well as economics. Decolonization must address all those issues…

#7. Posted by Scotty on Denman on August 09, 2017

The term “decolonization” has been involved in a bitter controversy on our little island over the past week concerning a pioneers’ plaque commemorating the “first white boy born” here. The semantic tempest aside, a number of seemingly different interpretations of the term “decolonization” have insinuated themselves into the debate, the result being more confusion, more inappropriate accusations, less communication and understanding. I’ve maintained that, in our case here as part of the province of BC, anything to do with colonies ended officially in 1871 when BC evolved from a colony to a province, and, practically since the last true colonists—-those who came to the colony from the UK to settle here—-passed away. Some of their racialist and racist views have persisted, but that is more properly called what it is: antiquated racial paternalism. There is no colony to “decolonize.”

#8. Posted by Caution people caution on August 09, 2017

This book, even if it can be read by people who have less reading skills, yes, this book needs criticism to say the least. Ok, wonderful that this research was done, and much to be considered, good or bad. I’m cautioning people to read and consider carefully. You see, there’s always change in society, mainstream or smaller minority groups like our northern people. Yet, there’s always someone, somewhere, trying to explain away the rights and wrongs of it all, and not always correctly so. Ok, I don’t think any bad intention on the researchers part, but that doesn’t excuse him for the probability that he may create unneeded stress on an already stressful situation. Therefore I stress again, let’s be careful, and take it with a grain of salt. I’ll asked anyone who would try to challenged and reason any loving caring father, mother,or otherwise love one, protecting their 13 year old daughter today, that they would allow sex to older men. Hanging people has change too, even if we disagree.

#9. Posted by from Inuit culture to motley mayhem on August 09, 2017

The printed words stand out about colonialism and their assumption over Inuit, changing a culture to fit into the colonial way of life, leaving opened wounds of delusion on Inuit where scares remain today.

#10. Posted by Inummariq on August 10, 2017

this story is the story for blacks, aborigines in Australia or New Zealand or other parts of our world. the difference is the shorter time here perhaps, but I agree with #8 “Caution”. I want to heal and get well and do good in my life. this book should be called a history book , to be known/learned, but just that. resilience in Inuit!

#11. Posted by Humanity on August 10, 2017

The other issue to bear in mind is this: one of the things constantly I see constantly is the implication that the existing Inuit culture, prior to changes that were either adopted or forced on it by outsiders was somehow ideal and that any change must have been to the negative.

This seems to ignore the issue that maybe, sometimes, there are aspects of traditional culture that maybe aren’t something we’d like to keep around. Female genital mutilation is “traditional” in some cultures. Killing the widow by throwing her on her dead husband’s funeral pyre used to be considered part of the culture in India: is anyone really upset that is now illegal? Trial to the death by combat used to be an accepted legal process in parts of Europe, and now it is not because it became to be considered unacceptable.

Just because someone is upset that things aren’t like they were in the old days doesn’t mean that “tradition” should still be around.

#12. Posted by Scotty on Denman on August 10, 2017

I get that Inuit were not consulted when the Russian, Danish and English Crowns each claimed jurisdiction over the Arctic Aboriginal homeland. Only the English had a colonial phase, and it did unilaterally transfer jurisdiction to Canada—-like colonial policy would do, only without colonists (trading outpost personnel don’t count). Trouble with using “colonialism” to describe Canada’s political relationship with Inuit post-colonial period is that it confuses with religious proselytization and official race prejudice of a sovereign nation, not a colony. It’s not moot. Despite low population and difficult remoteness, the franchise was extended and, further, Nunavut was organized in large part to recognize the legitimacy of the Aboriginal polity and confer democratic self-determination consistent with a federal territory. This and the prospect of confederation is not well defined as “colonialism,” whereas “colonial-type paternalism” might be applied in the figurative sense only.

#13. Posted by Too Many White People Writing about Inuit. on August 10, 2017

It perpetuates stereotypes and myths about Inuit traditions.

Inuit did not traditionally have sex with kids. In fact it was strongly frowned upon because having casual sex would produce a child that would require care in sometimes adverse natural conditions. There were strong controls against what is essentially a Western style sexual promiscuity and practice.

There were traditional ways of pairing such as a young man showing his interest for a young woman or arranged marriages. These practices resulted in strong birth control.

#14. Posted by cultural differences on August 10, 2017

#11 a repeat of colonial thinking by assumption.  “... there are aspects of traditional culture that maybe aren’t something we’d like to keep around.”  Maybe, so leave those decisions for the people to make on their own terms and in their own time.

#15. Posted by Really? on August 11, 2017

#14, so you’d be okay with things like Aztek ritual human sacrifice (ie, ripping the heart out of someone while they were still alive) if such practices were still around and hadn’t been suppressed?

And to use a more modern example, you’re okay with, say, honour killings? That the people who decide to kill a girl because they think it will make the family look bad, or she’s been “polluted” by being the victim of rape, should be left alone to to make the decision on their own terms and their own time if murdering a girl might not be something they should do?

Because complaining about murdering an innocent girl who was raped is “colonial thinking” and not “basic human compassion”?

#16. Posted by Bemused on August 11, 2017

“In fact it was strongly frowned upon because having casual sex would produce a child that would require care in sometimes adverse natural conditions.”

There are ways of having sex that are guaranteed not to result in pregnancy.

#17. Posted by choose a culture on August 11, 2017

#15 and what makes you think your culture is the way to live?  The point is the colonial life forced change on Inuit culture without full disclosure of the consequences with that change.  The colonial attitude was “just do it.”  Really?  and you are OK with that?  What would you think for a culture to force you to change to their way, like wearing sheets of fabric wrapped around you all year long?  No, you cannot go out with friends to have fun, that is not allowed, and stop talking, writing, singing in English.  From now on you will learn the language of the culture in control here.

Choose a culture to change your life.  Virtually, you have a choice.  Inuit families were ticked by colonials of the day and forced to submit.

So, yes, let the people decide on their own terms and in their own time.

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