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

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 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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