Social Services, Supports and Wellbeing in Arctic Canada...

Publication—Special Issue of the American Review of Canadian Studies

Volume 52, 2022 – Issue 3: Social Services, Supports and Well-being in Arctic Canada and Beyond

Published December 2022

The project culminated in a special issue of the ARCS journal. The special issues included eight articles by 19 authors from organizations and institutions in Canada and the United States. The abstract for each article was translated into the relevant Indigenous language. The special issue can be accessed here.

This special edition of the American Review of Canadian Studies (ARCS) is the outcome of an eighteen-month research project that brought together an international team of scholars and practitioners to address the concepts of wellness and well-being in Arctic Canada as well as other Indigenous communities in Canada and Alaska. The team met frequently, sometimes with outside advisors, to discuss and consider these concepts and practices from Indigenous-centered perspectives. We reflected on how we might understand wellness and well-being from non-Western models, which, until recently, have dominated the conversation. What are the unique challenges to wellness and well-being in Arctic Canada and beyond? How can Arctic Indigenous approaches to these practices shape understandings of wellness and well-being?

Wellness and well-being in the Arctic is an emerging field of study that seeks to integrate physical, mental, and spiritual health and to consider relationality as central to all research and practice. In this special edition, our team of scholars and practitioners provide a foundation for this emerging field and do so from diverse perspectives, as northerners and southerners, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and practitioners and scholars.

Global Innovations Grant Project

The Office of Global Affairs at the University of Washington (UW) has been working to advance interdisciplinarity and build transformative cross-college, multi-country research collaborations via the Global Innovations Fund since 2014. In an effort to bring together the community of scholars and practitioners dedicated to wellness and well-being efforts in Arctic Canada and beyond, the Canadian Studies Center in UW’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies (Jackson School), worked with our Banting Postdoctoral Fellow to propose a research project that would do just that. In December 2020, we were awarded a Global Innovations grant for the research project Social Services, Supports, and Well-Being in Arctic Canada and Beyond.

The project initially included twenty-one collaborators, from early career scholars to postdoctoral and senior researchers, to practitioners in the field. These collaborators represented Indigenous Peoples, including Cowichan, Dene, Inuit, Kanieke’ha:ke, and Iñupiaq. The team members were affiliated with a wide range of institutions and organizations in Canada and the United States, including Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario; Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia; Native Movement, Anchorage, Alaska; Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario; McGill University, Montréal, Québec; Office of Youth Empowerment and Education and Training Voucher Program, Child Welfare Academy, Anchorage, Alaska; Organisme REsPIRE, Montréal, Québec; University of Alaska, Anchorage, Alaska; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia; Université Laval, Québec City, Québec; University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario; University of Washington, Seattle, Washington; and Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. The team of collaborators is dedicated to changing the narrative of health and social service practices and scholarship to be more inclusive of Indigenous epistemologies.

Throughout the spring and fall of 2021, our team met with four special guests, including Dr. Jeannette Armstrong (Syilx Okanagan), Madeleine Redfern (Inuk), Olivia Ikey Duncan (Inuk), and Becky Qilavvaq (Inuk), who spoke to the group about Indigenous elements of style, wellness and well-being in governance, and various methods of activism young Inuit are using to foster change and bring about greater wellness and well-being in Inuit communities, respectively.

We began the four-part guest lecture series with Dr. Jeannette Armstrong (University of British Columbia, Okanagan). She provided an orientation to writing by and about Indigenous Peoples, a concept developed by the late Gregory Younging. In Elements of Indigenous Style, Younging argues that elements of Indigenous style ought to adhere to “Indigenous cultural, political, and literary concerns” and ultimately assist in supporting “a new relationship between Indigenous Peoples and settler people” (Younging Citation2018, xiv). Specifically, Younging’s work provided authors with foundational knowledge about culturally relevant publishing practices through his twenty-two concrete style principles and reminded the non-Indigenous members of our team about the importance of collaborating with Indigenous Peoples in their research and writing. Each of the authors in this special issue strove to realize the vision laid out in Elements of Indigenous Style. In addition, the editors of the American Review of Canadian Studies successfully identified a number of Indigenous scholars to serve as peer reviewers for the articles in this issue.

Madeleine Redfern, Inuk politician and former mayor of Iqaluit, Nunavut, discussed the importance of building partnerships and local capacity to fulfill the goals of self-government and good governance; Olivia Ikey Duncan, Kuujjuaq, spoke about ongoing efforts to improve social issues such as housing, education, mental health services, and reconciliation efforts in Nunavik; and Becky Qilavvaq, multimedia artist also based in Iqaluit, addressed the importance of art in well-being, drawing from her own experiences as a filmmaker, throat singer, photographer, and textile artist.

Collaborators also benefited from professional editor and writing consultant Dr. Joanne Muzak (Québec). Muzak has worked with diverse scholars internationally, including Arctic and Inuit researchers, artists, and activists, and Canadian academic presses, as well as authors whose manuscripts have been published with Duke University Press, Routledge, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Oxford University Press, University of British Columbia Press, to name a few. Muzak ran a series of writing workshops and provided one-on-one writing consultations with the authors. The writing workshops provided practical, flexible, nurturing conversations about the writing process and built a greater sense of collegiality among the team.

In spring 2022, several of the collaborators participated in a course offered at the UW by Dr. Tram Nguyen (University of Toronto) and 2021–22 Fulbright Canada Visiting Chair in Arctic Studies—ARCTIC 401: Health Equity, Diversity, Inclusion in Arctic Indigenous Communities. Participation in the course further strengthened the team and contributed to thinking in and about this emerging field.

At the end of the project, some of the authors met in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at the Inuit Studies Conference (June 2022), where they presented in a panel called New Collaborations on Social Services, Supports, and Wellness in Arctic Canada and Beyond: An Evolving Academic Field. Panelists shared their experiences as collaborators in the grant project, explaining how their involvement impacted them both professionally and personally. They also discussed lessons learned from the grant project and explored strategies for maintaining ongoing collaborations.

Arctic Wellness: An Emerging Academic Field

Arctic-related social science research is often published in journals associated with specific fields, which reinforces silos of knowledge, or in Arctic-specific journals that tend to privilege biological and natural sciences. Social work may be a natural home for this evolving field given its principles of social change and empowerment of people, but like many disciplines, the boundaries of social work have become somewhat rigid over time. Scholars are increasingly realizing the importance of trans- and interdisciplinary learning in the Arctic. As an emerging field, wellness and well-being in the Arctic sits on the borders of social work, but also encompasses education, anthropology, sociology, geography, and health, among other disciplines.

While much academic literature has been concerned with the socioeconomic challenges facing Inuit in Arctic communities as well as Indigenous communities more broadly, the social and cultural supports, services, and community-based work that is occurring to address these challenges is less discussed. Social service providers, community projects, Inuit youth, families, and Elders have provided countless hours of input to researchers, policy leaders, and organizations for how to better serve and support their communities. This special issue highlights some of these insights located in Indigenous approaches to wellness and well-being.

Indigenous Peoples in Arctic Canada and beyond have faced a lack of recognition for their worldviews, epistemologies, values, and ways of life since their earliest encounters with non-Indigenous peoples (Okalik Citation2007). While important changes and understandings have occurred within the academic community and greater society over the last decade or so, Western understandings of wellness and well-being within Indigenous communities tend to be limited. These limitations have had considerable impact on Arctic communities, resulting in a lack of culturally relevant supports and services, a misdirection of funds, inadequate programming, and more. At the heart of this issue remains the long-prioritized biomedical model, which focuses on the treatment of disease rather than supporting communities to build programs centered on community-determined notions of wellness and well-being. For many people around the world, including Inuit in Arctic Canada, wellness and well-being means much more than meeting certain health markers. It is this wider understanding of wellness and well-being that brings together the Social Services, Supports, and Well-Being in Arctic Canada and Beyond group of scholars and community leaders.

The impetus for the grant project, of which this special issue is an outcome, stemmed from the team’s understanding of wellness and well-being as beyond physical health. For example, as identified in several of the articles, social relationships and cultural connections are an important part of well-being. Overall, the articles in this volume argue that wellness and well-being are directly related to one’s ability to engage in community and cultural activities, to connect with and spend time with Elders, to be with or near one’s children, to share and enjoy specific foods, to practice customs that bring meaning and comfort, and so forth. It is the “relational aspects of life” that can be understood as the foundation of wellness and well-being (Healey and Tagak Citation2014)—the family, the community, and all those who are part of an individual’s circle of relations.

Alongside other prevalent themes such as collaboration, self-determination, cultural continuity, and social justice, wellness and well-being point toward a movement that includes more holistic understandings of health and puts communities in control of their services. Such a shift could have profound implications for Indigenous Arctic communities; it may, for example, encourage the development of alternative systems for preventing and responding to trauma, illness, and even social and economic issues, all of which impact well-being. The centrality of Indigenous Knowledge to the concepts and practices of wellness and well-being is paramount. Because Indigenous Knowledge (i.e., Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit in Arctic Canada, Iñupiat knowledge in Alaska, and Traditional Knowledge generally speaking) is “perceived, collected and shared in ways that are unique” to Arctic Indigenous Peoples and communities (Healey and Tagak Citation2014), Indigenous Knowledge is central to this paradigm shift. The authors in this special issue understand the importance of, and prioritize, Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous voices within Arctic research.

Overview of the Articles

The authors here are some of the most experienced community-based researchers in the area of social services, wellness, and well-being in the Arctic. Each author was involved in this project because of their extensive work and engagement with Arctic Indigenous communities. For many, these communities are also their homes and constitute their network of family and friends. All of the authors were asked to contribute to this issue in a way that would amplify the voices of the Indigenous communities that they are involved with while adding their personal and professional insights to their research. A common thread among the articles is a call for research that reflects community needs. Community engagement is key in assisting researchers gain insights and a better understanding of the needs and concerns of those they are working with. Within this special issue, all of the contributing authors explore wellness and well-being through a range of community-based projects.

In the opening paper, Jessica Saniguq Ullrich (Iñupiaq), LaVerne Xilegg Demientieff (Dene), and Emma Elliott-Groves (Cowichan) explore Indigenous well-being via storytelling with knowledge bearers and community members, and their own stories. Each author asks what it is to be healthy, to be human, and reflects on what it means to be an Indigenous scholar in her/their own community and in the greater world. Demientieff shares a model she co-developed called the Five Cs of Healing-Centered Engagement—compassion, connection, community, curiosity, and ceremony—reflecting thousands of years of cultural wisdom; Ullrich presents her Indigenous Connectedness Framework, designed to address trauma and based on interviews with dozens of knowledge bearers; and Elliott-Groves focuses on Indigenous intellectual traditions and land-based education to address the increase in suicide in her community. All three coauthors credit relationships and Indigenous way of relating to one another to personal and community wellness and well-being.

But what exactly is community? How do we understand it? In their article, Mathilde Lapointe, Nathalie Boucher, Ariane Benoit, and Christopher Fletcher explore the concept of community for Inuit living in southern locations. As more Inuit find themselves in urban centers outside the Arctic, the question of what constitutes community is increasingly relevant in the field of wellness and well-being. The authors seek to integrate various understandings of community, including those found in urban geography, with the Inuit concept of inuuqatigiitsiarniq, living well together, and their own perspectives as allies and researchers. The authors hope that a better understanding of what community means for those living outside the Inuit regions of Inuit Nunangat will contribute to more effective social services in the South.

Well-being in Inuit communities was traditionally derived from traditional land-based learning systems, as Ezra Anton Greene and Krista Ulujuk Zawadski (Inuk) note in their article. While this teaching is not found in the regular school system, the authors point out that traditional practices (e.g., hunting, preparation of country foods, creating clothing, etc.) are very much part of what many community-based programs and individuals in the Arctic provide for youth, with positive outcomes to overall well-being. Zawadski also describes a project based at the University of British Columbia that took youth from Nunavut to visit various Inuit museum collections in Norway. Zawadski observes that, in almost all cases, accessing these collections had a profound effect on wellness and well-being of the youth. She explains that the students experienced beneficial “emotional, physical, and spiritual impacts” as a result of connecting with Inuit artifacts.

Like Greene and Zawadski, Paul Berger also addresses the role of education in the Canadian Arctic in his article. Reflecting on the insufficient number of Inuit teachers in schools across Inuit Nunangat, Berger argues that training more Inuit to be educators is crucial to the wellness and well-being of Inuit children and youth, which in the context of education includes the successful completion of grade twelve and proficiency in the Inuit language. Berger calls for Inuit control of the education system, Inuit-centered curriculum, language training, and community-based learning to bolster Inuit wellness and well-being.

Nicole Ives and Wanda Gabriel (Kanieke’ha:ke), both professors in the School of Social Work at McGill University, are working on an innovative initiative to develop a bachelor of social work program in Nunavik in collaboration with McGill and the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services. They also argue that education is at the core of well-being and that for education to be effective, the leadership and curriculum must be Inuit-centered. Ives and Gabriel note that there are presently just two Inuit in Inuit Nunangat with a bachelor in social work and that non-Inuit hold most of the positions of authority in the social services in the region. They argue that Inuit-centered approaches to health and healing and the incorporation of Inuit ways of knowing and traditional wisdom are the most effective means of promoting wellness and well-being in social work practice.

Patricia Johnston, Shirley Tagalik, and Rosanna Amarudjuak (Inuk) also address social services, focusing on child welfare in Inuit Nunangat. Their studies find that control and interventions by Qallunaat, outsiders who hold the majority of the positions in the social services, are ineffective. Outside control of social services to Inuit is not trusted and therefore does not effectively support the wellness or well-being of the mothers or their children. In talking to Inuit mothers, the authors determined that Inuit-developed and -led programs must replace the current structures, and this new programming in social service work should incorporate the Inuit value of inunnguiniq, the making a human being. Johnston, Tagalik, and Amarudjuak argue that the ongoing authority of Qallunaat over Inuit social services strips Inuit of agency over their own lives and ultimately leads to avoidance of services and therefore diminished care. Once again, as in the aforementioned articles, the authors argue that one of the basic tenets of healing includes strengthening family and community relations.

Marika Morris examines three public health challenges for Inuit in Canada—tuberculosis, suicide prevention, and smoking—all of which she attributes to the effects of colonization. Like all the authors in volume, Morris identifies outsider control of Inuit health initiatives as one of the key issues in less-than-effective healthcare for Inuit in Canada. She shows the roles of colonization, language barriers, racism, cultural insensitivity, housing issues, and food insecurity in these public health issues in Inuit communities. Morris notes the tremendous gap between health markers for Inuit and non-Inuit and calls for deep, systemic change, notably cultural competency training for government and non-Inuit.

This special issue wraps up with the innovative work of Mark Stoller, who examines the relationship of film and filmmaking to wellness and well-being for Nunavut youth. Stoller argues that film and filmmaking are ways in which Inuit culture can be preserved and strengthened, particularly when Inuit language is included. Stoller facilitated a film project in Gjoa Haven where youth interviewed Elders. He was also part of the Nanivara Oral History Project related to the Franklin expedition. In both projects, he observed an enhanced sense of well-being for the youth who interviewed Elders and then translated that knowledge into story form to present to their respective communities.

Next Steps in the Research

The Social Services, Supports, and Well-Being in Arctic Canada and Beyond project provided an opportunity to go beyond traditional disciplinary approaches in favor of transdisciplinary insights, ideas, and action. The project served as a starting point for academics and practitioners to collaborate and explore new ways of understanding wellness and well-being in the Arctic. Insights and research from the field of Arctic education, for example, may become transferable to health, political science, and social work. This transferability offers a jumping-off point as research and practice continue to build upon, incorporate, and bolster ongoing efforts to create new and advanced knowledge concerning wellness and well-being.

Whereas the goal of this grant project was to build an international research network with universities and institutions in Canada and the United States for the tangible, short-term goal of publishing this special issue, there remains the longer-term goal of building a network of scholars and practitioners in this emerging academic field. We hope this project inspires further collaborations and fosters multidisciplinary engagement among those interested in and dedicated to Arctic wellness and well-being. The richness of this work stems from the diversity of the international team of collaborators from a variety of professional backgrounds, which enriches the project through multiple lenses, perspectives, and experiences.

It is our intent that this issue of the American Review of Canadian Studies will play a modest role in laying the foundation for further scholarly activity in relation to supports, social services, wellness, and well-being in Arctic Canada and beyond.


The authors would like to thank the following programs for their support of the Social Services, Supports, and Well-Being in Arctic Canada and Beyond project: the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program, Government of Canada; the Foundation for Educational Exchange between Canada and the United States of America (Fulbright Canada); and the Canadian Studies Center, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies with National Resource Center (Title VI) funding administered by the International and Foreign Language Education office in the Office of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education. Specifically, we wish to thank the Global Innovations Fund, Office of Global Affairs, University of Washington, Seattle, for the funding that supported the eighteen-month project, including the mentorship of all of the authors. This funding has enabled us to build a team of scholars who are committed to ongoing collaboration and to improving wellness and well-being in the Arctic and beyond.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Patricia Johnston, PhD, worked in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories before engaging in community-based research in Arctic Canada. Past employment within the child welfare system in both territories provided her critical insights and understanding related to her research. As a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Washington, her work focuses on Inuit self-determination, supporting Inuit wellness, and examining and exposing colonial policies, systems, and structures. Patricia credits Inuit women throughout Arctic Canada for teaching her about Inuit culture and communities, northern needs and challenges, and the importance of focusing and reflecting upon the Qallunaat (non-Inuit) culture, values, and beliefs that have resulted in and continue to perpetuate colonialism.
Nadine Fabbi, EdD, has played a lead role in building an Arctic initiative at the University of Washington, including designing and teaching the Transnational Task Force on the Arctic and spearheading the development of the Arctic Studies minor and the Fulbright Canada Visiting Chair in Arctic Studies. Fabbi’s research interests include how we understand the Arctic as a unique region in the field of international studies, Arctic Indigenous internationalism and its influence on international relations, and how policy activism by Inuit is reshaping how we think about international relations and social justice. Her most recent publication, coauthored with Gary Wilson, is a chapter titled “Inuit Nunangat: The Development of a Common Inuit Territorial and Policy Space in Canada,” in The Inuit World (ed. Patricia Stern, Routledge, 2021).
Tram Nguyen, PhD, has made research contributions in advancing health equity, advocacy, and social justice among ethnically diverse or underrepresented communities (Arctic communities and beyond) by learning directly from end-users about their research needs. As the University of Washington’s 2021–22 Fulbright Canada Visiting Chair in Arctic Studies, her work connects knowledge with action for health equity, diversity, and inclusion through holistic and culturally appropriate healthcare that address social, societal, and structural determinants of health (poverty, racism, colonialism, unemployment, food insecurity, housing, unequal and inequitable access to spaces, choices, and opportunities). She is also an expert in knowledge translation and implementation.


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