The Involvement of Inuit Women in the Formation of Arctic Co-operatives
Pitseolak, the famed Inuit artist, writes in her autobiography, “I know I have had an unusual life, being born in a skin tent and living to hear on the radio that two men have landed on the moon.”  Many Inuit of Pitseolak’s generation experienced the transition from living nomadically on the land to settling in towns. During the 1950s and 1960s Inuit in Canada’s North experienced a dramatic transition. One scholar, Janet Mancini Billson, notes, “it is as though the Inuit … crossed 5000 years of history in a generation.”  In this paper, I examine the interconnections between two aspects of the immense social change that occurred during these two decades: the emergence of co-operatives and the transformation of gender roles among Canadian Inuit.
When I began to research this paper I envisioned completing a comprehensive study of the prominent role women played in developing co-operatives in the Canadian Arctic. However, that was not where the sources for this understudied aspect of Canadian history have led me. Instead, I discovered some information on the development of co-operative infrastructures in the North, which occasionally mentioned Inuit men but almost never mentioned Inuit women. I unearthed some information on the gender history of the region, but these mostly ignored the co-operative movement. I found only limited information on the lives of women involved in the formative stages of the emergence of formal co-operatives in the Canadian Arctic.
In the following, I approach the subject first through the general context of co-operative development in the Arctic during the late 1950s and early 1960s. I then focus on the gender history of the time period and, finally, I present four life stories of women who were involved in the early co-operatives. I conclude by arguing that some Inuit women operated within the context of co-operative development and changing gender roles to create situations that benefited themselves and their communities.