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Cape Dorset – Inuit art to cope with socio-ecological change

Inuit artists of Cape Dorset have leveraged art as a way to communicate ecological change and traditional knowledge to local youth and global decision makers, effectively enhancing their resilience.
Simone Borelli

Case study basic information

Location: Cape Dorset, Nunavut, Canada

Time frame: 1950’s to date

Drivers: climate, tourism, and economic – global art markets


The physical and cultural well-being of Inuit communities is very dependent on traditional economic activities, such as hunting and fishing (4). For Inuit peoples, society and nature are tightly interconnected. This interconnectedness is evident in Inuit stories, myths and artworks, which often illustrate transformation between humans and animals for example.

But Inuit peoples’ well-being and traditional livelihoods have been increasingly threatened by a combination of social and natural pressures. Loss of sea ice driven by anthropogenic climate change has reduced access to traditional hunting routes, putting at stake their food security, their identity and safety. At the same time, socio-political processes have also considerably affected Inuit traditional activities and well-being. Historically, the colonization of Northern Canada, as well as policies of forced settlement and residential schools, has severely affected the maintenance and transmission of Inuit culture, language and values across generations. The introduction of hunting quotas and limitations during the 20th century has also limited the options for Inuit to pursue their traditional livelihoods in the context of rapid and unpredictable environmental change.

Despite these pressures, through art, Inuit of Cape Dorset have demonstrated resilience to pressures on their language and culture as well as dramatic ecological changes. Inuit art has progressively become an important economic activity since the 1950’s (3). Today, traditional hunting and gathering activities are complemented by artwork; however, art is much more than an economic activity and has contributed in many ways to strengthen the adaptive capacity of the community.

Inuit people in Cape Dorset have used their art to communicate about Arctic environmental change and its human implications, as well as traditional ecological knowledge, to both local youth and global decision makers (1, 2). Art provides an opportunity for artists to embed and reflect their culture via artworks, when their culture has been and is being marginalized in Canada. Artwork also helps maintain the continuity of traditional knowledge across generations; this is crucial in an Inuit context, where elders’ knowledge about how to survive on the land can help younger generations to adapt to change (1).

Artwork also facilitates social memory, and through recording and sharing perspectives of a changing environment and its social implications, it supports to monitor and make sense of change. It thus reflects a cultural response to climate change and illustrates an intimate and detailed knowledge about environmental change, as well as the emotions, beliefs and values that influence how that change is experienced (5). At the same time, Inuit have contributed to influence governance decisions through their art, for example by bringing to light the human side of persistent organic pollutants (POP) when an Inuit sculpture of a mother and a child was placed on the table where the International POP Agreement was negotiated (2).

Methods and Tools

The methodology for this case study was desk study and experts interview. Sources include mainly journal articles, which rely on both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. The information collected for the case is organized according to a template specially developed to capture information from a socio-ecological resilience perspective (the template, along with example text, can be found under Further Resources).

This case is one of the cases compiled across the Arctic to inform a qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) of socio-ecological regime shifts in the Arctic that will feature in the final Arctic Resilience Report. The QCA methodology allows for a holistic view of cases in an extended geographic region and for addressing multiple causality. The QCA analysis will contribute to identify patterns that will allow for further analysis across the cases.

Lessons Learnt

  1. Global social and ecological processes are driving rapid and unpredictable change in the Arctic, but some of these processes (here the demand for Inuit art), can be harnessed to strengthen resilience in small and isolated communities.
  2. Artists and artistic processes enhance adaptive capacity by embedding and sharing knowledge via artworks and art making, helping in particular bridging knowledge between generations and cultures.
  3. Using art making to record and share perspectives of a changing environment enhances resilience by helping to monitor and make sense of changes.
  4. Art is an alternative to the more usual channels to convey messages about Arctic socio-environmental changes and its human implications, such as scientific assessments and political statements.


  1. Rathwell, K., and D. Armitage. 2016. The role of art and artistic processes in bridging knowledge systems about social-ecological change: An empirical examination with Inuit artists from Nunavut, Canada. Ecology and Society 21(2):21.
  2. Johnson, N. 2014. Thinking through affect: Inuit knowledge on the tundra and in global environmental politics. Journal of Political Ecology 21:161-177.
  3. Coward Wight, D. 2012. Creation and transformation defining moments in Inuit art. D&M Publishers Inc. and Douglas & McIntyre and Winnipeg Art Gallery, Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada.
  4. Laidler, G. and P. Elee. 2008. Human geographies of sea ice: freeze/thaw processes around Cape Dorset, Nunavut, Canada. Polar Record 44(1):51-76.
  5. Rathwell, K. J., and D. Armitage. 2016. Art and artistic processes bridge knowledge systems about social-ecological change: An empirical examination with Inuit artists from Nunavut, Canada. Ecology and Society 21(2):21.


This ARA case study was elaborated by Kaitlyn Rathwell and Derek Armitage from University of Waterloo.

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