How this women-led heritage centre is embracing innovation and tradition to support Northern communities

Changemakers in Canada’s North

Why It Matters

In partnership with Community Foundations of Canada, we’re crafting a new series to spotlight the Arctic innovations driving social impact, empowering women, and redefining philanthropy. In honour of International Women’s Week, we’re launching the series with a deep-dive into the Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq / Kitikmeot Heritage Society.

This International Women’s Week, we’re celebrating the Arctic innovations driving social impact in Canada’s North. In partnership with Community Foundations Canada (CFC), we’re highlighting four stories of on-the-ground projects enhancing lives and redefining philanthropy, supported and funded by CFC and the Equality Fund through a pilot fund dedicated to gender equality. 

Our first story takes us to Cambridge Bay, where the Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq / Kitikmeot Heritage Society (PI/KHS) is based — one of Nunavut’s longest established heritage organizations. For the last 25 years, PI/KHS has been supporting and providing services to Inuinnait, a distinct regional group of Inuit living in the Central Canadian Arctic. KHS focuses on the preservation of Inuinnait culture by bringing together Elders, language specialists, Innuinnait governance, and communities. The organization’s social enterprise arm, Pitquhikhainik Ilihainiq Inc. (PI), develops Indigenous-led products, such as coffee, to generate revenue to support programming. 

Lyndsey Friesen is the Philanthropy and Communications Manager of PI/KHS, and emphasizes the importance of cultural preservation for community empowerment. “Right now we’re facing the reality that there are less than 600 fluent speakers [of Inuinnaqtun, the Inuinnait language],” says Friesen. “[It’s] classified as endangered by UNESCO, and they expect that the language will be extinct in two generations, unless we reverse the effects of this language shift.”

To support its programming, PI/KHS has received funding to host one-time workshops teaching traditional skills, supporting knowledge transfer between elders to the next generation, including language. “Because of intergenerational trauma as a result of residential schools, there has been significant cultural and language loss in the North, and in Indigenous communities across Canada,” says Friesen. “Our organization is created to foster opportunities to revitalize language and culture, and create options for people to tell their own stories and learn the traditional way to do things.”

The Atigikala Workshop series

One of these ways is through The Atigikala Workshop series. PI/KHS created the workshop to enable Inuinnait women to engage in knowledge transfer while learning how to make Atigikala — dress covers. These are important garments to wear for special events and occasions. Atigikala creates opportunities for women to connect, share traditional knowledge and make space for cultural expression. 

PI/KHS will run two workshops: one for the creation of a Drum Dance Atigikala, and the other for a Mother Hubbard Atigikala.

Today, the Drum Dance atigikala is a modern material expression of the traditional Inuinnait clothing style, which would have been made with caribou skin. These covers are worn during special events, ceremonies and on drum dancers.
The Mother Hubbard style came from Alaskan immigrants as they moved into the Western Kitikmeot in the early 1900s, along with the whaling, trapping and trading industries. This parka is characterized by brightly coloured and often patterned fabric, introduced to the Arctic through trade networks. The Mother Hubbard atigikala is also worn as a parka cover. It goes together with the sunburst parka trim around the face.

It was PI/KHS’ Executive Director, Pamela Gross — who also happens to be the Mayor of Cambridge Bay — who created The Atigikala Workshop. “Pam wanted women in the community to feel empowered,” explains Friesen. “One of the ways that that can happen is when you feel good about yourself [and are] proud of your culture. [Having] a dress cover to wear to a special event or occasion is a key part of that.”

During the workshops, women will be trained in traditional techniques by elders, including Inuinnait artistic design, while expanding their knowledge of Inuinnaqtun, learning vocabulary for the textiles and materials they’re using. 

“When women feel empowered, they become leaders and changemakers, [making] decisions that are in the best interests, [and the interests] of their families and communities,” says Friesen. “It really transforms the system socially, economically, politically. It’s more than just a sewing program — it’s a way to give women a voice.”

Kaapittiaq

Photo: Kaapittiaq

The PI/KHS has a social enterprise arm of the organization, called Pitquhikhainik Inihainiq Inc. Their first venture is Kaapittiaq, an Inuit owned-and-operated coffee business dedicated to the revival of Innuinian culture, heritage and knowledge. Kaapittiaq uses 75 percent of its revenue to create programs. Griebel points out that, sometimes, the priorities of PI/KHS’ funders and the community don’t align.  “If we have our own source of income, we’ll be able to self-fund the [initiatives] that we feel are being prioritized by local people,” says Brendan Griebel, PI/KHS’ Manager of Collections and Archives.

This is where Kaapittiaq comes in. Griebel and the PI/KHS team were inspired during a meeting with a young Indigenous woman from Northern Peru, who was creating a community-based approach to marketing the beans grown in her area. “She felt there was strong business potential, and wanted to create the infrastructure to help her community begin making money with coffee,” says Griebel.

From this meeting came the idea of an Inuit-owned coffee business that could support the business in Northern Peru and programming in the Arctic. 14,000 pounds of green beans were harvested in 2018. By 2019, roasting began through a partnership with a roaster in Barrie, Ontario. With the recent launch of its online shop, and its partnership with Inuit-owned grocery distributor, Arctic Fresh, Kaapittiaq is now ready to be shipped across Canada. 

Reflecting on the process, Griebel says, “We’ve been really adamant about not contracting this out to consultants, but using this as a learning process for ourselves, figuring out [everything from] legal corporations to websites to building business knowledge. It’s taken us a bit longer to do, but now we’re in the position where we can teach this to other Inuit organizations.”

This advice will be Kaapittiaq’s major impact in the community. “There’s a big push to get a lot of small businesses and startups created in Nunavut, but there really isn’t much follow-up [after initial training],” says Griebel. “We want to become a reliable presence, an inspiration to show that it is possible for people in these communities to be running fairly large businesses that give back and benefit their communities.” 

Currently, Kaapittiaq is volunteer-run, with support from the PI/KHS team. After generating revenue, the next step is to hire all-Inuit staff for paid positions to manage the company. Griebel is confident that, once it’s up and running, Kaapittiaq will be supporting three new PI/KHS programs per year.

The Atigikala Workshop series and Kaapittiaq are examples of the social innovation happening in Nunavut, and communities taking the lead on the issues that matter most to them. Spearheaded by Gross, Friesen and Griebel, and supported by CFC, PI/KHS will is set to achieve its mission of renewing language, knowledge, and culture for the benefit of all Inuit — and therefore Canada.