For Inuit, By Inuit: The Initiative That’s Removing Boundaries to the Expedition Cruise Industry

Adventure Canada speaks with Inuk industry leader Jason Edmunds to learn more about the Nalunaiqsijiit Cruise Ship Initiative launched by the Government of Nunavut. The initiative provides training opportunities and placements for Inuit interested in a career in the expedition cruise ship industry, creating much-needed space for Inuit participation, representation, and leadership within it.

© Dennis Minty

Jason Edmunds leading an expedition around Newfoundland and Labrador

Editor’s note: The Nalunaiqsijiit Cruise Ship Initiative is a Nunavut government-led program. Adventure Canada conducted an interview with Jason Edmunds to learn more about the initiative, however for this program, he is representing the Nunavut Government as an industry leader and not Adventure Canada.

There’s the history we were taught in school—facts written in textbooks by academic experts in their fields. That’s one kind of history. The other doesn’t come from the head, but from the heart, and it’s this one that Jason Edmunds is particularly passionate about.

His experience as an Inuk entering the expedition cruise industry through a guide-training program inspired him to provide other Inuit with a similar opportunity, an endeavour which began in 2016 with the Government of Nunavut and Parks Canada. The result of these talks would, by 2019, become the Nalunaiqsijiit (pronounced Nalloo-nike-see-yit) Cruise Ship Initiative—a cruise industry training program for Inuit, by Inuit.

This initiative, launched by the Government of Nunavut in partnership with the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), provides Inuit with opportunities to engage in cross-cultural connections and acts of reconciliation, through direct interactions with travellers visiting Nunavut from around the world.


2018 participants with instructor Jason Annahatak

Nalunaiqsijiit roughly translates to “ones who clarify.” When asked why it’s imperative and even crucial to have Inuit representation within the cruise industry, Jason tells us that somebody who has lived knowledge can talk about Nunavut on a deeper level, beyond that of a visitor. This is “absolutely vital” in a world where much of the history that’s been taught comes from a colonial lens. This initiative empowers Inuit to take ownership of their stories and how they’re shared.

Working in an expedition-based industry positions Inuit as de-facto cultural educators, whether intended or not, because their culture and landscape are relatively isolated and unknown to southerners. “As a cultural educator,” Jason explains, “you're speaking more from your heart than some of the other experts who are sharing their academic knowledge. They went to school for the research they did, so it's information that comes from your brain, versus when you're talking about culture and the importance it has to you—that’s coming from the heart.” It is a vulnerable position to be in.

Jason’s own experience of educating people about Inuit Nunangat while working in the cruise industry has instilled in him a sense of pride, through which came “a whole lot of confidence.” This same experience, however, is also what showed him just how much Inuit representation was lacking, and how difficult it is for them to enter the industry.

Beyond increasing awareness and representation, the Nalunaiqsijiit Initiative aims to empower Inuit to overcome longstanding beliefs that they can only fill culture-based and cultural interpretation roles, by removing barriers for isolated community members. “There has to be a benefit to the communities and to the people that live there,” says Jason. Roles such as bear monitors can undeniably be filled by Inuit, who already live and interact with bears regularly, negating the costly need to fly in experts from other far-off parts of the world.


"(Left to right) Nalunaiqsijiit Alumni Barbara Okpik, Joe Evyagotailak, Lois Suluk, Susie Evyagotailak with instructor Jason Edmunds"

The cruise industry is already a difficult one to enter, due to the challenging nature of the work and the level of responsibility that’s required. It’s hard to train for without having access to the vessels involved, and travelling can be very expensive from Nunavut. Training and certifications are also complicated to obtain.

The original pilot project in 2016, called the Inuit Cruise Training Initiative, aimed to remove those hurdles by equipping participants with hard skills and certifications, such as Marine Emergency Duties (MED) training, Safe Operating Procedures (SOPs), and radio training. Those participants later successfully went on to work in the marine industry.

The current Nalunaiqsijiit Initiative is a three-phase program that takes place in two-week blocks, and expands on the initial pilot project by beginning in the first phase with training for the cruise industry specifically, and development of soft skills like public speaking; in the second phase the participants receive placements on board an expedition cruise vessel for paid, hands-on experience; and the third mirrors the 2016 project with completion of marine certifications. Additional program highlights include training on polar bear guarding, Zodiac operation, and firearms safety. Students are also given lessons on employment expectations and navigating for success in the industry.

The ultimate goal of the Nalunaiqsijiit Initiative? To ensure Inuit voices and priorities are integrated into the industry from within. Even if they don’t end up working on expedition cruises, they’ll have everything they need to pursue a successful career in other marine ventures. Jason concludes, “Having an opportunity to work on a vessel like this, from my own experience, has been life-changing, and I hope that it's something that more Inuit can take advantage of.”