Shovelling snow, freezing water pipes and frost-bitten finger tips on the ski lift—Canadians typically think winter’s hard.
But imagine life over the centuries—with no supermarkets, no central heating and no instant hand warmers—for indigenous people across this seriously wintery land.
Not long ago, Sam Omik, an Inuit elder in Nunavut, drove traditional winter survival home to me during a hunting expedition on Baffin Island.
“OK,” he announced, sweeping his hand across a vast expanse of treeless tundra and sea ice. “Now, go out there and find dinner.”
Webb Bennett of the Gitselasu First Nations near Terrace in northern British Columbia has heard stories about what it was like for his people to survive a winter that locks in with six months of harsh weather, including -50C wind chills.
“Living in a lush part of the country, we didn’t have to travel like the Inuit, continuously chasing our food,” says the interpreter at the community’s heritage centre.
“But still, starting with the very first signs of spring, we lived our entire lives preparing for the next winter.”
Many of the Gitselasu’s winter provisions appeared on their doorstep via the mighty Skeena River where they lived in communities, housed in cedar longhouses.
The men fished for salmon and hunted for elk and caribou while women harvested berries and plants for food and medicine. Everything was smoked or dried to last through the cold season.
“We trapped furs during winter when they were thicker and warmer for clothes and blankets,” says Bennett. “But winter was mainly our time to hunker down and feast, sing, dance and tell stories that taught our children about our culture and language.”
This became a familiar refrain as I spoke with aboriginal elders, educators and guides clear across Canada about how indigenous people historically survived winter.
Summers were about harvesting and preparation. Winter meant down time in which to pass on important ancient knowledge that allowed people to sustainably (and often cleverly) use whatever nature gave them to stay warm, fed, sheltered, safe and mobile.
Case in point? The Cree of Northern Quebec. “We made down sleeping bags, like mattresses, by sewing together skins and filling them with eider duck feathers,” says Dorothy Steward, a Cree teacher from Wemindji. As a child, Dorothy remembers layering moss and water on her dad’s dog sled runners, building up the ice until they were slick making transportation easier in the elements.
Further north in Nunavut, Inuit used narwhal tusks as dog sled runners and even as tent poles.
On Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, the Eskasoni First Nation, part of the Mi’kmaq, crafted ice skates from bones for winter travel on local rivers and lakes. “They were long single rails like speed skates, mounted on a wooden plank you tied to your foot,” says Joel Denny, an archivist and historian with the Beaton Institute. “And they were fast.”
Inuit across the high Arctic faced the toughest winters. With no trees to build shelters, they lived in sod houses with skins spread over a variety of frames, some including the likes of Bowhead whale ribs as roofs.
In the old days up north, igloos, spiral domes of hard-packed snow chunks, were kept habitable and lit in 24-hour darkness by whale or seal blubber burned slowly on a soapstone “Qulliq” lamp, the warmth glazing and sealing the interior.
To feed their families, hunters would stand motionless with a raised harpoon for countless hours in frigid temperatures over a sea ice breathing hole waiting for a seal to surface. Or they would seek out rock cairns to retrieve buried stashes of fermented walrus meat, a highly smelly but much-loved delicacy, that had been buried in the summer for future use.
Given extreme temperatures, one of the Arctic’s biggest threats was, and continues to be, sweating from exertion. “Moisture is the death of warmth,” says Kylik Kisoun Taylor of Tundra North Tours in Inuvik, NWT, “but breathable caribou clothing could simply be stomped into the snow to instantly dry it. Try that with your down jacket!” On their feet, northerners wore sealskin mukluks specially stitched to make them completely waterproof.
In the bitter cold and wind-swept Prairies, the Dakota and Prairie Cree were, like the Inuit, semi-nomadic. As Chris Standing, senior interpreter at the Wanuskewin Heritage Centre near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan says, “Our territory was wherever the buffalo went.”
Buffalo were one-stop shopping for Prairie dwellers, supplying everything from clothing and tools to ropes and drums. Buffalo meat was dried into jerky or pounded into pemmican. Horns became cups. Stomachs carried water and “chips” of dehydrated dung were burned as fuel.
They provided portable shelter from winter weather, too: tipis of 12 to 15 buffalo hides stitched together and fastened to poles could be assembled in an hour creating snug, insulated living quarters.
Most longhouses and tipis were kept toasty by an indoor fire that vented through the roof, but Nova Scotia’s Eskasoni First Nation actually devised a smart “furnace” system where, in a separate building, a raging fire was stoked day and night with heat travelling to warm multi-family log and birch bark homes via a series of air intake and outlet ducts.
Meanwhile, back in BC’s interior Okanagan region, semi-underground pit homes called “kekulis” were, literally, the winter digs of the Secwepemc, or Shuswap, First Nation. A five-foot-deep hole was dug and a wooden frame with retaining walls was built inside.
“Dirt then covered the framework and grass would grow,” says Tanner Quanstrom, who works at Quaaout Lodge which is located on First Nations land along Shuswap Lake’s shore.
Each kekuli had a food cache and separate entrances for women, at the side, and for men, on top. “Men would first climb a ladder to peek outside to make sure it was safe for the family to go out,” explains the lodge’s cultural coordinator.
Outside the kekuli, fire keepers stoked the communal fire pit. During the day and at night, even when families were fast asleep, fire keepers carried red-hot rocks on antlers into the pit house and placed them in a central location “keeping the place cozy, warm and smoke free.”
I’ve winter camped in February on Iqaluit’s frozen Frobisher Bay during a two-week polar training course.
And—during an early spring Inuit narwhal hunting expedition—I tented on Baffin Island’s icy tundra with cutting-edge winter camping gear that ranged from ultra-warm sleeping bags with nifty breathable covers to all things Smart Wool.
However, sleeping in a kekuli on a bed of thick fur with a fire keeper to keep me warm at night holds way more appeal than a flimsy tent—no matter how technically advanced—flapping in the chilly, bitter winds of winter.
Editor’s Note: This post was produced in collaboration with our partners at Aboriginal Tourism BC. Many thanks to travel writer Margo Pfeiff for her story, and to Sharon Bond-Hogg of the Kekuli Cafe for sharing her Kekuli photo, which was taken at Summerhill Winery in Kelowna BC.