Cooperative Carving Production

Discussion of Inuit artmaking is always incomplete without reference to the cooperative movement. This is especially true in Nunavik, where the co-op has been a dominant force for four decades.The first Inuit co-op was established in Kangiqsualujjuaq in 1957, but it was in Puvirnituq that the Nunavik cooperative movement really took hold. Talking about the beginning of the co-op there, Qoperqualu said:

The first thing I heard about the co-op movement in the Arctic was when Inuit at George River [Kangiqsualujjuaq] started a co-op based on a sawmill operation. Hearing this, I felt that we in Povungnituk could also start a cooperative with the sale of our carvings. So around 1957 or 1958 we started thinking about testing the southern market for our projects. Charlie Sivuarapik, Peter Amautik, Father Steinmann, and myself went to Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, and Pittsburgh to see whether there was any possibility of selling our carvings.”1

The group returned with $3,000 in prepaid orders, and thus began the Société des Sculpteurs de Povungnituk, forerunner of a cooperative incorporated in 1958.

Along with a credit union, the Puvirnituq co-op was set up with the help of Le Conseil de la coopération du Québec and the Caisse Populaire Desjardins. The premier of Quebec, Jean Lesage, sent Therese LeVallée from the provincial film office to serve as sales manager for the co-op’s showroom in Lévis, Quebec, across the river from the seat of the provincial government. Quebec’s interest was to win Inuit support by making Puvirnituq a model. “It [was] hoped that conspicuous success in this community [would] allay suspicion in others and muster support and loyalty for the province on the part of the Eskimos everywhere in New Quebec" (Vallée 1967:11).

The calls for a return to self-sufficiency made by Steinmann and, before him, Murdoch, struck a particularly responsive chord in Puvirnituq. As Tookalook said: “In the past, before the co-ops, Inuit used to believe that all whites were Big Bosses, but today, with the information we have in our own language, no one can sneak around us in the dark. We can now do the work ourselves that Whites used to do." And Aisa Qoperqualu: "There was nothing in the North at that time that we could call our own, so our survival always depended upon the goodwill of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). In those days, we were trappers, and we could only trap so many months of the year, and once the trapping season ended in the spring, we had no way to make any income at all. During the summer and fall, people had to live off debts, and there was no way that anybody could progress.”

A Povungnituk print cannot be mistaken for a wood engraving, a serigraph or a drawing-board graphic”

Erla Socha

According to Sivuak, one of the factors leading to the establishment of a co-op in Puvirnituq was talk that HBC was going to stop buying carvings: "The HBC backed away from their original plans [but] ... when they saw the co-op succeeding, they continued buying carvings. Maybe it was a bluff to control the people. We’ll never know." Lucassie Tookalook was candid about competition from the HBC. In his view, it was unfair, "welcoming only those with money and closing down in communities where they couldn’t make a profit." The co-op was welcomed for the opportunities it provided to earn money. As Qoperqualu said: "When the Bay was the only trading post here, people could never get enough of southern foods, even when they were in real need, because of the limited opportunities to make any money.” But, "with the introduction of the cooperative idea of working together, we gradually improved our way of living." Since the co-op started, he added, "we don’t hear of people in any great need for food or material goods ... which is very good, considering the way we were in the past."

Ironically, it is a former HBC manager, Peter Murdoch, who, by paving the way for a co-op, is credited with having improved the situation in Puvirnituq. In Qoperqualu’s view, things started to improve when Peter Murdoch became the Hudson’s Bay manager, "because he related to our people very well." As he said, "Peter came up with the idea that working together was the answer. Even with a very small amount of money, if you worked together, the potential to create more income for everybody was there." Murdoch had encouraged the people - then living in outlying camps - to pool funds that could be used for the purchase of boats and hunting equipment beyond the means of individuals. Five cents of every dollar was put into what was called a "camp account" and everyone was amazed at what could be accomplished with "fivecentsiapik," a little five cents. Those camp accounts were really the beginning of the Puvirnituq cooperative. Adopting the same strategy, the Povungnituk Sculptor’s Society began setting aside a percentage of the revenue from the sale of carvings as capital to be used in developing the business.

Although the Inukjuak people were reluctant to follow the example of Puvirnituq, a co-op was eventually established there in 1967.2In that year, La Fédération des Coopératives du Nouveau-Quebec (FCNQ) was also set up as headquarters for the co-ops that had by then been established in several Nunavik communities. FCNQ’s mandate was to promote self-sufficiency, and artmaking was nurtured as an important revenue producing activity for impoverished Inuit communities. As carver Johnny Pov said: "Carvings rescued all the people from the wretched situation they were in. If they had to rely only on the trading of fox skins, they would undoubtedly still be poor today" (Pov 1977). For many years, the sale of arts and crafts through FCNQ carried most of the burden of financing the federation and other co-op operations but, eventually, as a result of diversification, carving sales came to represent a smaller percentage of what is now a $60 million operation.

Carvings rescued all the people from the wretched situation they were in. If they had to rely only on the trading of fox skins, they would undoubtedly still be poor today.”

Johnny Pov

In spite of evidence to the contrary, pre-contact Inuit society is typically described as egalitarian. Survival in difficult conditions necessitated a high degree of cooperation, but there is evidence of competition among individuals. James Houston noted a competitive streak among early carvers. Like Peter Murdoch and other HBC managers, Houston used to display carvings as examples for others. People would study them, go away, and return with "something quite different and usually more impressive than the carving they had seen," says Houston. “Although Eskimos were quick to praise the work of others and derided their own endeavours, I feel in retrospect that they possessed an active sense of competition" (Houston 1977:10-11). It is significant that Qoperqualu talks about the idea of cooperation being introduced. Inuit cooperatives were promoted as the continuation of an indigenous practice but, predictably, as happens everywhere, support to co-ops falters when people perceive that their individual interests are not well served. The Povungnituk Sculptor’s Society (forerunner of the Povungnituk Cooperative Association) could be described as an elitist organization to which only the best carvers could belong. According to Sarah Joe, this practice was carried over to the co-op: "‘When the co-op started, they insisted on buying only the best carving. I witnessed some people saying, ‘This one I can sell to the co-op, the rest I’ll sell to the Bay.’" Similarly, only the best carvers in George River were allowed to sell to the co-op (Inuit Art Quarterly 1998:22).

In later years, the co-ops exerted great effort to be more democratic, buying virtually everything from everyone. In spite of the resulting build-up of inventory that was difficult to sell, there was initial support for this practice. There were serious financial problems (caused by the non-selective buying of carvings) at the time she was interviewed, but Sarah Joe did not think that it would be right to go back to selective buying. "Wouldn’t it be unfair? Wouldn’t they [poor carvers] be left out, whereas the co-op philosophy was supposed to include everybody." But Samisa Ivilla thought that the co-op couldn’t afford to buy from everyone: "People were given a chance and it’s just tough luck for those who didn’t improve. It’s the only way to come out of this bad situation." Citing examples in which carvings were "rushed for fast money," Eli Sallualu agreed with Ivilla, saying that only those making "saleable carvings" should be allowed to carve. Sivuak was equally emphatic in his view that the co-op should not treat everyone equally. "We should go back to the old way. We never used to accept unsaleable carvings. We used to say, ‘go away and finish this.’‘’ Thomassiapik Sivuarapik agreed with Nutaraaluk Iyaituk who said: "We are giving up the equality idea. The others had their chance and blew it."

Carver and printmaker Lucassie Tookalook, who served as Puvirnituq co-op purchasing manager for 10 years, attributed inventory problems to the fact that his successor was softer than he was in pricing. He had encouraged Peter Boy and Juanisi Jack to carve when they were young, telling them to do more sanding and finishing before he accepted their work. In spite of the admonitions given these two artists, highly admired by their townsmen, Tookalook’s criterion of evaluation was that a carving be true to Inuit life, which could be accomplished, he explained, even if the carving was not well finished: "To me, a carving speaks for itself. It can be clear or unclear, or not get through to you at all" As for Joe Talirunili, Tookalook "never liked [his carvings] because Joe added plastic, wood, and string, and he never put his carvings on a base. They were always standing on their feet, and they looked fragile. Although they showed a true picture [of Inuit life], I never liked them, because they were not highly polished or finished."

A further problem was that, according to Tamusi Tulugak, then co-op manager, "some carvers have a negative attitude, thinking they are contributing a lot by selling their carvings, and they feel the profits that their carvings make when they are sold make them big enough not to be pushed around." Conversely, less successful carvers wanted to be able to obtain as much credit at the co-op as those with the means to pay their bills: "They want to be treated the same, but they don’t have the ability to pay back what they have taken out of the co-op. That’s one of the biggest problems in running the co-op."

Co-ops have always had an uphill struggle trying to treat people equally in an economic system that operates on merit.

The same sort of problem exists at the level of the co-ops. Paulosie Sivuak, for instance, was critical of FCNQ, saying that things had gone wrong for the co-op movement when they let co-ops "without anything to trade" join the federation. "They weren’t producing things that could make them succeed. In Povungnituk, we had to start very small to build on the strength of our carvings. With the profits we made on the carvings, we gradually built up the co-op, whereas it was made easy for the other co-ops to get stores. Just like that, without having to work for it. When that happened, I felt we were heading for trouble."

This tension between individual interest and collective practice forced a structural change in the Cape Dorset co-op, where the top-selling artists succeeded in obtaining a higher return on their work in spite of co-op ideology that all members share equally. Co-ops have always had an uphill struggle trying to treat people equally in an economic system that operates on merit. Buying virtually everything from everyone inevitably results in a wide range of quality and inventory build-ups of mediocre work. Over the years, the Nunavik co-ops have tried various ways to counteract this effect, imposing quotas and price controls, for instance, but the effect of these measures is that talented artists become discouraged.

Internal dissension is not necessarily a detriment if it results in a rationalization of philosophy and practice. Trying to reconcile the needs of individuals with those of corporate structures always generates tension, for Inuit and others. The co-op goes further than most modern structures in accommodating individuals, balancing the imperative of making money with humanitarianism. While many would agree with Sivuak, others – perhaps fewer – would line up with Sarah Joe.

This is an excerpt from “Making Art in Nunavik: A Brief Historical Overview,” by Marybelle Mitchell, published in Inuit Art Quarterly (IAQ), vol. 13, no. 3 (Fall):4-17


1 Unless otherwise noted, this and other quotes are from interviews I did in Puvirnituq in 1985 with the following people: Aisa Qoperqualu Alasua, Paulosie Sivuak, Sarah Joe, Samisa Ivilla, Eli Sallualu, Tamusi Tulugak, Nutaraaluk Iyaituk, Thomassie Sivuarapik, Lucassie Tookalook, Peter Murdoch, and Aliva Tulugak.

2 The Inukjuak people were wary of the French Catholic influence in Puvirnituq, no doubt fanned by the Protestant missionaries. Peter Murdoch says the co-op movement was viewed as a “Catholic conspiracy” by anti-French, anti-Catholic Inuit. Finally, the community was won over to the idea mainly as a way to sell carvings after the HBC stopped buying (Myers [Mitchell] 1977:15)


Houston, James, 1977 “Port Harrison, 1948,” in Harrison/Inoucdjouac (catalogue), ed. Jean Blodgett. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery:7-11

Inuit Art Quarterly (IAQ), 1998 “In Retrospect: Early Inuit Reports on Co-op and Carving Activities in Nunavik,” vol. 13, no. 3 (Fall):22-35

Myers (Mitchell), Marybelle, 1977 “In the Wake of the Giant,” in Port Harrison/Inoucdjouac (catalogue), ed. Jean Blodgett. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery:13-20

Pov, Johnny, 1977 “Johnny Pov’s Story about Davidialuk,” in Davidialuk 1977, ed. Marybelle Myers (Mitchell). Montreal: La Fédération des Coopératives du Nouveau-Quebec

Valle, Frank G., 1976 Povungnituk and its Cooperative: A Case Study in Community Change. Ottawa: Northern Coordination and Research Centre