Inhabit raises the bar  as Canadian Arctic’s first Inuit-owned indie list

Inhabit raises the bar as Canadian Arctic’s first Inuit-owned indie list

A “Sliding Doors” moment: after Ottawa born-and-raised Neil Christopher finished his bachelor’s in education in the late 1990s, he was hired for a job in Los Angeles. Christopher loved California, loved its coastline, and as a movie buff with an inkling to make films one day, being near Hollywood was attractive.  But before he left, he happened to see a little advert that said, “Teach in the Arctic”. His life was changed. That teaching job would eventually lead him, his business partner Louise Flaherty and his brother Danny Christopher to found Inhabit Media, the first Inuit-owned, independent publishing company in the Canadian Arctic. He says:  “I deferred that post in LA for three months, and 25 years later I’m still here.”

Christopher’s move was not really out of the blue. He loves the outdoors—one of his education jobs in Ottawa saw him lead groups of incarcerated youths from the inner city on nature-therapy excursions in the wilderness—and the north appealed because “like a lot of Canadians, I grew up with Farley Mowat and Jack London stories”.

Plus, he was perhaps looking for a place where he truly belonged. He first moved to the Inuit town of Resolute Bay, Nunavut (Canada’s second-most northerly inhabited settlement) and “that community adopted me in a way that made me realise I had never really been part of a community before, even though it was this place with just 200 people. It was such a totally different world from what I was used to. I mean, when I would cross the street I would look both ways, not for cars but for polar bears. When I left there, the town said that the Inuit have a saying: ‘If you’ve been on the land with us, you’re family. You are our family.’”

Inhabit was born directly need from the Nunavut teaching experiences of Christopher and Flaherty, who at the time was (Neil) Christopher’s supervisor. He says: “We were trying to teach these kids in a culturally reflective manner. But there were no resources that could do it; we had to use books that showed things like cows, things that were not part of their lived experience. So one day over coffee, Louise said: ‘Maybe we should just make [the resources] ourselves.’”

With Danny Christopher joining as the designer, in 2006 the three (and a group of freelance illustrators and writers) began producing education titles as a non-profit organisation, establishing an office in the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit. The list kept growing and the trio soon made the decision to switch focus. Christopher says: “It became apparent that Nunavut needed a commercial trade publisher because the books that we published under the non-profit weren’t really considered ‘published books’ by our Canada Council for the Arts. We wanted writers and illustrators in Nunavut to be treated with the same status and the same eligibility for project funding as other Canadian creators. And we wanted our books to be a contribution to Canadian literature, not seen as some kind of worthy not-for-profit thing.”

Teething problems

There were the usual struggles of publishing start-ups early on: “We didn’t give up our day jobs for many years. Publishing is not the most lucrative business—especially on launch, right? We weren’t mining minerals or finding oil.” But that helped Inhabit’s development as Christopher’s teaching role was across Nunavut and he had to fly all over the vast territory, which enabled him to make key contacts with writers, illustrators and educators. Also, he would never have been able to do that travel on a start-up publisher’s dime, or probably not even Penguin Random House’s dime, as Arctic travel is eye-wateringly, almost unbelievably expensive.

The bulk of Inhabit’s list is children’s—heavier on the picture book side than YA—but it also produces nature writing and books on Inuit culture for adults. Most titles are available in four languages: English, French, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. A key strand on the picture books side in particular is traditional Inuit stories. Christopher says: “Early on, we met an ethnographer who just casually said, ‘Well, you can tell a culture is dying when they forget their creation myths.’ Immediately Louise and I looked at each other because we realised that these kids across Nunavut were familiar with folklore from Europe, like Cinderella and Pinocchio, but not their own. Folklore is a beautiful source material for children’s books, so we started to mine the oral history, talk to elders and encourage people to come out and tell their version of those stories.”

Christopher says that in some ways there probably has been no better time to be an Inuit publisher in Canada. The government has been very proactive in funding for First Nation cultural programmes (even if that is making up for the sins of the past), there is a spike in interest in indigenous stories, and the book industry has been keen to get those stories out.

But Christopher points out there are some key nuances even though the climate is better: “First, I should say when we started there wasn’t much interest at all. But now we’re having interesting conversations as we have been battling to get our books out of the native studies sections in bookstores. We say, ‘No, that’s a children’s book, put it in the children’s section.’ So we’re a bit conflicted. It’s a positive push for all these indigenous books coming out, but we also want our books to be normalised.

“A lot of publishers are rushing in to publish indigenous books. Again, a positive. But a lot have no ability to offer any editorial benefit to those books. We have been in situations where we have turned down books that we knew were poor representations of the culture. And then other publishers have come in and brought them out. And we’re thinking, ‘What are you doing? You’re not contributing to the understanding, you’re contributing to confusion.’” Inhabit sells direct to schools in Canada and the US (particularly Alaska), and online sales through its website were really boosted during Covid, while its bricks-andmortar heartland is through indie shops. The pandemic was tough—in the first few months revenues dipped by 93%—but now Christopher says sales have recovered to close to pre-pandemic levels. Inhabit was far ahead of the curve in remote working as it has long used Zoom to communicate between the Iqaluit HQ, its Toronto satellite office and its freelancers and creators who are spread across the Canadian Arctic.

The business is called Inhabit Media as, in addition  to the books side, it has an education consultancy and sister a film/TV company, Taqqut Productions. The idea is to continue to grow internationally, while remaining true to the core: “We’re always battling the desire to reach out to the world but also provide content to our own community. Because knowing that if we don’t do books that are relevant to Nunavut, no-one else is going to do them. So we have a kind of internal negotiation each season, but we have had a lot of good traction in several foreign territories.”

Christopher has been doing a lot of work recently with Taqqut. He says: “We have a film, “Angakuksajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice,” which is doing quite well, so I’ve been spending a lot of time on the film festival circuit. It did make me think, ‘What would have happened if I went to LA?’ But, no, Resolute Bay changed my life, changed me as a person. I love the Arctic. I’ve no regrets.”