Christopher, who as an instructor at Nunavut Arctic College taught Inuit students to become educators in Canada’s North, told PW that historically there has been a lack of books that represent Inuit culture and Northern stories, and that there is very little published in the Eastern Canadian Inuit language Inuktitut. It was “a constant complaint,” he said. One day, his colleague Louise Flaherty turned to him and said, “We should do it” – ”it” being publishing books themselves.
Flaherty and Christopher, along with other educators, Inuktitut-language specialists, Inuit cultural performers, local artists, and parents, formed the Nunavut Bilingual Education Society in 2002. With some funding from the Canadian government, Christopher said, NBES published a couple of books in English and Inuktitut. But the organization reached a point at which going further “required some kind of personal investment,” he explained. “Also, we wanted the authors that we were starting to encourage to write represented by a real publishing company.” He and Flaherty left NBES and formed Inhabit Media with Christopher’s brother Danny in 2006 (NBES still partners with other organizations to publish books, but no longer publishes on its own, Christopher said).
At first, Inhabit published one or two titles a year, a figure that has grown to more than 10 titles a year. It has a backlist of 70 to 80 books, with some volumes translated into multiple languages (English, French, and Inuktitut), making the total backlist more than 145 titles.
“We have a fairly small staff team, so we try to be conservative in how we invest in our growth. Because of that, all of us are overworked, but we’re trying to remain as nimble as possible,” said Christopher, who is leaving his faculty position this month to concentrate on the growing publishing business as well as related film ventures. Flaherty, who is Inuit, is now the director of Inuit Language and Culture program at Nunavut Arctic College and is also the majority owner of Inhabit.
Like most independent Canadian publishers, Inhabit receives some funding from the Canadian government. The company has also partnered with the college and other nonprofits to get subsidies for the Inuktitut language publishing program. Consequently, fir example, all of Inhabit’s Inuktitut books are available through NBES as free e-books on iTunes. “An important part of our cultural mandate is not just to represent Northern stories and bring them to the South, but also to try to stop the erosion of the Inuktitut language, and to promote literacy,” he explained.
Inhabit’s books are written by both Inuit and non-Inuit residents of the North. “We didn’t want to make any kind of racial distinction,” said Christopher, who has lived in the Arctic for 17 years and has also authored some of the books published by Inhabit. “We have different perspectives but they are authentic stories of the North as well.” Some northern illustrators are used, but, he said, the publisher must use outside artists to produce its full list. A cultural review committee vets sketches to ensure that details of life in the North are accurately represented.
A number of the books have garnered critical acclaim. This year, Ava and the Little Folk, written by Christopher and Alan Neal, illustrated by Jonathan Wright, is nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Express Award for the best Canadian book for children in grades three and four. The Wisconsin-based Cooperative Children’s Book Center included The Raven and the Loon, by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, illustrated by Kim Smith, and Grandmother Ptarmigan, by Qaunaq Mikkigak and Joanna Schwartz, illustrated by Qin Leng, in its 2014 best-of-the-year list of books for children in the folklore, mythology, and traditional literature category.
Christopher said that about 70% of Inhabit’s titles are children’s books, with the other 30% written for high school and adult markets. Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley wrote an adult book, Ajjiit: Dark Dreams of the Ancient Arctic (2011), which Inhabit described in its catalog as as lending a “gothic interpretation to Inuit shamanism,” and which Christopher said has been added to the reading list for many university native studies programs. “That book is interesting on an academic level,” he explained, “because it is the first time that people are playing with traditional stories and lore in the way that Rachel and Sean are doing.”
Commercial momentum is building. The Nunavut department of education has begun to place large orders for Inhabit titles. “Before it was just certain teachers who jumped on and grabbed our books, but now it seems the Department of Education is using our books to support their literacy programs in both English and Inuktitut,” Christopher said, noting that the college where he and Flaherty have worked has been using some of Inhabit’s cultural books for a number of years.
There is also increasing interest from the south, particularly from libraries and schools, he said. The publisher maintains a Toronto office, but Inhabit is headquartered in Iqaluit, the capital of the Nunavut territory.
Fitzhenry & Whiteside distributes the publisher’s books in Canada, and since January, IPG has been distributing books in the U.S. with, Christopher said, good results: “Our numbers are very quickly doing better than they are in Canada, so that’s nice to see.”
Christopher and Flaherty are also delving into film production. The Country of Wolves (2011), written by Christopher, reconstructs fragments of stories told in various parts of the circumpolar North. It has won eight international awards, including the 2012 jury award for best narrative short at the Cine Las Americas International Film Festival, and the Smithsonian Institution purchased a copy for its permanent collection, he said. The distributor, Ouat Media, holds the rights to the film – but, Christopher said, a loophole allowed for copies of the film to be included with a book. Inhabit published a hardcover collector’s edition graphic novel with a DVD copy of the film in the back cover. “It was a roundabout way to get the film to people who wanted it, but the graphic novel seems to be doing well,” he said. The success of that film inspired Christopher and Flaherty to create Taqqut Productions, is producing film adaptations of Inhabit books.
“I think both film and publishing are my opportunity to make a more lasting contribution to Nunavut,” Christopher said of his decision to leave the college for now. “Not that training teachers isn’t a contribution, but there are other people who can train teachers, and there’s no one else in the North who’s doing what were doing at the moment.”