Quebec-made Ungava gin accused of cultural appropriation

An Inuk visual artist living in Montreal says Ungava, a Quebec brand of gin, has “stolen and exploited” Inuit identity in order to sell its product.

Inuk Montrealer says company’s advertising, branding profit off Inuit culture

Ungava gin was founded in 2000 by Charles Crawford and Susan Reid. (Radio-Canada)

Stephen Puskas, an Inuk Montrealer and visual artist, says Ungava, a made-in-Quebec gin, has "stolen and exploited" Inuit identity in order to sell its product.

Ungava is a distilled gin, made with botanicals that are native to Nunavik, Quebec's Inuit territory, and to other parts of the Arctic. The brand was recently sold to Toronto-based Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd.

In an animated ad titled "Discovering the Inuit" and published to Ungava's YouTube account in 2013, a man's voice can be heard chanting the word "Ungava" in the style of Inuit throat singing as characters in parkas smile and wave.

The two cartoon Inuit characters then jump into canoes and paddle across a body of water in front of a tundra-like landscape that includes igloos and polar bears.

The company's use of Inuit imagery in its advertising and branding frustrates Puskas.

"Ungava Gin uses the name of the Ungava peninsula, home of Nunavik, as their product name, as well as Inuit syllabics as exotic product decoration, and has created caricatures of Inuit for their promotional ads," he wrote in a Facebook post.

Ad's inaccuracies are 'glaring'

Puskas says the video is full of inaccuracies.

"The video starts off with the image of a maple leaf, which kind of ties it to a Canadian national identity. There are no maple trees in the Arctic," he said.

"The boats they are using in the cartoon are not Inuit boats; we have kayak and umiak. They are also appropriating our throat singing, turning it into an ad to chant the product name. The voices singing are male voices, when throat singing is done by women. To me, as an Inuk, it was kind of glaring."

According to Sylvie Côté Chew, a researcher at the Avataq Cultural Institute in Montreal, while the larger Inuktitut syllabics on Ungava's bottle do spell "U-nga-va," the rest of the syllabics used as a border decoration on the logo have no meaning.

(Domaine Pinnacle Ungava Canadian Premium Gin)

Ungava's president, Charles Crawford, told CBC News the company uses Inuit imagery "to put out a positive image of Northern Quebec," which Ungava's branding relies upon so heavily.

Crawford said that this is the first time he's ever heard any criticism of his company's use of Inuit imagery, and he said Puskas's frustration is a "one-off."

'Respect' for Inuit traditions

A paragraph on Ungava's website reads: "This magnificent land has been home to the Inuit people and their ancestors for thousands of years."

The company operates "with total respect for the environment and Inuit traditions [and] the rare plants and berries that impart a unique bouquet to Ungava gin are delicately picked and selected by hand," the website says.

Ungava Gin is flavoured with ingredients such as nordic juniper berries. (CBC)

However, Puskas wants to know "how Nunavimmiut (Ungava Inuit) benefit from the plants harvested on their land and their identity and language used to sell this alcohol," he said.

Crawford claimed that his company employs Nunavik Inuit to harvest the gin's ingredients and that they pay fair wages.

He was unwilling to provide CBC with the names of those employees.

with files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak