Where Warmth is A Threat

by Catherine Hart:

In late July 2005, the skies above Canada’s arctic region lit up as they never had before. The inhabitants of Iqaluit, Nunavut, rushed to their roofs to take in a peculiar show of lightning and thunder. Those who knew the significance of the lights — that they hailed the city’s first recorded thunderstorm — urged their neighbors to take shelter from the dangerous bolts. In the deafening cracks of thunder, the Inuit inhabitants of Iqaluit learned a lesson about the effects of global climate change.

As the planet has warmed, the extreme weather of Canada’s polar region has grown unpredictable, leaving the Inuit, an ethnic group scattered across Greenland, Alaska, and northern Canada, bracing for change. Recent summers have brought more than thunderstorms: The shrinking ice cap threatens the group’s hunting practices and traditional transportation routes. At the same time, mining, shipping, and oil companies, with the help of the Canadian government, have seized on the consequences of global warming to promote industrial growth. Facing these extraordinary changes, the Inuit, who started to give up nomadic life only 50 years ago, are coping with forced changes to their lifestyle while trying to maintain control over their future.

The Iqaluit airport serves as the sole point of entry into the capital of Nunavut. For 10 months of the year, the city is accessible only by air. (Courtesy ceedub13, Flickr).

A Beleaguered People

Inuit life was difficult long before the problems associated with climate change. The temperature in Iqaluit ranges between 45 degrees Fahrenheit in July, when the sun never sets, and 14 degrees below zero in January, when the night does not end. The land is barren and treeless, and for 10 months of the year the city is accessible only by air.

The Inuit are few but cover vast territory: Nunavut, the province a land claim negotiation established for the Inuit a decade ago, has a population of only 29,000 in an area greater in size than Alaska. Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, has just over 6,000 inhabitants. The population is very young, and most are Inuit. According to Canada’s 2006 census, the median age in the province is 20 years old, and 84 percent identify as Inuit. Nanavut’s population has undergone a boom since the 1950s, when the government began encouraging traditionally nomadic groups to resettle in permanent communities.

The upsurge in the Inuit population changed many aspects of life. Inuit nations were no longer self-sustaining entities and came to rely almost entirely on the federal government for their livelihoods. The government supplied housing, health care, and a more accessible food supply, which helped encourage the population increase. This, in turn, set a precedent for cramped living conditions: The 2006 census found that 18 percent of Inuit live in households lodging more than one family.

Adequate employment remains hard to come by. While the Inuit in remote villages still rely almost entirely on hunting, those in communities like Iqaluit benefit from government-provided jobs. Yet they remain uninspired by the bureaucratic posts that make up the majority of those available. The average income in these communities stands well below that of the rest of the country.

Young Inuits, especially, are uninterested in what is perceived to be the empty bureaucratic work of the government. Jesse Mike, the interim president of the Inuit Youth Council, an organization aimed at preserving Inuit language and culture and addressing social issues affecting the region’s youth, said that many of her friends are unhappy with their job options: “A lot of them would like to be traveling. None of them really say [so]; they just often talk about how much they hate their jobs.”

Nunavut’s relative poverty and general lack of opportunity, as well as high rates of substance addiction, contribute to the province’s high suicide rate: Health Canada, the federal government agency for public health, estimates the Inuit suicide rate is 11 times the national average.

Opportunities for the region must be taken seriously. But at what cost, the Inuit must decide, should they proceed?

The Threat of Climate Change

Shifting weather patterns have produced deep fears as well as serious immediate consequences for the Inuit.

Peter Kulchyski, professor of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Manitoba, worries that the eventual environmental, economic, and cultural costs of climate change in Canada’s arctic will outweigh any gains the region can make through development. Kulchyksi has visited the nearby Pangnirtung region of Baffin Island since the mid1980s. He attested to the continual devastation brought on by global warming, citing the thinning ice around the island as a chief example. Thinner ice raises transportation costs, as local Inuit can no longer shuttle goods across the ice on snowmobiles. The melting ice causes the soil to deteriorate as well. “Around Glacier Lake, you can literally see the land being destroyed with boulders crumbling from increased erosion,” Kulchyski said. “They had to close the surrounding national park to hikers because it was too dangerous.”

Climate change threatens the traditional Inuit way of life. Ancient cultural traditions based on hunting game were first hampered by the onset of permanent settlements. Now that the feeding and migration patterns of local game have changed, hunters are suffering. Kulchyski recalled an incident during which Inuit elders were forced to shoot a starving polar bear that had wandered into their village to look for food because the polar bear’s natural feeding grounds — on the surface of the ice cap — were rapidly receding. Mike told of several recent occasions when professional Inuit hunters fell through the Arctic Sea’s ice. Although none of the hunters died, Mike said that she could not remember any hunters falling through the ice before a few years ago.

Increased access to uranium deposits also threatens hunting. The Inuit living in Baker Lake, one of the few communities in inland Nunavut, recently allowed Aurora Energy Resources Inc., a fast-growing local mining company, to acquire the rights to explore the surrounding land for uranium. With the mines would come jobs and revenue for the province. But the mines could poison wildlife and divert caribou herd migration patterns. Such a development would devastate hunting and likely leave the land barren for years.

The disruption of hunting traditions could upset the social fabric of Inuit communities. If hunting jobs become unprofitable or too dangerous, professional hunters will be permanently out of work.

“Right now, Inuit hunters are quite well off,” Kulchyski said. “They are their own bosses, they eat organic food — but if these mines or global warming damage their food supply, then they are in danger of becoming actually poor.” In addition to financial concerns, the central role of hunting might disappear in a few short years if climate trends continue to limit the practice in its tradition.

Most importantly, the damage done to hunting traditions represents a betrayal of Inuit principles. “A lot of it goes back to how we were raised here to respect the land and to live with the land,” Mike said. “That isn’t the way people are making their decisions anymore, and I think there are many negative impacts with mining that we have learned from other areas.”

The Promise of Development

Facing generally harsh circumstances, one might expect the Inuit to welcome the advantages of development and a milder climate. Many do. “Economic interest in the north appears to be increasing regardless of … [the] direction [of] the climate,” said Jeff Rusk, the director of technical services at the Nunavut Impact Review Board, an environmental assessment agency meant to evaluate the promise of development projects in Nunavut.

Inuit students are taking a more active role in finding jobs in Canada’s industrial sector. Increased enrollment in the area’s technical colleges indicates that more students are choosing to learn industrial skills. Irene Cant, a student advisor at the Cambridge Bay Campus of the Nunavut Arctic College, said that the college regularly alters its curriculum to better suit the needs of industrial firms. This year, for example, it has offered classes on mining. Cant said that, for the most part, students at Nunavut Arctic have embraced mining-related development. “There are a lot of mines opening up in the region and students are excited for that,” Cant said. “It’s an opportunity for students to make money.”

Additionally, years of government planning have operated on the premise that climate change will make the Northwest Passage a viable shipping lane within the foreseeable future. Transporting goods across the Arctic instead of through the Panama Canal would save vessels 7,000 kilometers and about two weeks of travel time. The unpredictable nature of the fluctuating climate has caused scientists to shorten their environmental estimates: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program, recently altered its original prediction that the Arctic sea would be free of ice during the summer of 2050. The Panel found that the ice is melting so rapidly that the Arctic sea will be completely unfrozen during the summer months of 2020.

Iqaluit is set to welcome a new deep-sea port, a construction project planned as part of Canada’s investment in the Northwest Passage. The national government is eager to cash in on this quickly materializing route and has centered its campaign to claim the Northwest Passage as an inland waterway on building significant new infrastructure. The deep-sea port in Iqaluit would allow delivery of shipments regardless of the tides. Mike, though skeptical of recent mining developments, is upbeat about the port: “The deep-sea port would be a very good thing,” she said, “especially considering that we get most of our goods via ship.”

The Final Say

Nunavut was created in 1998 as part of the largest land claims agreement between a government and an aboriginal people. As a result, the Inuit have final authority, through Inuit-run organizations like the Nunavut Impact Review Board, over all the economic activity in the province. As Inuit communities experience the trauma of climate change, they will have the ability to authorize or prohibit projects that pose a further threat to the land.

Baker Lake first garnered attention from the uranium industry in the 1990s, but the Inuit went to court to ban a mine at the time. Now, Aurora has opened a public relations office in Baker Lake to help pass the project and, with its partner, Pacific Ridge, has already spent over $7.5 million to explore the region.

Some caution that the information disseminated by the mining company’s office may be incomplete. Mike maintained that the Inuit elders she spoke to in the village had no idea that uranium mining could poison the caribou herds on which Iqaluit depends — many in the village are still professional hunters.

The inhabitants of Baker Lake may be conflicted over the prospect of a uranium mine, but they nonetheless retain the power to determine the outcome of the project. In February, the project proposal was put up for review; now the Nunavut Impact Review Board is going through the comments of dozens of public agencies and advocacy groups, as well as a series of town hall meetings with the people in the area, before it makes a recommendation.

With each passing year, as development creeps further north, the Inuit will have to work hard to make sure that their traditions and strong communities survive. Even though they can do relatively little to stop the course of global warming or to slow the forceful hand of the global marketplace, Kulchyski does not see their culture’s fate as sealed. “Inuit culture prides itself in flexibility and its ability to adapt,” he said. “They showed these skills battling life on the tundra for centuries, including during the mini ice age in the 1600s, and are using those qualities again now.”

Given that the Inuit will have the last word on all development projects, they have the opportunity to ensure their future before the ice literally melts underneath them.

Catherine Hart is a junior History major in Morse College.