Letters

January/February 2008

Bravo! The Special Arctic Issue (November) is a richly nuanced and varied entrée into northern life and issues.

by
• 1,125 words

North and South
Bravo! The Special Arctic Issue (November) is a richly nuanced and varied entrée into northern life and issues. The “North” of our collective imagination is too often a noun we place at some distance and gaze at with wonder, affection, or fear, a boundless, barren swath of land and ice, just waiting to be explored, researched, exploited, protected, or defended. In this spirit, the alchemists in Ottawa have somehow exhumed a squadron of Diefenbaker-era Cold War planners, and look what they’ve cooked up: navy gunships, underwater surveillance, and a deepwater port where nobody lives (the 2006 census had Nanisivik’s population as zero).

Thankfully, The Walrus has given space to Inuit leader Mary Simon (“Sovereignty from the North”), who reminds us that supporting Inuit in their active use and occupation of the land and sea, under the terms of existing modern treaties, is the most compelling way for Canada to assert its claim over the Northwest Passage. And Franklyn Griffiths (“Camels in the Arctic?”) offers a new layer for the climate change debate, channelling the voices of Inuit who refuse to accept a “helpless victim” narrative.

Paul Webster and John Cathro (“Hands Off”), however, fall into a familiar trap, quoting a disgruntled activist upset that “environmentalists have become beholden to native leaders who increasingly view industrialization as a highly lucrative inevitability.” On the contrary, the failure to respond effectively to northern development pressures lies with environmentalists seduced by simplistic conservation mindsets and methods. The situation is not so cut and dried. More genuine concern for the well-being of the next generation is evident in the most pro-development of indigenous leaders I know. Far more than most of us concerned southerners — crocodile tears in tow — can lay claim to.
James Stauch
Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation
Toronto, ON

No Direction Home
Tony Hopfinger’s “To Live and Die in Wales, Alaska” (November) is a compelling account of how a historical event, the influenza epidemic of 1918, continues to affect aboriginal communities in contemporary times.

As one of Canada’s only aboriginal psychiatrists, I know that suicide, particularly among our youth, is a symptom of the emotional distress and despair that plague many communities. There are other historical traumas that reverberate: the residential schools experience; the “Sixties Scoop” (which refers to the accelerated removal of aboriginal children from their families and their adoption into non-aboriginal homes, often far away); the government’s mistreatment of our honoured veterans. The list is long.

Of course, a great deal of diversity exists within and among aboriginal communities. Some have not experienced a suicide in over two decades, while others are in deep crisis. And it is significant that communities are themselves coming up with creative interventions. In Nunavut, the Embrace Life Council and the National Inuit Youth Council are supporting Inuit youth and nurturing their resilience.

I am personally involved in a large-scale research project looking at ways to reduce suicides in the territory. We want to find out what is happening in the communities that are doing well and translate that knowledge into help for those that are experiencing greater distress. (It’s early yet for conclusions, but other researchers have found that places where aboriginals are involved in self-government and land claims, where they have some control over health care, education, police, and fire services, and where there is at least one facility dedicated to cultural activities, had significantly lower suicide rates.) Through collaboration, researchers and communities will find ways to instill hope and facilitate the development of a strong, contemporary aboriginal identity for our young people.
Dr. Cornelia Wieman
Indigenous Health Research Development Program
University of Toronto
Toronto, ON

I’ve lived and worked in rural Alaska for the past twenty-eight years, and I’ve never read a more accurate, sensitive article about Alaska natives. Tony Hopfinger got his historical facts straight and also perfectly captured village life in the twenty-first century.

Alaska has the highest suicide rate of all the US states, and rural rates are twice the Alaskan average. Many of the suicides are young males who, like Mike Weyapuk, are caught between two cultures and don’t really feel like they belong to either. I’ve seen countless youth, who loved their lifestyle while growing up, lose hope in the future soon after high school. Often they have to leave their villages, their families, their way of living to find a job, or a spouse who is not a relative. Those who stay become just as isolated. Before television was brought to the villages, people were always visiting one another. Neighbours would frequently drop by to talk, play cribbage, take a steam bath, or just hang out. After television, everyone seemed to hole up.

I sincerely hope that the same innate ability to adapt and innovate that helped Alaskan natives survive for thousands of years will also secure a positive future for them.
Ron Perkins
Alaska Injury Prevention Center
Anchorage, AK

Go West!
Reading “Camels in the Arctic?” (November), in which Franklyn Griffiths gathers Inuit impressions of climate change, gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own similar experience last year in the Yukon. As an intern with the Arctic Athabaskan Council, I heard First Nations elders, hunters, and political representatives speak knowledgeably and eloquently about the land. I’m sure Griffiths would agree: some of this must filter down south if we are to tackle climate change.

I’m disappointed, however, that Griffiths writes as if the Mackenzie River were the Canadian Arctic’s western boundary. The Yukon First Nations are, just like the Inuit, trying to find a balance between their traditional practices and the modern Canadian lifestyle, a task made all the more difficult by climate change. According to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the Yukon is warming at one of the fastest rates in the world.

One of the objectives of the land claims agreements signed between the individual Yukon First Nations and Canada is to foster a relationship whereby the former can contribute to the national identity. Climate change could, ironically, further that objective by prompting us to study the traditional knowledge and adaptation strategies of Yukon First Nations people. Take it from me, a guy who apparently looks like he “grew up on the cement and would trip over a tent pole”: they are ready to teach us a thing or two.

Michael Fleischmann
Toronto, ON

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