Camels in the Arctic?

Climate change as the Inuit see it: “From the inside out.” NMA nominee: Politics and Public Interest

Climate change as the Inuit see it: “From the inside out.” NMA nominee: Politics and Public Interest

Online Only: Click here for Franklyn Griffiths’ itinerary and full disclosure of kilometres traveled. Also, hear Franklyn Griffiths’ November 22, 2007 lecture from the “Breakfast on the Hill” broadcast on CPAC.The cake for the most horrific climate change horror story surely goes to James Lovelock. In The Revenge of Gaia (2006), he hints at a world that’s become so unbearably hot that almost all of our billions have died off. How this happens is not made fully clear. But it’s easily imagined as the end result of a runaway global warming that leaves the benign climate of the last ten or twelve millennia in the dust. The few of us who have survived, no doubt well-armed and capable, must relocate to relatively habitable areas on the face of a superheated planet. Equipped with a book of knowledge written in indelible ink on everlasting paper, we head for the Arctic. Reduced there to a mere handful, perhaps even to a few breeding pairs, the last remnants of humanity are left to persist in the High Arctic for 100,000 years or more, until the Earth becomes benign again. Lovelock implores us to see that none of this happens. He ends his plea with a vision.

A band of survivors is gathering in the desert for the trek to come. Their camel rises and belches, and they set out on an unspeakable journey to a new polar centre of civilization. If they make it, there will be camels in the Arctic. If not, it’s the end of civilization, and very possibly of the human species.

Note that today’s Arctic indigenous peoples are nowhere to be seen in this vision. The continuation of civilization would owe nothing to acknowledged masters of survival under conditions of extremity. Instead, it would come in remnants from the south and on camels. All this is metaphor, of course. Only blockheads take such things literally. Still, there’s something symptomatic going on.

In Lovelock’s and other recent studies of collapse, catastrophe, and the like, civilization figures as a value to be protected and preserved. In my view, civilization is a one-word mission statement for the human contribution to climate change. When we seek out the deeper sources of climate change, civilization — a conception invented only in 1757, just as we were putting ourselves on to fossil fuels in a big way — emerges as the basis of the planet’s present predicament. To think of packing civilization onto the backs of camels for preservation in the Arctic is to have learned nothing. It is to dwell on hard science when it is humanity, its practices, and how to alter them that should have first claim on our attention. It is to construct a scary endgame when what really counts is an understanding of what holds us back from justifiable fear in the present.

In what follows, I consider the human experience of a changing planetary climate through the eyes of those who thus far are most directly exposed to it, Canada’s Inuit. In the preface to a marvellous book, Unikkaaqatigiit Putting the Human Face on Climate Change: Perspectives from Inuit in Canada (2006), Jose Kusugak, past president of the national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, refers to the fearful possibility of “having to completely reinvent what it means to be Inuit.” He does not speak of an overwhelming catastrophe that might come from the loss of a livable climate. Nor does he envisage a future in which smarter behaviour somehow allows us to remain basically as we are. Instead, he alludes to change that’s sufficiently severe to compel his people to surrender a treasured way of life in order to survive.

The scenario here is not a horror story written to secure prompt reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or an account of getting by with green technology and switching off the lights. Given the very real uncertainties that attend the magnitude and the rapidity of what is now happening to human existence, it’s a cautionary tale that should govern us in imagining the near future of our species. The new prevailing narrative ought to be one in which we are able to say, “Even if proven wrong, we did the right thing.” It is one in which we treat nature with renewed respect and, in so doing, see whether we might reinvent what it means to be civilized.

the climate dew line

With something like this in mind, I travelled from one end of Canada’s Arctic to the other — from northern Labrador to the mouth of the Mackenzie River — between late April and early June. Seeking out and gathering impressions in encounters with Inuit from Nain to Kuujjuaq and Iqaluit to Igloolik and Arctic Bay, and on out to Yellowknife, Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, and Paulatuk, I flew some 24,000 kilometres in twenty-five flights. How many tonnes of CO2 were laid down I will not estimate. Hopelessly compromised am I, but so are a great many of us unless we happen to be ignorant of the issues, in denial, or actually in favour of climate change.

Canada’s 46,000 or slightly more Inuit are to be found for the most part in four far-flung areas marked by varying degrees of self-government. Inuit also live in the provinces to the south. Starting in the eastern Arctic, the first of the Inuit regions is Nunatsiavut, in northern Labrador. With a little more than 4,500 Inuit and some 2,000 settlers, it is the smallest and, owing to generations of coexistence with Europeans, perhaps the most racially integrated of Inuit lands. Heading west, the distance is short to Nunavik, in northern Quebec, which has a population of about 8,000 Inuit. In the centre of Arctic Canada we have Nunavut. The largest territory, with an Inuit population of roughly 23,000, the area is so big that Europe from the Channel to the Bosporus could be put into it with room to spare. In the far west, we encounter the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, in the Beaufort Delta area, with a population of some 3,500.

The climate varies in each of these regions — so much so that it’s impossible to conceive of climate change in the Arctic as a uniform process. When the phenomenon is reduced to warming, the surface effects on land and animals are furthest advanced in the Inuvialuit region. Of all Inuit it was the Inuvialuit who first took climate change seriously, this with a path-breaking video co-produced with the International Institute for Sustainable Development and presented to Kyoto delegations at The Hague in 2000. Today, the Inuvialuit are planning for the relocation of coastal communities threatened by intense storm activity and rising sea levels. Meanwhile, the sale of bikinis has, so to speak, taken off in the Inuvialuit region. Inuit in bikinis.

Though some Inuit do reside in two large towns, Iqaluit in Nunavut and Inuvik in the Inuvialuit region, the great majority are tenacious in their attachment to life in small communities. Of these, there are just over fifty, nearly all of them situated on saltwater shores. A remnant of the nomadic existence of hunters who relied on marine mammals at sea and caribou inland, many Inuit communities of today are the result of Canadian government and provincial interventions that brought people into settlements in a manner still regarded with sadness and anger. The same applies to the residential schools that followed. Settlement and schooling are prime examples of Inuit being required by southerners to accept transformative change. Not surprisingly, some of them view climate change in a similar light.

Since there are no roads between the various Inuit regions or among most of the individual communities in those regions, I had to fly to select sites. Flying in the Canadian Arctic is easier said than done. Quite apart from delays caused by weather, air links in this part of our country run north-south, not east-west. This means heading back south to go, for example, from Nain to Kuujjuaq or from Arctic Bay to Paulatuk. The venture was therefore done in three stages. And if these names and places seem strange and confusing, please do bear with me. All will become clear.

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami provided the initial contacts, and the rest was up to me, phoning ahead constantly to arrange the next meeting. I saw Inuit in their homes, in their offices, at the hotel, on the street, wherever I could, on weekends as well as weekdays. Setting aside economic development, energy security, youth perspectives, public health including the mental and spiritual, and any number of other possible themes, I determined to centre on climate change as it related to hunting, sea ice, and the maintenance of an Inuit way of life.

Despite local variation across the Canadian Arctic, Inuit speak of the earlier breakup of ice in spring and later freezing in the autumn (indeed, into the winter), diminished ice and snow, changes in the quality of both, unusual shifts in the location of marine mammals, less prolonged and less severe bouts of cold and blizzard, permafrost instability and loss, increasingly violent storms, more frequent freezing rain and an ensuing reduction in the availability of lichen as food for caribou, poorer water quality, increased UV radiation, and so on. Information about these phenomena and more is readily available down south. There is no need to travel in order to report it. My challenge was to see if a larger significance could be derived from local observations, and then to make it meaningful to non-Inuit.

So I went north with an idea. The idea is that Canada’s Inuit have come to constitute a new dew line.

Originally stretched across the North American Arctic from Alaska to Greenland and eastward beyond, the Distant Early Warning Line was built by the Americans in the early 1950s with the tagalong participation of the government of Canada. Consisting of a long string of manned radars, today known as the almost fully automated North Warning System, the dew Line sought to deprive the Soviet Union of any success in launching a surprise nuclear attack on the United States. Today, Canada’s Inuit serve, without necessarily knowing it, as a dew line that gives Canada and the world strategic warning of climate change. This is because they live in a chain of small communities strung across a part of the world that’s universally acknowledged not merely to be experiencing accelerated climate change, but to be driving it at a planetary level. It drives it, for example, in the capacity of snow-cover loss to accelerate ice-sheet reduction and thereby bring on sea level rise. And yet the new dew is different from the old in major ways.

For one thing, the original dew Line was designed to detect incoming objects from afar. Today it detects what has already arrived on the ground, on the ice, in the air, and in the water. Secondly, whereas the threat to be detected once resided elsewhere — in Moscow, to be exact — today it is we, all of us, who in our various ways are gassing the planet. Earlier on, if the threat was realized, we would jump immediately into responsive action. Today, it’s hard to see ourselves as the threat and to take responsibility. Instead, we may well prefer a congenial situation report and the inaction it justifies.

The climate change dew line reports facts and also meanings. It is self-referential. The line gives us access to our mind games. These games govern the interplay between the reception of facts of climate change, on the one hand, and our willingness, on the other, to accept the need for social change, including, possibly, change in our way of life. Ultimately ours are games of desire and aversion. But by understanding something of how they are played, we stand to improve our ability to handle strategic intelligence on climate change and to craft responses that are prudent and effective. Above all, we may reduce the potential for intelligence failure.

One further thing: last on the Inuit wish list is to be cast in the role of early warners, because their culture and identity are being undone by climate change, which is to say by others. Such a “role” may therefore be resisted. Among Inuit, some are indeed skeptical about climate change. Others are deeply troubled. Mary Simon, current president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, has captured the sense of apprehension by saying that Inuit are “the canary in the global coal mine,” a familiar reference to miners having caged canaries on hand to warn of the lethal presence of coal gas. What’s not so familiar is the comment, made to me in Iqaluit by a non-Inuk, that down south the miners moved only when they saw the canaries were dead.

first reports

We should distinguish between climate change in the singular and climate changes in the plural. Climate change is a human-induced planetary process in which greenhouse gases produce and otherwise contribute to variations of climate and climate-related effects, which together I will call climate changes. We do not need to believe in climate change as a planetary process in order to observe and report an abundance of local climate changes and consequences. In speaking to Inuit, it seemed vital to me to know whether it was climate change or climate changes that we were talking about.

Meanwhile, climate change and climate changes are perceived by Inuit through a lens of concern for the survival of a beloved way of life. Nowhere is climate the pre-eminent issue. Jobs, housing, suicide, early exit from schooling, and land claims implementation are but some of the overriding Inuit concerns. Where life might go and how far an individual Inuk might already be into what comes next are matters of considerable uncertainty. Diversity and continuity in the attachment of Inuit to a received way of life are evident in what they have to say about ice and travelling on it. I begin in Nain.

nunatsiavut, labrador

Currents and tides that maintain open water or a thin cover of sea or freshwater ice in winter are known as rattles. They are perilous for Inuit who travel the deeply indented Labrador shores to fish and hunt, bring in sticks of firewood, and see one another. Traditional knowledge of where the rattles are and how to handle them is shared and maintained. Early in March 2006, two experienced men went out on Ski-Doos, following an ice road known by all to be reliable. Returning at night, they went through and perished in a rattle that had never been there before. People were still talking about it when I showed up in Nain in May.

The event was a vivid demonstration that established truths no longer hold. A number of hunters spoke to me about this. “The indicators are changed,” Amos Maggo told me. (By the way, all names are those of Inuit unless otherwise indicated.) Others who mark the channels for Voisey’s Bay ore carriers said that sea ice had gone through “a big, big, change” over the past twenty years: where previously it had been “the whiter, the better,” this is no longer the case. And George Lyall explained that it is now necessary to stop and check the thickness, sometimes detouring with considerable difficulty. In short, when it comes to ice conditions in Nunatsiavut, a changing climate appears to be unsettling the Inuit, making them uneasy, even fearful, about their ability to operate in their own land.

Not surprisingly, the top priority of the Nunatsiavut government is to restore the culture, traditions, and language of Inuit. But climate change gets in the way of efforts to do away with a mindset of colonialism, dependence, and disempowerment: it makes for an undercurrent of anxiety. As my mentor in Nain, Wilson Jararuse, put it, language, culture, “even our pride” could be at stake. A life without hunting “would be unbearable.”

nunavik, northern quebec

In Nunavik, it’s different but the same. Winter trail networks are vital in northern Quebec for hunting, fishing, and travel. Owing to changes in sea and freshwater ice, these trails are becoming less reliable and more dangerous. A neat adaptive response is taking shape, however, under the guidance of the regional Inuit government. Sandy Gordon, a part-time hunter, trapper, ranger, and director of renewable resources for the Kativik regional government, told me that various means and strategies are used to reduce the number of search and rescue missions. Aside from greater reliance on global positioning systems (gps) and satellite phones, people are urged to check weather reports and to let others know where they are going before they set out. Beyond this, a community-based monitoring and advisory project is raising winter trail traffic in Nunavik to new levels of safety and efficiency.

Relying on elders and other experienced individuals, this project brings together traditional and scientific knowledge to help ensure safe passage in increasingly risky ice and travel conditions. Updated advisory data is posted weekly on the project’s website. Guidance is also available through an interactive cd-rom containing maps of principal and risky routes. But what might the hunters of sixty years ago have made of their children and grandchildren, who rely on the Internet, gps, CB radio, and satellite phones to arrive home safely? Is Nunavik’s organized trail-marking principally an adaptation to climate change or mainly a means of offsetting and compensating for a loss of traditional land skills?

Climate change seems to be broadly accepted in Nunavik. Most believe it directly affects the life of animals and people. Talking in his very comfortable living room, Johnny Watt, an elder and former mayor of Kuujjuaq, said that it had become increasingly noticeable since the 1970s and made life more dangerous. But while greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced, in his view there’s not much Inuit could do: “Climate change is caused by southerners. It’s their fault. All we can do is speak out — that’s our main contribution. Otherwise, there’s no choice but to get used to it.” And yet Watt also says that not all Inuit are convinced of climate change. Dissent came clearly into view as I moved north and west.


Kuujjuaq spreads out on a riverbank some fifty kilometres inland from the Ungava Bay, and Nain sits at the head of a saltwater inlet in a semi-circle of bold cliffs. Igloolik in May is blinding, surrounded by flat and endless sea ice and land overwhelmed with snow of a whiteness that would be the envy of any detergent advertiser. I pulled into the tiny airport just as the Global Warming 101 expedition was leaving. It had brought Richard Branson on the last leg of a dogsled journey across Baffin Island to persuade the world that, unless reduced, greenhouse gas emissions would obliterate Inuit culture. But what I found in Igloolik was a community not well-disposed to notions of climate change.

As a site of human occupancy, this hamlet goes back some 4,000 years, and it remains singularly mindful of the past. Of all Inuit communities around the circumpolar north, it stands out in the determination of its elders to preserve traditional knowledge, as they know it and in their particular locality. This they have done by means of the Igloolik Oral History Project. A key figure in this venture is John MacDonald, a non-Inuk who has lived in the community for years, is thoroughly versed in the language, and knows something of what moves Inuit elders — the survival of traditional knowledge, in all its diversity, throughout the Inuit world. MacDonald quotes the testimony of Nathan Qamaniq (recorded in 2002): “Now they navigate only by following trails. This slows down learning and makes it more difficult to acquire knowledge about the things that need to be known. . . . We get everything so easy now and do not need to work hard.” So there are trails as in Nunavik, but now as a matter for lament.

Igloolik is further north, and the effects of climate change are less evident than in Nunavik where, for example, the summer boating season is considerably lengthier. In response to a question as to whether climate change might be injurious to the hunting culture of Inuit, Nathan Qamaniq says only that the spring seems colder than before. In a similar vein, as to whether hunting was now more dangerous in the autumn, the answer is merely that the freeze-up was delayed the last few years. Others agree that danger is nothing special and is inherent to hunting — the parkas of the men who have died over the years on the ice of nearby Fury and Hecla Strait would probably stretch from one side to the other.

In his simple constituency office facing the ice-covered shore, Louis Tapardjuk, minister of culture, language, elders, and youth for the government of Nunavut, said there was talk of climate change, but it originated with the southern media. The elders believed on the whole that the climate was never the same. They “weren’t overly concerned.” As he put it, “Change is normal.” And it tends to be “cyclical.” Asked if he himself was concerned about climate change, he replied, “Not at all.” Instead, he was extremely troubled by the erosion and loss of Inuit culture and skills. To strengthen the traditional way of life and the pride and dignity that went with it, he is trying to establish an adult-education Inuit Cultural School that would teach survival skills at several different campuses.

For some in Nunavut, human-caused climate change is part of a media-driven southern agenda that risks sidetracking Inuit from their first priority — cultural survival and self-reliance. A different variant on the same theme was supplied by Leah Otak, who prepares texts at the Oral History Project. Whereas in her view a warmer climate was slow to develop, Inuit culture and language could be lost “in twenty years . . . the way it’s going.” Which reminds me.

Before leaving Igloolik for Arctic Bay, I was told of something that had happened at nearby Hall Beach, one of the original dew Line sites. In the course of modernizing the line in the 1990s, Canada’s Department of National Defence sought to dismantle the old structure, including a couple of steel towers that can be seen for miles. Inuit objected mightily, saying they wanted the twin towers for ease of navigation. They stand there today as a humongous military-industrial inukshuk for a people whose ancient way of life is fast disappearing.

Arctic Bay offers the most dramatic situation of all the villages I visited. A community of about 700 on a bay surrounded by distant mountains, nearby rolling hills, and butte-like bluffs, Arctic Bay is just southwest Passage. Things were very quiet here — a fine young man had committed suicide just before my arrival, and the community was in grief.

More exposed to oceanic influences than Igloolik, those I met in Arctic Bay seemed more inclined to recognize climate changes, if not climate change. Consider the findings that emerged in separate conversations I had with Isaac Shooyook, a full-time hunter, and David Kalluk, a teacher and part-time hunter who was chosen to assist a Japanese biker on a trek to the North Pole in 1985.

In his bustling house, Shooyook told me through an interpreter that “climate change is not abrupt here, where it is still very cold.” Nevertheless, the sea ice had changed. It was thinner, more dangerous. Sea water was less salty, and the soap lathered more easily. According to Kalluk, multi-year ice is less evident in the bay, owing to changes in the prevailing winds, and nearby mountain glaciers are receding rapidly. As to whether these are indications of enduring change, both men ventured that in previous times the climate had been warm enough to permit the growth of forests in the Arctic. Pressed further on whether recent variation in sea ice, glacier, and related conditions might serve as indications of climate change, both reserved judgment. As well, they expressed faith in the ability of Inuit to adapt, whatever the situation. So did the mayor of Arctic Bay, Darlene Willie, who was more receptive to the notion of climate change.

The mayor is in her early twenties, the mother of several children, an employee of First Air, and obviously very capable. I asked her, “Are Inuit green?” She paused for a moment and replied, “We’re more green than other people in the world, because we neither invented nor created any type of pollution. But it’s not really talked about a lot out there. Every town has a different story. There’s a few people who are talking, however, and they are succeeding. Sheila Watt-Cloutier is one of these. She is our voice.”

The reference here was to the former international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, who is seeking to bring the US government before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. She and other Canadian and Alaskan Inuit claim that the Inuit way of life is being destroyed as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the United States. Mayor Willie also stressed the need for southerners to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change and culture are linked, she said, and then, in effect, asked Jose Kusugak’s question: if the snow and ice are lost, and Inuit culture with them, “Who are we going to be? ” The poignant answer seemed to be that while Inuit are capable of adapting, “We’ll say we’re Inuit but without the tradition . . . and we’ll pay the price for others who caused it all.”

inuvialuit settlement region, nwt

Of Canada’s Inuit, the Inuvialuit are the most clearly menaced by foreseeable change, which could see average surface air temperature rise by as much as 6°C by the end of the century — about three times the expected global mean increase. Prospects like this tend to concentrate the mind. In Paulatuk and Tuktoyaktuk, some of the big picture of climate change started to come into focus and then blurred again.

Paulatuk is a community of about 300 on a beach just above sea level. Almost everyone was out hunting and camping when I arrived. Still, I had several conversations, including one with Ruben and Bobby Ruben of the local hunters’ committee. In their view, “Only people who don’t go out on the land can say climate change isn’t a worry.” As Ruben Ruben saw it, “Inuvialuit are just like mercury in a thermometer. Out on the land something is wrong, and Inuvialuit people know it.” The permafrost is melting in thirty-metre slides, the shore is eroding, and it has become “a lot harder” to hunt and for the younger generation to gain the needed land skills. Wondering what his children would have thirty years hence, he aims to “try and fix things” by assisting in the two-way interchange of traditional and scientific knowledge.

On the way out in a Twin Otter, we were delayed for some hours by bizarre winds. Socks at either end of the airstrip were pointing at one another, 35 km/h from the south and 25 km/h from the north, a prescription for wind shear and a crash. So we waited for one of the winds to abate, which the north wind eventually did.

Tuktoyaktuk and everything with it is increasingly in the water. Shoreline erosion makes it all but certain that the entire hamlet of some 900 will one day have to be relocated. Here I met a retired hunter living in a local elders’ home on an eroding low bluff. Right next to the home is a cemetery that’s also going to be washed into the sea. Andy Kimiksana told me that the permafrost has melted to the point where a grave can be dug with pick and shovel in the summer. From deathly rattles off Labrador’s shore to easier grave digging in the Mackenzie Delta, such are some of the more morbid indicators of climate change in the Arctic. Kimiksana allowed that climate change could be cyclical in nature, but also said, “In 100 years, 200 years? It could be pretty hot in 200 years. Could be Africa here!” Camels, anyone? I wondered for a moment. Actually, I think not.

Inuit responses to evidence of climate change do not on the whole tell of radical transformation. It is appropriate therefore to end this out-line of a voyage along the new dew line on a note of caution. It was provided by a hunter in his mid-seventies and the next person I talked to in Tuk.

Rugged, intelligent, and composed except for some needless self-criticism about his lack of formal education, David Nasogaluak is widely known as a man who in earlier years could, on snowshoes, run a polar bear to exhaustion in two hours and kill it with his rifle. He is a compelling witness, but not one who sees much climate-related change. His testimony serves as a reminder that what is seen and reported by individuals depends not only on the facts, but also on who is speaking and what they desire.

As I spoke to him, we seemed to be not so much in the Inuvialuit region as in Nunavut. In his estimation the seasons varied, but not unusually. Sometimes spring was later, sometimes earlier, but still there are two metres of ice out there in May. Hunting is no more dangerous than usual. The frequency of search and rescue missions was normal. So is shoreline erosion: “The country is so flat, the west wind chews it up pretty fast. One splash clears up six inches.” Though the permafrost is not what it used to be, change itself is normal. In short, “Nature never changes too much.” But the Inuit way of life was changing. Of himself he could say, “I’ve got a gps in my head.” But now people set their systems to home and come in. Everyone had freezers, and they were full. Nor was there any going back to the old life: “Spoiled we are. Even myself is spoiled, Frank.”

Regret is unmistakable in these words. They provide a further indication that Inuit assessments of climate change are tied to Inuit attachments to their way of life. Might it be the same with us down south?

interim assessment

In none of the communities I visited was climate change an overriding issue. Asked to focus on the matter, Inuit speak readily of climate changes in the plural, of the local climate and changes related to it. Less readily will they talk about climate change as a global phenomenon brought on by the human use of fossil fuels. And almost never do they use apocalyptic language. On the contrary, climate changes and climate change are treated as challenges to which Inuit can and will adapt. Monitored at the community level by a Southerner such as I, ordinary Inuit who make up the climate change dew line are not telling the rest of the world to scramble into action or even to take precautionary action. They are telling us different things. A good many Southerners, hearing, seeing, and believing as we do that the Arctic is in the midst of a meltdown, might therefore wonder who’s got it wrong: we down here or they on the line up there.

Though we are far better off seeking common ground and joining our strengths than in counterposing north and south, a similar question might be asked about Canadian Arctic sovereignty. Traditionally the prime concern of Southerners as they admire their pristine Arctic spaces from a distance, worries over the surety and extent of our northernmost possessions have been propelled to new heights of anxiety by the growing awareness of climate change, melting sea ice, and improved foreign access to our sublime Arctic lands, internal and offshore waters, and the resources therein and there-under.

Inuit are quite aware of such themes. But they are not hyperventilating with many of us down south. Rather, they believe that sovereignty begins at home. As Mary Simon put it following the Harper government’s recent decision to spend billions on barely ice-capable naval patrol vessels, Canadian Arctic sovereignty must be built “from the inside out.” In contrast to the prevailing opinion, climate change is not the prime driver here. Instead, and very sensibly in my view, it’s Canada’s need for effective Arctic occupancy, stewardship, and law enforcement in a vibrant Inuit land.

North and South do need to work together for an agreed appraisal of the changing Arctic sovereignty situation. A shared Canadian evaluation of the nature and future of climate change in the Arctic would be essential in this. So also would a sensitivity to similarity and difference in the way Inuit and Southerners generate and respond to warning when it comes to climate change per se. As with sovereignty, the issue here is not one of who has it right, who has it wrong. Rather, it is one of North and South taking a closer look at each other in learning how to get the situation report right.

Inuit are more likely to have an immediate, which is to say unmediated, perception of the surrounding environment and living things within it. We to the south are all but wholly insulated from the local landscape, and from what we are doing to both domesticated animals and wildlife. Our perceptions of “the environment” are heavily mediated by the mass media, which report about global warming in particular. Nevertheless, the array of climate opinion and the various uses it’s put to are broadly the same in North and South. We to the south may therefore learn something about ourselves from an understanding of how Inuit process climate-related information.

Inuit are doing two things at once when they assess the climate and changes in it: responding to novel facts on the ground and responding to a novel discourse. The discourse is a southern creation and, as is the case down south, it does not captivate everyone up north. Those down south who are convinced want to see the discourse govern the interpretation of, and the response to, the facts. This means that mitigation, principally the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, must have primacy over adaptation or measures that are attuned more to the effects than the causes of climate change. Those in the North who aren’t convinced find this discourse to be more or less coercive. It does not jibe with their findings, which by and large make for adaptation to a natural world that “never changes too much.” The result in the North is a range of views. There are three of them. I will talk first about the two flanks, and then we’ll come to the all-important middle ground.

Pride of place must go to Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Climate change, she said at a speech in Vancouver last year, is “surely the defining issue of our times.” Furthermore, “the Arctic is the world’s climate change barometer. Inuit are the mercury in that barometer. What is happening in the Arctic now will happen soon further south.” Inuit are adaptable and resourceful, she added. But she also foresaw “a time — well within the lifetime of my eight-year-old grandson — when environmental change will be so great that Inuit will no longer be able to maintain their hunting culture. Global warming has become the ultimate threat to Inuit culture and our survival as an indigenous people.” Speaking on her behalf to a meeting in New York, Mary Simon drew Watt-Cloutier’s message to a very fine point a couple of years earlier: “When we can no longer hunt on the sea ice and eat what we hunt, we will no longer exist as a people.”

Watt-Cloutier’s activities have won her widespread recognition and support internationally, within Canada, and among Canadian Inuit, and we should note that Nunavut was the first jurisdiction in Canada to come up with a climate change strategy, this in 2003. Mitigation was its first goal. And now Iqaluit is considering hydroelectric power in order to reduce the inordinate burden of fossil fuel costs. But still, not everyone goes along with mitigation and a rhetoric of catastrophe.

David Nasogaluak, the hunter in Tuktoyaktuk, sees little or no change. Alarm makes no sense in circumstances such as his. The Inuit way of life is losing ground not to climate change but to modernity or what the South is pleased to call civilization. The same applies to Louis Tapardjuk, whom we have met in Igloolik as Nunavut’s minister of culture. In his case, however, whereas climate change is not to be taken as seriously as other challenges, the discourse that surrounds it does pose a threat. Change is normal, he says, but climate change has the potential to deflect Inuit from an urgent defence of their culture against the corrosive effects of a modern way of life. As occurs among us down south, but in different terms, neither alarm nor mitigation gets much of a hearing from this side of the Inuit house.

Inuit political culture is consensual. Frequently I noted someone speaking favourably of another person despite their being in disagreement. Issues seem to be all in the family, not as adversarial as they are elsewhere. But the differing positions of individuals do tell us something of the intellectual and cultural milieu in which Inuit generate intelligence on climate change.

Watt-Cloutier and Tapardjuk both strive to ensure the future of Inuit as a people, but in different ways. Watt-Cloutier seeks to engage the world in preserving the Inuit way of life. Tapardjuk aims to engage the community in self-preservation. One is clearly an internationalist; the other is probably an isolationist. Tapardjuk sees changes as normal and has no time for climate change as something special. As I read him, the peril lies in the steady evacuation of Inuit from the land to the point where a hunting culture is replaced by picnicking on the ice. Focused on-site countermeasures to exercise and strengthen the traditional Inuit way of life are his priority.

Between these positions lies the large middle ground. At present, the middle has chosen neither mitigation nor naysaying, but on-site adaptation to climate changes as they happen. It’s here that the main body of small-community Inuit opinion is to be found, and it is here that we can seek to understand why the new dew line is reluctant to report climate change in the singular and, by so doing, to promote the cause of mitigation. By understanding this, maybe we’ll also start to see into our own reluctance to get on with mitigation down south.

Whatever our understanding of climate-related change, adaptation is a necessity in the Arctic. When infrastructure subsides, travel is impeded or prevented, and country food is made scarce or inedible, there is no choice but to adapt. Inuit commentary on the changing climate is replete with references to adaptive practices: greater use of the Internet, larger and more powerful boats, atvs, store-bought foods, sunscreen, cabins and tents in place of igloos, personal and community freezers, and information-sharing within and between communities. The same applies when we move from piecemeal to regional adaptation, which means territorial-government study and integrated planning with regard to coastal erosion and community relocation, vegetation mapping, watershed monitoring, and terrain surveying to guide future construction. But is adaptation sufficient? I think not.

For mitigation to prevail, most of us must agree that there’s a big danger coming on fast — a coal-fired train bearing down upon us. To accept this and then to mitigate, two things are required beyond the financial and imaginative ability to make a difference. One is the capacity to quit the embrace of the present and to look into the future. Another is to hear what others are saying and to negotiate any differences we may have. On both counts, the climate dew line is less than fully inclined to emphasize human-caused change and to affirm the need for mitigation. Lest such a judgment appear discriminatory, I hasten to add that the same is broadly the case down south, where even those who are persuaded and who speak in favour of mitigation continue to act as though adaptation will suffice and we will be able to carry on without any great loss of comfort. Au fond, we are all alike.

Though Inuit cosmology and the culture’s intimate appreciation of nature may be in jeopardy today, traditional knowledge of climate matters does persist in the small communities that make up today’s dew line. This knowledge is not empirical in its deepest foundations. It has little to do with long chains of causation in place and time. Instead, as I heard mainly from John MacDonald of the Oral History Project in Igloolik and from Aaju Peter, a performance artist and law student in Iqaluit, the Inuit point of departure is an ethical one. It is also one of immediacy. In an environment that could be equally lethal and bountiful, the key to survival and plenty has lain, and in some measure continues to lie, in the shared belief that those who are deserving here and now fare well in the here and now. Although clearly it is informed by historical memory and long-retained experience, this is not a world view that has a lot of time for the distant future, for example, for the seventh generation of the First Nations. Presentism is the word I’ll use for it.

Deserving meant treating one another, animals, and also the self with respect. Lack of respect, especially in the breaking of taboo, could be met with misfortune for all. If the whales disappeared, the response was to be found not in an Inuit equivalent of marine biology, but in personal and communal restitution, very likely mediated by the shaman. Christianity has subdued all of this, but if the climate today is seen to change in unusual and unwelcome ways, the response is to recognize and make good on our lack of respect. If we view climate change through this lens, paleoclimatology and atmospheric CO2 in parts per million (ppm) are not what it’s really about. Climate change is the result of unethical conduct that needs to stop and to be set right not later but right now.

An example. According to traditional belief, if animals are mistreated or quarrelled over, they will not be found. In Nain I asked Amos Maggo why, if Atlantic salmon were to be had in Nunatsiavut rivers, they didn’t open up high-end fishing camps and reap the economic rewards. His answer was stern. Catch-and-release is disrespectful to animals. They are not to be played with. They are to be taken only when needed. They are to be treated with respect. It was hard to say what might happen otherwise, but they could disappear.

As in smaller towns down south that are closer to the land, some in the Arctic villages will have heard about ppm and all that. Certainly, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has been seen on the movie channel. And traditional beliefs are losing ground, if elders’ reports from the Oral History Project are any indication. Nevertheless, what-if thinking and theoretical speculation about distant futures are of no great interest to a people whose temporal horizon has until very recently focused on the seasons and cycles of change within and between them. These are cycles whose amplitude is expected to be familiar, if not predictable. Intensely practical, Inuit focus on what’s in front of them. Of this, they have exquisitely precise knowledge. As to what lies far over the time horizon, presentist tradition has little time for it.

A preoccupation with the here and now goes some of the way in explaining the anomaly of David Nasogaluak’s inability to recognize any significant evidence of change in a region of the Arctic that climate modellers, to say nothing of the locals, agree is a hot spot. In a conversation in Inuvik with Nellie Cournoyea, now and for many years the leader of the Inuvialuit, a former premier of the Northwest Territories, and a person who knows David Nasogaluak, she suggested he may be so much on the land that he’s not seeing the changes as clearly as those who visit from time to time. This struck me as right on. The quintessential hunter is truly in the present. Everything is assimilated to the moment.

Immediacy rules. If immediacy were still the general rule, there would be little or no Inuit receptivity to human-induced climate change as fact, to say nothing of the discourse. That Inuit do report not merely climate changes but also human-caused climate change at various points along the line suggests that an erosion of presentism is under way. As well, we observe a growing awareness of the intergenerational in the mounting sense of urgency to transfer land skills to the young. But even as presentist predispositions to underreport climate change may be waning, politics provides new reasons for the small community to give climate change and global warming a chilly reception.

Long-standing tensions exist between local Inuit populations and the varied entities that impinge upon them. Top on the list are southern environmental and conservationist ngos such as those that secured the devastating European Union ban on sealskin imports in the 1980s. Then come governments, the media, international institutions, and foreign governments. Last but not least are central Inuit institutions in the form of regional governments and national bodies such as the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Council. The tension in all of this is between the small Inuit community and the more or less distant other who may claim, however respectfully, to know what’s best for them.

In securing the benefits of good working relations with governments and publics at home and abroad, Inuit regional governments and national organizations enter into the discourse of climate change and take it to heart. Today, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami is especially concerned to be “part of the solution” to climate change, which is to say it seeks to participate in climate-policy processes that may affect Inuit directly. Things are a little different at the community level.

Along the new dew line the reception of climate change is constrained by enduring resentment over the past and the present conduct of federal and provincial governments in regard to forced relocations, residential schooling, land claims implementation, and the like. The persistent feeling is that Southerners have been disrespectful, callous, and cruel to Inuit. The memories go way back. They seem connected to the traditional ethic of respect that ought to govern all behaviour. In Kuujjuaq, for example, Johnny Watt was emphatic in telling me that Hudson’s Bay Company officers had treated Inuit “like dogs” in the 1930s.

Small community support for co-operation on an agenda that originates with Southerners is not easy to find when the project evokes past grievances, and especially when the sense of victimhood is strong. Climate change is such a project, in its demands upon Inuit to listen and agree. So also is the polar bear issue, which has become a front in the battle over climate change.

Everywhere I travelled along the line, the polar bear was said to be in good shape. Though some were concerned over the long-term effects of loss of sea ice, the bear was in no way endangered at present. Nevertheless, southern conservationists had taken it upon themselves to save the animal from extinction. Seeking a ban on the export of heads and hides to the US, they were seen to threaten a vital income stream in the lives of small communities that sold American hunters the regulated right to kill. The protectionists were engaged in exaggeration and public relations posturing in order to raise money for their own operations. This they did, I was told, on the backs of innocent people. It was unjust.

Faced with southern disregard, one reaction to polar bear protectionism was denial and opposition. As Sheila Watt-Cloutier put it in a powerful challenge to this point of view in the Nunatsiaq News on January 17, 2007, “If we focus only on losing, then lose we will. . . . Allowing ourselves to remain paralyzed by anger against certain environmental groups only keeps us stuck as victims. It shifts our energy from a partnership-building process to one of ‘us and them’ and closes doors to the potential of creating further understanding where differences exist.” But there was an alternative.

Citing the need for Inuit involvement in international polar bear research, she argued, “If we focus on gaining — then gain we will, on many fronts. . . . Educating conservationists, environmentalists and global ngos in confident, inclusive ways to the larger picture of climate change as well as our need for economic stability is an important aspect of moving from a position of weakness to one of strength.” Engagement and talking it out are in my own view the way to go: let us bring traditional knowledge and southern science together to establish consensual knowledge of the polar bear population and its prospects. The same applies to our understanding of climate change. But to some along the climate dew line, the views and aims of southern others on the polar bear and its future are outrageous enough to quell the thought of listening, to say nothing of negotiating.

Issues that go to the heart of the Inuit way of life are not readily negotiable. The polar bear is one of these. The same is true of climate change as an issue within the Inuit family. Difficulty in hearing Southerners on the matter of climate change lies principally with the Inuit listener when it comes to presentism and to victim thinking. But Inuit activists who are concerned about climate change may create difficulties of their own when they use crisis narratives in speaking to Inuit. Might it be the same down south?

A crisis narrative is one that tells of impending disaster, explains why it is coming, and instructs the threatened in what to do. It is presented by others, familiar or foreign, who seek to persuade us of their view of our situation, and of our need to join promptly in the measures they recommend. But for those who already see themselves as put upon by unfamiliar or foreign others, the call to accept a crisis narrative is especially galling. A discourse of disaster that originates with others who are known to be dominant cannot but present a threat to our autonomy, to our ability to set our own priorities, to trust what we observe and experience in our everyday lives. This is what Louis Tapardjuk was talking about in Igloolik. Accepted, crisis narratives legitimate the authority and control of distant experts, officials, and decision-makers. They open the way to large-scale intrusions into our way of life.

Talk of climate change is readily viewed in such a light, and not only by Inuit. In my view, crisis narratives do have their place in the posing of legitimate questions and in widening the limits of debate, especially when we could actually be in crisis or approaching it. At the same time, when responses to climate change cannot simply be legislated but depend upon the willing ethical behaviour of billions, talk of crisis encourages us to turn to government when we should be taking individual responsibility. All the while, crisis narratives prompt the suspicion we are being manipulated.

Rachel Qitsualik, a writer who lives and works in Iqaluit, is the author of a piece that appeared in the Toronto Star (August 31, 2006) speculating on the world of 2020. In it, she challenges a crisis narrative of climate change. This, I suspect, is to be read in part as a provocation.

Global warming is clearly a reality in Qitsualik’s view. But it is the expression of a natural cycle, not the result of greenhouse gas emissions. The Earth was “a hot place” between AD 800 and 1200. It saw Inuit “eating their way eastward” as far as Greenland and the onset of a cooling phase, a hotter planet that was “actually good for Inuit.” Looking ahead, global warming will bring fish and sea mammals in great abundance. Though the polar bear will revert to land and will no longer be hunted, Inuit will thrive on the bountiful sea. In opposition to the “sweeping, nigh-hysterical” view that climate change threatens Inuit culture with quick destruction, she says, “We cannot trust crisis, since someone always profits from fear. Nor can we trust prediction, until the day science can provide us with an accurate five-day forecast. But we can trust in our heritage as an ancient species, and an adaptive one.” There we have it: no crisis, no hysteria, no mitigation, no surrender of way of life; instead, great confidence in the Inuit capacity to adapt.

Whether or not Inuit are to become smiling boat people in their own country as a consequence of climate change, I cannot say. What I can do is wrap up this commentary on community-based climate reporting with a short statement of the views of Nellie Cournoyea. In her opinion, which I heard in Inuvik at the end of my travels, cycles are normal but change is now increasingly rapid. It affects the way of life of the people, which is the main thing, and not for the better. Do we allow change to accelerate or do we figure out what’s happening and try to do something about it? The planet is the responsibility of all. Whether or not our present situation is to be called a crisis, mitigation falls principally to those who have produced most of the emissions. Still, as she sees it, the need to reduce emissions globally is a reality for Inuit. Moreover, Inuit do already contribute to mitigation by reporting to the world at large on climate change and its effects.

To me, this is a neat assessment. But it glosses over fundamental differences among Inuit — among those who would survive and thrive in a world as is, and those who resist the emergence of a world hostile to Inuit ways. Rather than try to venture any further into the interior of Inuit thinking about climate change, I turn now to what it all might mean for the rest of us.

net assessment

Reporting, on balance, not so much human-created climate change but a host of climate-related changes, the dew line is not fully operational. This applies especially to the midsection, in Nunavut. Even if it were up and running from end to end, the line would not necessarily give us frightening news. But it would warn. It’s starting to do so already. The raw data that’s being generated can be integrated into a simple picture of what is already happening down south as well as in the high north. The line also yields knowledge of danger in the way we construct and interpret the picture of climate change and the games we play on ourselves to avoid admitting we’re in trouble.

Inuit warn us of diminished mobility, food insecurity, and the need to relocate. Taken together, cautions such as these put us on notice that our way of life may already be in jeopardy.

Transportation is becoming increasingly difficult, dangerous, and expensive. Know it or not, we are not going to travel the way we used to. Our lives will be localized. In the absence of alternative ways of appreciating life, we will feel shut in, shut down, and unable to get out and refresh ourselves. As to variety and quantity of nourishment, the land will no longer supply us as it once did. Everywhere the seas are being fished to exhaustion. Food will become scarce and expensive. Transportation being more costly, it will be increasingly difficult to bring food in from afar. We — and this applies to large metropolitan centres as well as smaller communities — will have to grow our own. When this cannot be done, forms of sharing, rationing, and doing without will be next. Sitting in place with not a lot to do and more of doing without is one thing. Needing to be relocated is another.

Relocation comes when it’s made unavoidable by coastal erosion or sea-level rise that comes from the runoff of ever-wetter ice sheets, principally in Antarctica and Greenland. Relocation also happens when the necessities of life are no longer to be had or become too expensive to provide. Depending on climate particulars and other variables such as the price of liquid fuels, the population of a large community could spread out and, as it were, relocate to small settlements in a countryside capable of supporting them. On the other hand, if the climate were such that little or no farming or hunting were possible, and if country culture had largely dissolved, central authorities would move to gather in small communities that could no longer be sustained at an acceptable cost. Either way, relocation outward or to the centre leads to upheaval. Among Inuit, first thoughts about moving to a new location are already in the text; down south, relocation is still only in the subtext of talk about climate change. Inuit are “ahead” of us in this, which is not strange in view of both the immediacy of climate change and their traumatic gathering into settlement existence.

Deprivation and upheaval are nowhere to be wished. The dew line begins to inform us of ways in which, unwittingly as well as intentionally, we may resist a discourse heralding such things. It therefore opens the way to self-understanding and to release from unwarranted constraints on justified fear.

If it were left to central authorities alone, the Canadian response to climate change would surely be more fully engaged in the business of emissions reduction. But southern governments answer to people in municipalities from one end of the country to the other. As in the Arctic, local opinion tends to be conservative. Quite apart from the collapse of Canadian historical awareness and our ability to interrogate the future, opinion everywhere is presentist in its intent to keep things as they are. Nor does it take well to remote centres of national and international decision, which are widely thought to act on their own sense of priorities and without great regard for those most directly affected. And then there’s the local resistance to a crisis narrative that says everything must change, and which is taken to be the product of a controversial media campaign that fuses difficult science with the urgings of an environmental movement long on the margins of public life.

Whatever the force of considerations such as these in holding us back from an acceptance of climate change that brings us to vigorous mitigation, dew-line intelligence tells us to look at the way we’re handling the information to suit ourselves. It is telling us of the risk of intelligence failure that comes with an unwillingness to look climate change in the face. There’s no end of work to be done here by way of new thinking, consciousness-raising, education, and institution-building. But I come away concerned most for our ability to imagine and adapt to a sustainable way of life. We are caught between a past to which there’s no return and a present that’s increasingly shown to be unsustainable. Climate change subverts tradition and modernity at once. We seem to have no choice but to escape forward.

after civilization

On June 10, shortly after my return from the Arctic, I took Mary Anne out to dinner to mark the 250th anniversary of civilization. Although something like civilization has been with us all for millennia, the usage of the term as we understand it today appeared only in June 1757. It was quickly taken up, retrofitted onto the past, and spun to serve all manner of purposes. Crafted in our own image, civilization legitimated our desire for steady progress, plenty, and greater rights for all. Created around the time James Watt was perfecting the steam engine and just as temperature and atmospheric CO2 were about to start spiking, it gave a secular blessing to our intention to go to town on nature. This we, and ever more of the world, have proceeded to do. We have ransacked nature to provide for the good life in the city, to a point where we must now let up.

Newton predicted the apocalypse would not occur before 2060. I’d advance the earliest date for the figurative day of days to the year 2057. Marking the 300th anniversary of civilization, that’s also likely to be the time, the way we’re going today, when it’s clear we are beyond recovery in pushing atmospheric CO2 to levels not seen for millions of years. Needless to say, the man who first spoke of civilization — who first talked of it in print — had something quite different in mind.

Victor de Riqueti, Marquis de Mirabeau (1715–1789) and father of a famous revolutionary politician, sought to marry tradition and modernity in a manner that respected nature. In his L’Ami des hommes, ou Traité de la population, which was printed in Avignon in 1756 and became an immense bestseller the instant it appeared in Paris the following year, he insisted on the cyclical nature of all things. In human endeavour, however, the familiar cycle from barbarism to decadence through prosperity and wealth was such that the good times could be prolonged and on occasion brought back. Prolongation and reprise were exactly what he meant by civilization. They were to be achieved by the artful ruler who understood that all virtue lay in the land and agriculture, not in the city, industry, and especially not in finance.

Mirabeau also believed, as so many of his contemporaries did at a time when reliance on government and law had yet to escalate, in the essential importance of the moral order. In his view, wealth lay not in material things but in self-respect and social approbation for good works. These came with recognized service to others, and in honouring and caring for the Earth. Mirabeau’s was in certain respects an Inuit view of things.

Mirabeau was an aristocrat. As such, his awareness was intergenerational. Who else planted trees and revered ancestors the way aristocrats did? But what he and his class lacked, among many other things, was an Inuit-like ethical grasp of immediacy. Subsequently, neither aristocrats nor aboriginals did all that well under the high modernity of eighteenth-century Europe. Many of the rest of us prospered to the degree allowed by inequality. But today, civilization seems to be running out of road. Missing is a moral order that grounds the future and the past in an ethical present.

Partly pure invention, any such order must also be grounded in our past or prove illusory. It should guide us in making the most of technology and governance. It should assist in retrieving from the past an appreciation of life that gives us a measure of nobility and pleasure in showing respect in our relations with nature and with one another. There is a word that might be applied to such a moral order and the conduct appropriate to it. It’s an ancient word left behind in the onrush of civilization. The word is civility. Inuit in particular may have something to tell us about civility as we extend it from the domain of human relations to that of nature at a time when the human condition is directly threatened by civilization.

Franklyn Griffiths