4.19 The Case of Nunavut: Global Warming and Vulnerability in the Canadian Arctic

Laura Westra818


Environmental conditions imposed by global warming are now in conflict with the traditional lifestyle of Arctic Peoples. In this brief case study, we consider the Inuit people of the Nunavut region in the Canadian Arctic. If their ‘right to be cold’ is not respected, their health and life are at grave risk, and so is their survival as a people.

4.19.1 Introduction

‘The world can no longer carry on "business as usual" when the basic rights of the vulnerable are being diminished and often destroyed, due to a "disconnect" between development and environmental protection’.819

Much can be learnt about governance for sustainability from the climate change impacts on the Arctic region and on the Inuit people, in particular the impacts on the Nunavut region. First, all regions and peoples will not be affected equally. Many of the Earth's most vulnerable ecosystems and peoples will be disproportionately harmed. Thus the nature, the scale and scope of our climate change responses must take into account what is required to protect the most vulnerable. Second, the Inuit, like many indigenous peoples, retain a culture that is intertwined with and dependent upon the ecological systems they inhabit. Degradation of these ecological systems threatens the very foundations of their culture. Loss of cultural heritage is not only a great harm inflicted upon present and future generations of Inuit, but their loss is also our loss. Their culture is a part of the cultural heritage of all humanity, of which we are all guardians. Third, their knowledge of natural systems and human inter-relationships with natural systems provides an important source of alternative values and knowledge beyond the scientific and technocratic. For these reasons, the people of the Nunavut region are amongst our most precious canaries in the cage. We must ensure their continued health and well being by protecting the fragile ecological systems that are their home. To achieve this, our governance structure will have to deliver more than technological fixes and lowest-common-denominator greenhouse-gas targets and timetables, both of which perpetuate business as usual.

4.19.2 Description

While Western developed nations debate the existence of global warming and, if it exists, what to do about it, the Inuit have been plunged into its effects with no way out. In 2004, scientists conducted a comprehensive study of climate change in the Arctic and reported that, ‘the region as a whole has undergone the greatest warming on Earth in recent decades with annual temperature now averaging 2–3 degrees Celsius higher than in the 50s’.820 Temperature changes on this scale affects the region's ice to such a degree that, ‘late summer Arctic sea ice has been thinned by 40 percent in some parts, and has shrunk in the area of roughly 8 percent over the past 30 years’.821 822

What are the major effects of these drastic changes? The first thing to note is that Arctic people are particularly vulnerable to these changes, as a recent study of the Nunavut region demonstrated.823 For the purposes of that study, Ford and his collaborators took an approach to the issue based on the ‘Conceptual Model of Vulnerability’, as indicated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.824 Vulnerability is defined as a ‘function of the climate conditions to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity’.825 The special vulnerability of the Inuit arises principally because of their dependence on the land and sea for their subsistence, a condition they share with most indigenous peoples' communities. The Inuit's defining activity is the hunt. As Ford explains, ‘[c]onsiderable time is spent by most community members ‘on the land’ (a term used by Inuit to refer to any traditional activity, camping, hunting, or traveling) that takes place outside the settlement’.826

Several issues illustrate the vulnerability of the Inuit to the effects of global warming as they pursue their hunting and gathering activities. These issues arise either when the Inuit prepare for the hunt, or when they are already out ‘on the land’ (see Table 1). For example, the ability to predict weather-related dangers and to be able to adjust plans according to that knowledge is highly important. But, as Lisha Levia, a resident of Arctic Bay puts it, ‘Normally, when the wind starts coming, it comes gradually, then it gets stronger later on. But today when it starts getting windy, it comes on really strong. I cannot predict the weather through looking at the clouds when I used to’.827 Another resident, Eva Inukpuk, reports a similar experience of her 70-year-old mother, who used to live in igloos and who could accurately predict the next day's weather. She notes, ‘Now, it could be anything. All her knowledge counts for nothing these days’.828

As these testimonials indicate, we are witnessing more than climate change, it is – as the people in the Nunavik region describe it – ‘climatic disruption’.829 Climatic disruption includes 1) the total unpredictability of the changes caused by increased temperatures, 2) the related obsolescence of the Inuit's knowledge base, and 3) the severe impact on their cultural life.830

Because the Inuit are traditionally dependent on their hunting activities, their ability to predict the weather in preparing for a hunting trip is often a matter of life and death. For instance, if spring temperatures are expected they might decide to use tents rather than build igloos. However, if temperatures unexpectedly drop in the night the hunters may be at risk of freezing to death. Similarly, the arrival of freak blizzards and sudden snowmelts may prove equally fatal. If temperatures are warmer than expected, hunters may unexpectedly fall through thin ice.831 Thus, when faced with climatic disruption, the importance of traditional knowledge is drastically diminished. Experienced hunters, formerly considered the keepers of the ‘collective social memory’,832 may see their traditional knowledge fail and this, in turn, undermines gravely the very existence of their cultural integrity. In short, rising weather unpredictability forces fundamental changes in lifestyle on local inhabitants.

In most circumstances, modern technology does not guarantee mitigation of the increasingly hostile environmental conditions described. Traditional travel, for example, involved dog sleds. Animal instinct, together with the Inuit's own knowledge base, ensured safety for hunters. In comparison, use of modern snowmobiles can result in sudden plunges through thin ice hidden beneath snow.833 The use of global positioning systems (GPS) might help preserve, at least in part, the continuity of traditional ways. However, when these human-made devices fail, as they often do, the stranded hunters are left with neither technology nor traditional knowledge to guide them to safety.834

The changes described above are harmful enough, but of even more concern is the social fall out that is a consequence of transformation of traditional subsistence-based societies, to ‘southern’ wage-based economies. Unemployment in both the Arctic Bay and the settlement of Igloolik , stands at more than 20 percent and alcoholism is a major problem. Nunavut's suicide rate, 77 deaths per 100,000 people, is one of the highest in the world, and six times higher than in the rest of Canada.835 The inability to continue traditional practices leads to dependence on wage-based positions, hence the change to a ‘dual’ or ‘mixed’ economy in which both traditional living and market-based activities coexist.836 In addition, in the 1960s, the government promoted ‘fixed settlements’, which further complicated traditional access to hunting areas.837 Finally, the dependence on a ‘mixed’ economy implies the reduction of traditional foods and increased dependence on store-bought and fast food with the expected rise in obesity and diabetes as the result of unhealthy diets.838

The corollary of all these changes is not only a grave threat to the physical and mental health of the Arctic Bay Inuit, but also, increasingly, to the cultural survival of those Inuit as a people. The ‘social networks’ typical of these societies are seriously eroded, as Lisha Qavavang puts it, ‘that's the only way we survive, by supporting one another’.839 But the existence of a ‘mixed’ economy does not facilitate the re-distribution and transfer mechanisms of food sharing.840 The difficulties encountered in the changed physical environment dissuade the present and older generations from persisting in their traditional ways, but the results have been even worse in the younger generation:

English has replaced Inuktikut as the dominant language among younger generations, older generations think the young Inuit are not interested in learning the traditional ways, and the Euro-American social norms of youth are far removed from the traditional upbringing of older generations.841

In recent years, many younger people have not learned the traditional skills necessary for successful hunting. Without these skills they are unable to ensure their own safety. As a result, they are forced to depend upon on elusive monetary resources to acquire the technology and gadgets they need to survive. With only a limited number of private-sector jobs available, high unemployment is a fact of life further limiting their economic prospects.

4.19.3 Conclusion

In recent months, much has been made of efforts to have the Bush Administration list the polar bear as an endangered species. The rationale is that such a listing would require a greater acknowledgement of and response to climate change. This case study reminds us that climatic disruption threatens not only the polar bear, but also the indigenous peoples in the Arctic region. This disruption is harmful to not only their physical and mental health, but to their very culture, without which the future of their children is imperiled and the collective cultural heritage of all humanity is diminished. Protecting the Arctic will require a greater awareness of the vulnerability of the Inuit peoples, and climate change responses that are commensurable with their vulnerability. To achieve this, our governance systems will need to deliver more than technological fixes and lowest-common-denominator greenhouse-gas targets and timetables. The ability of the Inuit to argue for their own survival before international fora is limited. It is therefore beholden to us to appreciate their needs and interests and accept responsibility for their continued health, well being, and dignity.

Table1  Harvesting Activities Sensitive to Observed Changing Climatic Conditions

a A crevice or channel of open water created by a break in a mass of sea ice.
b Drift occurs when ice is broken off and blown away from ice that is attached to the land.
Activity Time of year Hazardous conditions Implication of changing conditions for hazardous conditions
General hunting/travel on the sea ice October–December Thin ice New areas of open water, areas of unusually thin ice, and a change in the location of leadsa have increased the dangers of traveling on sea ice and lake ice. People have lost and damaged equipment
October–July Weather More unpredictable weather and sudden weather changes have forced hunters to spend extra unplanned nights on the land. Unusual weather— rain in winter, extreme cold in spring— is dangerous because hunters are not prepared
Narwhal hunt June–July Ice break-up Sudden and unanticipated wind changes causing sea ice to unexpectedly disintegrate. Incidence of hunters being stranded on drifting iceb and having to be rescued by helicopter
General hunting/travel by boat July–September Waves/stormy weather Sudden changes in wind strength and direction, combined with stronger winds, have forced hunters to spend extra nights ‘on the land’ waiting for calm weather to return to the community

Source: Ford J.D. et. al., 2006, p. 150.

818 Laura Westra is Professor Emerita, Dept of Philosophy and Sessional Instructor, Faculty of Law, University of Windsor. lwestra.interlog.com

819 Watt-Cloutier, S. Comment on Westra, L. 2007, Justice and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Earthscan UK, back cover.

820 Ford, J. ‘Living is: The Change in the Arctic’, World Watch, Sept/Oct, 2004, pp. 15–21, p. 18.

821 Ibid.

822 Kattsov, V.M., and Kallen, E., ‘Future Climate Change; Modeling and Scenarios for the Arctic’, in Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Scientific Report, 2005, pp. 99–150.

823 Ford, J., Smit, B., and Wandel, J. ‘Vulnerability to Climate Change in the Arctic: A Case Study from Arctic Bay, Canada’, Global Environmental Change, Vol.16, 2006, pp. 145–160.

824 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, www.unfcc.int/resource/docs/convkp/conveng.pdf (accessed 14 August 2008).

825 McCarthy, J. et al., Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, Vulnerability Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, 2001).

826 Ford, et. al., 2006, p. 149.

827 Ford, J., 2005, p. 19.

828 Kendall, C., ‘Life at the Edge of a Warming World’, The Ecologist, Vol. 36, No.5, July/August 2006, p. 27.

829 Ibid.

830 Ford et. al., 2006, p. 150.

831 Kendall, C., 2006, p. 27.

832 Ford et. al., 2006, p. 19; the ‘memory’ is based on the knowledge and skills passed on by elders, and it is known as Inuit Qaujimajatuqanqit, pronounced cow-yee-ma-ya-tu-kant-eet.

833 Ford et. al., 2006, p. 151.

834 Ford et. al., 2006, p. 155.

835 Ibid., p. 20.

836 Damas, D Arctic Migrants, Arctic Villagers, (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002); Chabot, M., ‘Economic Changes, Household Strategies, and Social Relations in Contemporary Nunavik Inuit’, 2003, Polar Record, Vol. 39, pp. 19–34.

837 Ford et. al., 2006, p. 150.

838 Ford, p. 2005.

839 Ford et. al., 2006, p. 153.

840 Ford et. al, 2006, p. 153; Damas, D, ‘Central Eskimo Systems of Food Sharing’, 1972, Ethnology Vol.11, pp. 220–240.

841 Kral, M., ‘Unikkaartui Meaning of Well-being, Sadness, Suicide, and Change in Two Inuit Communities’, Final Report to the National Health Research and Development Programs, Health Canada, 2003.

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