// Megan Harvey
This summer I had the incredible opportunity to join a Students on Ice educational expedition in the Arctic as part of my role with Parks Canada’s Northern Engagement Team. I spent the whole summer preparing by learning as much as I could about the Canadian North’s history, Inuit culture, and the arctic environment. However, as a southern Canadian, there has always been something about the Arctic that has eluded me. I could never quite wrap my head around how any living organism could survive, nonetheless thrive, on the barren tundra in harsh weather conditions.
As I stepped off of the plane in Qausuittuq (Resolute Bay) on the Southern tip of Cornwallis Island I felt like I had been transported to a different planet – which is not a far-off assessment given that nearby Devon Island is the sight of NASA’s Mars program experiments. From Qaussuituq I sailed through the waters of Tallarutiup Imanga (Lancaster Sound) which is a critically important area for marine life, and I was honoured to witness a historic announcement designating the borders of Canada’s newest and largest marine conservation area. I spent a lot of time on the deck of the ship just looking, trying to take it all in. I felt so small squinting my eyes to see a pale-yellow dot on a stretch of sea-ice and then realizing it was a polar bear. I felt humbled looking up at the 870 foot cliffs on Prince Leopold Island that provides a nesting site for thousands of seabirds.
Leaning over the bow of a zodiac, I collected fresh water dripping off of an iceberg and sipped the purest liquid I’ve ever tasted. I watched attentively as an Elder from Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik) demonstrated how to use a traditional women’s knife to skin a seal that was likely caught in the marine-rich waters we were travelling through. I listened as another Elder traced his family history back to a small sod house in Sirmilik National Park which is now an archaeological site. I was blown away by the richness of Inuit culture and the pride Inuit youth feel towards revitalizing their traditions. I watched in awe as two talented Inuit women held each other intimately and swayed back and forth as they proudly demonstrated throat singing by playfully copying each other’s notes until they erupted in laughter. Afterwards, I bumped along to the beat of a group of men drum dancing – a sacred practice which was banned for many years when the Moravian missionaries “civilized” the north. In revitalizing these traditions that had been repressed for so long, it was clear how important these cultural practices are for connecting generations of Inuit and shaping their identity. I realized that in order to begin to understand the Arctic, you have to experience it – taste it, smell it, touch it, wonder at its beauty, connect with its people.
Although Inuit have thrived in the Arctic for thousands of years prior to European contact that “civilized” the North, the majority of Inuit today are struggling with food insecurity, health epidemics, housing crises, and extreme levels of poverty. These conditions are a direct result from the oppressive institutions created by the settler-colonial “founders” of Canada.
The Inuit were once a seasonally nomadic people with a subsistence-based way of life that held the utmost respect for the land and water. Many Inuit were relatively untouched by the Canadian government until the middle of the 20th century, where in an effort to claim sovereignty over the high Arctic, Inuit were forcibly relocated from their traditional land to high Arctic communities. They were promised homes and game to hunt but arrived to a land much different than where they had come from. The trauma of this forced relocation is still felt today. An Inuk woman I became close with on my trip told me that her father named her after his sister who he never saw again after she was forced to resettle thousands of kilometers away. The North is also home to many Residential School Survivors who were just kids when they were taken from their families in the 1950’s. This recent history still haunts much of Nunavut where Inuit families are dealing with the impacts of intergenerational trauma. However, the same resilience that has forged their history of survival in the harsh Arctic environment has enabled the Inuit to take power back into their own hands. The signing of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the subsequent creation of the territory of Nunavut in 1999 speaks to the resiliency of the Inuit who are now more empowered to bring back the traditional ways of life that had been subjected to repression since settler contact.
Instead of sitting back and watching southerners exploit the resources around them, the Inuit are now empowered to demand their rights, as the rightful land owners of the territory of Nunavut. By developing the economy of Nunavut, the Inuit would benefit from much needed health and social improvements in their communities. However, there is an inherent contradiction to developing the North that lies in the balance between economic, environmental and socio-cultural interests. Nunavut’s economy has developed from a subsistence-based lifestyle pre-contact, to trading with whalers and fur-traders who over-exploited their subsistence resources, to the lucrative discovery and extraction of minerals, oil and gas.
As the government of Nunavut continues to grow the economy and improve the lives of the Inuit while respecting the land, they are now faced with a new challenge threatening to once again shift their way of life: climate change. It is a cruel irony that the least developed population, are adversely affected by the impacts of climate change whose main contributors and benefactors have been countries who have developed through exploitative resource extraction and heavy pollutants. During my time in the Arctic, I heard first hand accounts from Inuit young and old who have known hunters that have fallen through the ice because traditional ice forecasting has been affected by the changing climate or stories of their houses sinking into the melting permafrost. One of the things that has stuck with me is the blue bits of plastic I saw embedded into polar bear feces, I left thinking how plastic could have ended up in the stomach of a polar bear hundreds of kilometers away from the closest community.
Living in Southern Canada, it is often hard to see or understand the impacts of climate change which makes it easy to ignore. However, in the Arctic, the unrelenting reality of climate change is the new normal and Inuit are forced to adapt their way of life yet again and this poses a challenge to how the territory can grow and benefit from development. One of the good things about the delayed growth in the north is that the Inuit have been able to witness the development mistakes in the south and learn from them. Organizations like the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Qikiqtani Inuit Association work hard to protect and promote Inuit rights and values. When a company expresses interest in Nunavut, Inuit are involved in every step of the process through consultations that produce Inuit impact and benefit agreements and co-management structures.
Essentially, there is no development in Nunavut unless the Inuit say so. Inuit are reclaiming their land by ensuring that development projects will cooperate with the local Indigenous population, respect the land, and help to improve the lives of the people who live there. Resource development on terms set by Indigenous people, can contribute to opportunities and greater ability to control their lives. Along with infrastructure, business activity, and skills capacity that modern industrial projects bring to the North; social and health programs can grow, no longer dependent on government subsidies.
In returning to my initial level of understanding about survival in the Arctic where I was perplexed as to how anything living can call the High Arctic home. I realize how resilient Inuit are for their ability to not only thrive in the North for thousands of years pre-contact but re-establish their cultural practices and traditional ways of life even after enduring 150 years of Settler governance that suppressed the very things that enabled them to survive in the Arctic. On my Arctic expedition I was able to talk with elders and youth from Inuit communities, climate scientists, politicians, mining executives and many others about the complexity of development in the North and what the future of the Inuit will look like in the age of climate change. These discussions never ended with an agreed upon single answer but instead explored the balance between economic, environmental and socio-cultural interests with Inuit leading the way.