Climate Change in Canada’s North

By Jenny Prosser

While it is possible to observe the effects of climate change all across Canada, in no place are they so obvious as in Canada’s North. Indeed, the Arctic has been described as the “world’s climate change barometer.” In the Arctic, climate change has caused decreased weather predictability, melting permafrost, increased incidence of freezing rain, decreased snowfall in some regions, warmer weather, increased incidence of landslides, decreased availability and quality of freshwater, coastal erosion, thinner sea ice, observation of new species of wildlife, change in wildlife behaviour, and decreased health of wildlife and changes to biodiversity.

This extensive (but by no means exhaustive) list gives some indication of the far-ranging effects of climate change, but is missing one crucial aspect: the impact on the thousands of Canadians living there. Canada’s Inuit number approximately 55,000 and compose the majority of Arctic residents, spread out in communities from the Northwest Territories to Labrador. For them, climate change is much more than a listing of dry scientific facts. It is a daily reality. If the Arctic is the world’s climate change barometer, the Inuit have been described as the mercury in that barometer.

The Mercury in the Barometer

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, emphasizes the interrelationship between Inuit and the land, saying “our culture and our economy reflects the land and all that it gives, and we are connected to our land, to our ice and to our snow…our understanding of who we are and our age-old knowledge and wisdom comes from the land, and it is that struggle to thrive in that kind of environment that gives us the answers.”

Inuit, through this close association, recognize the complexity of climate change. The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a national Inuit organization, notes that “impacts to Inuit are the result of many indirect relationships and the combination of a number of changes in the environment, wildlife and plants, and not a simple, single order, linear cause and effect relation.”

A recent report released by the ITK summarizes some of these impacts on humans, saying

“unpredictable weather is resulting in more people being stranded on the land; changes in ice and snow conditions and weather predictability has hindered access to country foods, which, in turn has resulted in shifts in the consumption patterns of other foods; thinning ice has had an impact on travel routes, the timing of travel and the types of vehicles used; changes to lakes and rivers have affected fresh drinking water sources; and increased UV exposure is causing more sunburns and rashes.”

Further impacts include:

  • Coastal erosion has forced some communities to relocate buildings. The documentary Sila Alangotok: Inuit Observations on Climate Change shows several community members who fear their community will have to be completely evacuated and relocated inland as permafrost melts and sea levels rise, unfortunately not an isolated case.
  • Decreased hunting opportunities brought on by changes in weather conditions have caused families to rely even more heavily than before on expensive store-bought foods, which are also less nutrient-rich than food gathered from the land.
  • Less fresh drinking water and lower quality have forced hunters to buy bottled water from the store before going long distances on the land . Climate change will also likely result in an increase in water treatment costs.

Canada’s Responsibility

The Inuit are an important part of the Canadian mosaic, yet their culture and way of life are being threatened by climate change. In 2010 the Climate Change Accountability Act was defeated by the Senate after being passed by the House of Commons. The Act would have committed Canada to reduc ing greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. The need for federal action is emphasized by the 2011 Climate Change Performance Index, which shows in stark terms Canada’s contribution to climate change. Canada was one of the top ten CO2 emitters in the world and placed 57th out of 60 nations, when emissions trends, emissions levels and climate policy were taken into account.

Regardless of who is being affected, our nation’s complicity in the extreme damages being caused by climate change demands that we take concrete action. However, the fact that it is affecting our country and our people in a very real way makes our inaction even more incomprehensible. Climate change is not something that is happening ‘out there’ to other people. Climate change is happening right now to Canadian citizens. As Watt-Cloutier says, “climate change is not just an environmental issue with unwelcome economic consequences. It really is a matter of livelihood, food, individual and cultural survival.” Knowing the effects climate change is having, we must ask ourselves and our governments, how can we fail to act?

Stay tuned for the next part in this series exploring the effects of poverty on Inuit in Canada.

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