Part III – Climate Change and Poverty in Canada’s North

By Jenny Prosser

Parts I and II of this series examined some impacts of climate change and then of poverty in Canada’s North. This final segment explores the relation between these two issues and possible solutions for addressing them.

Poverty and climate change are two of the most pressing issues in Canada’s North, particularly for the Inuit. These issues profoundly affect almost all aspects of Inuit life and, given their interrelation, cannot be looked at in isolation.



Both climate change and poverty are having an impact on housing and infrastructure in Canada’s North. As outlined in Part I, shoreline erosion and melting permafrost are making eventual relocation of entire communities a likely reality. Melting permafrost is also affecting the stability of existing structures and will ultimately change the requirements of home and infrastructure construction.

The cost of new housing construction is considerably more expensive in the North because of the absence of local materials and high transportation costs. Climate change impacts on infrastructure, such as the increased instability of winter roads are only increasing the cost.

Poverty already prevents many Inuit from maintaining their homes up to current safety and health standards. The limited financial resources of many Inuit communities coupled with the growing expense of new construction means that the construction of new housing is beyond reach. If the housing crisis in the North is to be addressed, the additional complications arising from climate change need to be considered.

Food Security

Hunting and gathering of country foods (food from land, sea or rivers) is a key aspect of Inuit culture. In 2005, 68% of Inuit adults harvested country foods. As a result of climate change impacts on the environment, hunters are now having to travel further afield in less predictable weather conditions to gather food, and Inuit also report a decrease in the quality and quantity of meat. As an Inuit hunter who recently travelled to the UN climate negotiations in Durban pointed out, the effects of climate change on snow and ice patterns is having a devastating effect on Inuit hunting culture. These trends combined with low income levels and rising costs of food discussed in Part II create a significant food security issue for the Inuit.

To Address Poverty

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK, the national Inuit organization) advocates several measures to address the poverty experienced by Inuit. These include sufficient investment in housing, better access to healthcare, more funding for transportation and the retail subsidy for the import of basic foods and household goods, investment in education and training programs, and early childhood development programs.

Inuit are already doing their best to respond to the challenges of climate change and poverty. However, as Unikkaaqatigiit (Putting the Human Face on Climate Change: Perspectives from Inuit in Canada) points out, on the issue of climate change, “Many of the adaptations already in place or recommended by community residents require economic resources. However, not all households or communities have access to these resources, and some forms of revenue are even being impacted by the changes taking place.”

Taking action against Inuit poverty is further complicated by the fact that Inuit in Canada are spread out across two provinces and two territories and some suggested measures fall under provincial or territorial jurisdiction while others are federal. This makes coordinated efforts against Inuit poverty a challenge. Yet, in areas where Inuit continue to be over-represented in poverty statistics, increased collaboration between provincial governments and Inuit representatives is clearly required.

To Address Climate Change

Some of the measures Inuit communities have identified to address climate change include: community freezer programs, relocation of houses and other buildings from areas threatened by coastal erosion or melting permafrost, breakwalls to prevent or mitigate coastal erosion, creating opportunities for intergenerational exchange of environmental knowledge, updating technology, and research on the impacts of climate change on wildlife and food sources.

These measures are largely adaptive and necessary, but don’t get to the root of the problem. The Inuit Circumpolar Council and the ITK have both called for federal action on climate change, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation. Canada is one of the world’s leading contributors to climate change and yet has one of the weakest climate change policies. The Canadian government needs both policies to drastically reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions and measures to help those who are already suffering from the ill-effects of climate change, particularly the Northern communities that disproportionately feel its impacts.

Climate Change and Poverty Together

The connection between poverty and climate change is clear. Neither can be properly addressed without consideration for the other. Any solution must also be developed with the full consent of Inuit and their representatives, in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Not only would such an approach be necessary to fulfill Canada’s human rights commitments, it would have a much greater chance for success.

Whatever strategies are used to respond to the challenges faced by Canadian Inuit must be Inuit-directed and take into account both climate change and poverty or be sadly incomplete.

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