By Sheila Watt – Cloutier
For a region at so many global and historical crossroads, we can only move ahead in the North successfully and strategically by thinking holistically about the many challenges facing our region and its peoples.
…major international environmental challenges have profoundly impacted the Arctic and its continuing viability as a home for our indigenous cultures. We can successfully address these challenges only by drawing once more upon our traditional knowledge, culture and wisdom and by adding our Indigenous voice to both more effectively to our regional planning and the international debate.
…rapid climate change has profoundly impacted our very right and ability to exist as an Indigenous people. We face dangerously unpredictable weather, extreme erosion along coastal communities and an invasion of new species of insects. In some areas of the circumpolar regions, during certain periods of the year, as travelling and hunting on the land become more dangerous, fewer continue the traditional subsistence way of life. This can mean less and less of our culture is passed down to our young people. As well, the decline in hunting increases the reliance on expensive, imported Southern goods and foods which are far less nutritious than eating what we hunt. Northern communities already have some of the highest growth rates of diabetes and other food-related illnesses in Canada, trends that will only continue as we shift away from a country food diet. Leaving behind our traditional food and adopting a less healthy southern lifestyle is another step toward the loss of our language, our arts, our culture, and our very way of life as an indigenous people.
As we look forward over the next 20 years, we all know that the projections of the continuing rapid sea ice decline will profoundly reshape our region, regardless of how we successfully we begin to address climate change now. Now nations look north to the newly available shipping routes and newly accessible oil, gas and mineral resources. Shipping through the Northwest Passage, and the increased risk of oil spills and contamination of our delicate ecosystem, would be clear evidence that climate change has gone too far. And yet nations have now begun to posture and threaten each other, asserting claims to Arctic sovereignty and ownership of natural resources.
For all of these reasons, climate change threatens to erase the memory of who we are, where we have come from, and all that we wish to be. If we protect the environment and climate of the Arctic, keep our Inuit hunting culture alive, and stay connected to the rhythms and cycles of nature we will, as peoples and as Canadians, prevail and thrive.
As wise stewards of our land, I would urge my own people, and particularly our own businesses, communities, regional governments, and land claims organizations, to refuse the dangerous compromises between our principles and development that might diminish our own moral standing and claim to high ground as indigenous peoples. As we call on the world to change its ecologically degrading practices, we must not accept those practices at home no matter how desperate our need for jobs or economic development. We must not let the prospect of development in the Arctic diminish our ability and our region’s ability to teach the “life centred sustainability” that Arctic Peoples have practiced for millennia. We must not permit the discussion of northern development to be conducted only in terms of sovereignty, resources, and economics. The focus must be on the human dimension, healthy human communities and protection of human cultural rights.
I want to stress here that I am not saying we should halt economic development in the Arctic or elsewhere in the world. Rather, we must retake control over development by insisting that every opportunity and program be systematically analyzed for its impact on the world; including the greenhouse gases it will emit, the unsustainable cycles it will feed, and the lasting impact it will have on our delicate landscape and the health of our people. We must recognize in our decisions the full costs and benefits of our actions, not only for ourselves, but also for future generations and for all of those to whom we are connected around the world.
As we do so, we will be able to ask those around the world—our fellow citizens of the globe—to make similar decisions. The balance then, is really in understanding our interconnection with all of humanity, and working to ensure all of humanity understands that connection with us.