Environmental Change and Its Significance to Inuit and Cree

The correct interpretation of environmental change has often meant the difference between life and death to traditional Hudson Bay Cree and Inuit. As hunters and trappers, they are skilled in […]

The correct interpretation of environmental change has often meant the difference between life and death to traditional Hudson Bay Cree and Inuit. As hunters and trappers, they are skilled in recognizing natural indicators of change and systematically interpret the consequences of those changes. They watch the way lakes, rivers, and sea water freeze to determine where fish, birds, and sea mammals will be found during the winter months and to predict how the ice will break up in the spring. They know that animal fat content varies seasonally, and they are not concerned if animals are thin when they are supposed to be thin.

Indigenous knowledge is acquired collectively, through learning, following the advice of Elders, and interacting in natural surroundings according to traditional beliefs and practices. Recognizing their place in the Hudson Bay bioregion, Cree and Inuit understand that everything from the smallest insect to the stars has a purpose and must be respected. They know that, when altered by humans, natural systems and everything connected to them do not function as before.

A long history of adapting to change enables Inuit and Cree to define types of change. Natural and cyclical change is anticipated; humans try to adapt by watching animals and by listening to or recalling Elders’ explanations of what has gone before. Sudden or unexpected natural change causes problems for both humans and animals. Unnatural change that introduces something new or foreign to the system can force major adjustments by entire communities.

Environmental change provoked by human activities has had significant effects on the lives of Cree and Inuit in the Hudson Bay bioregion.

In 1957, before the Churchill-Nelson hydroelectric development was begun, the York Factory Cree, a traditional coastal people, were relocated inland to York Landing and compelled to adapt to a very small area of land. Upstream damming has had additional impacts on this relocated community. Today, residents associate their loss of livelihood, health, language, and culture directly with their loss of traditional resources. Fred Beardy, of York Landing, expresses their feelings when he says, “when the system is healthy you are healthy. When the system is polluted it kills you slowly. The damming has destroyed our way of life.”

The western James Bay Cree have also lost traditional territories and witnessed major changes in their natural surroundings. They are encountering the cumulative effects of regional industrial activity:

Our people in the Moose River area have perhaps had the longest experience in seeing the effect of hydro developments. The first dam was constructed around 1914, and construction of a number of dams continued to about 1960. During that 50-year period the people had no say about what happened at all. The dams were never negotiated… the [Cree] people only found out what was happening when they actually saw a dam being built right in their trapping land. We also found out that what makes it even worse is that they put in a road when they build those projects. After the road is in, then they come in and start cutting the trees down and looking for other things like minerals. Hunters also start coming in from the south. So hydroelectric development brings a lot of other effects that are just as bad as – perhaps worse than – the dam itself. – John Turner, Moose Factory

Cree in the eastern James Bay region note that rates and impacts of change have been much greater since Hydro-Quebec started damming, diking, and flooding rivers in the 1970s. Family hunting territories have been flooded, river travel routes either submerged or drained of water, camps vandalized, and traditional sacred sites destroyed. They feel their land and their lives have been invaded:

All of a sudden somebody from down south did some work in our territory. We didn’t even know what was going on. Nobody told us. We saw signs. The Elders told us something was going to happen. Culture shock I call it. They dammed the river. A lot of work. So suddenly it hurt a lot of our Elders. The lifestyle changed. The health changed. All these new things: civilization, money, lots of it. We could buy anything: food from the store, skidoos to go anywhere you want to go, cars, the pleasures of life – go on holidays. We didn’t know what we were doing. We couldn’t even go inland on the lakes or rivers like before. Everything was motorized. We couldn’t walk. We’d walk a few feet and take a rest. We got lazy. Spoiled. That’s how it is now. Our health is gone. But we’re slowly bringing it back to our kids. – Edward Tapiatic, Chisasibi

Eastern James Bay Cree still pursue a traditional life based on natural foods because they believe that to heal, you have to go back to the land and eat the food. The seasonal diet of coastal Cree, however, has been affected by a decline in fish populations and a shift in the migration routes of Canada and snow geese, and the diet of inland Cree has been affected by a decline of fish and small game.

The sturgeon is affected along with other species of fish. It is on the decline, more so than at the beginning of the flooding. There were plenty of fish before all this happened. Now it is a different story. There are less lake fish in the hunting territories. It is the same story with the birds, especially the willow ptarmigan. There used to be plenty of them during winter. – William fireman, Chisasibi

Every year when inland Cree return to their territories they witness more change. Eastmain, Wemindji, and Chisasibi Cree can no longer eat fish from some rivers because they are contaminated with mercury. Spawning sites and migration routes for several species, including whitefish, sturgeon, dore, and pike, have been ruined or no longer exist. Debris and sediment building up at river mouths prevent coastal Cree from fishing with nets.

Hydroelectric development and logging activities have destroyed habitat and altered environmental conditions favourable to small game. Once a winter dietary staple, ptarmigan haven’t been seen in the Wemindji area for ten years, and rabbits are no longer plentiful.

The main flyway for Canada and snow geese has shifted to the east, possibly because of habitat changes in coastal wetland areas and the creation, by reservoirs, of new inland shoreline and marsh habitat. Although berries still grow and fully ripen in the interior, plant life that geese and ducks feed on in the coastal areas is greatly diminished.

In eastern Hudson Bay, the proposed development of the Grand Baleine hydroelectric complex has been of grave recent concern. The Cree predict that their land and waters will be destroyed:

If more dams are built it will affect us in a negative way. The water will not freeze and everything will be destroyed including the fish that come from the north every year. We are already noticing a difference in the fish. The Arctic char and trout used to be large. If more rivers are dammed, then there will be more destruction because this kind of activity affects animals, fish, and all water life. This is what we expect will happen; the rivers will be contaminated and polluted. There will be mercury in the water at a very high level. Our land will be destroyed and, once the land is destroyed, it can’t be exchanged or brought back to the way it was. – John Petagumskum, Whapmagoostui

The Inuit predict the environmental effects will be widespread:

Those Hydro people tell us there is no problem nor any kind of danger from the project they are working on, but rivers and streams flow to the Hudson Bay so everything will be affected. The fish spawn long the smaller streams which flow into larger river systems which flow into the sea. The effects won’t just be in Manitounuk Sound because marine animals travel all over the place. Hydro is saying the effects will not go far in the marine water, but the discharge system will be very strong, and we have sea current systems which can carry things further than they think. – Peter Matte, Akulivik; Lucassie Iqaluk, Inukjuak

In Hudson Strait, mining activities near Salluit and Kangiqsujuaq have contaminated the water system and affected the terrestrial environment. Fish and marine shellfish (e.g. clams) in coastal areas near asbestos mines have been found to contain contaminants. Abandoned equipment and materials from the Deception Bay mine are corroding, and contaminants pass into a lake where char, whitefish, and other fish feed. People have seen severely malnourished fish trying to swim when they are barely alive; in comparison, fish living farther away from the mine are large and healthy.

A tributary of the Salluit River will be dammed, obstructing migrating Arctic char, to support newly begun mining activities. Construction of communities, roads, and bridges will require displacement of large volumes of earth and will directly affect fish and other wildlife by altering their feeding areas and travel routes.

Northwestern Hudson Bay residents note that caribou, which are not intimidated by mining activity, migrate very close to work camps and may feed in contaminated areas; they wonder abut a link between mine tailings and the high rate of cancer-related deaths among Elders since 1990. Disappearance of wildlife from the area may also be a result of mining:

We moved to Rankin Inlet in 1957. There weren’t very many people and buildings then. Before there was a lot of fishing activity on the shores in front of the bay, but there is none of that now. This is directly related to the mine tailings that went to the bay. There used to be numerous ringed seals on the bay ice in spring but they are gone too. What also contributed to the fish and seals disappearing is the underground mine blasting that occurred because wildlife have sensitive hearing mechanisms. – Matilda Sulurayok, Arviat

In addition to these specific impacts of industrial development in the Hudson Bay bioregion, Cree and Inuit have observed changes in the atmosphere, weather, currents, sea-water salinity, shorelines, river systems, and fish and wildlife.

Excerpts from ‘Voices from the Bay, Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Inuit and Cree in the Hudson Bay Bioregion’; compiled by Miriam McDonald, Lucassie Arragutainaq, and Zack Novalinga; published by Canadian Arctic Resources Committee and the Environmental Committee of Municipality of Sanikiluaq; 1997

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