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Distant Early Warning

LISA BIRD-WILSON

We think of the Arctic as pristine and untouched—but nowhere on the planet is as harshly impacted by climate change.

In 217 a decommissioned Canadian Coast Guard ship was refurbished to sail around Canada’s three coasts for 15 days, in fifteen legs, from Toronto to Victoria via the Northwest Passage. Participants on the journey represented a cross-section of Canadian society, including youth, Elders, newcomers, scientists, educators, artists, musicians, community leaders, the media and Indigenous peoples. This was Canada C3, a signature Canada 15 project led by the Students on Ice Foundation with the purpose of “celebrating our environment, sharing the stories of coastal communities and connecting Canadians from coast to coast to coast.” Canada C3 focussed on engaging the four themes of Canada 15: Diversity and Inclusion, Reconciliation, Youth Engagement and the Environment.

Invited to join the Canada C3 adventure for one of the ten-day legs in the role of featured author, I opt to join the voyage in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, and finish in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories—Leg 11 of the journey. I am especially keen to visit the Arctic to witness and learn about what’s happening to the environment in the Canadian North.

As the ship moves through Arctic waters, it stops daily for us to disembark on Zodiac boats and visit islands and communities along the way, where Inuit hunters and Elders talk about the changes witnessed in their lifetimes. They discuss deviations to the way the ice behaves and the impacts of those changes on hunting. In The Right To Be Cold, Sheila Watt-Cloutier details the intense social, cultural and environmental changes to her Arctic home of Kuujjuaq, Nunavik. She discusses the ways hunting transformed over the course of her lifetime, where she experienced a childhood of travelling by dogsled until the transition to motorized travel with the introduction of snowmobiles. Shifting traditional hunting patterns and accompanying cultural changes are some of the great transformations she describes.

On the second last day of our journey aboard the C3 ship, we land on Baillie Island, where we witness the permafrost melt. In the sun, the permafrost winks and glitters through its covering of dirt and snow as its meltwater runs into the Beaufort Sea like a steady tap. Tanya Tagaq’s haunting words in her book, Split Tooth, resonate: “Who knows what memories lie deep in the ice? Who knows what curses? Earth’s whispers released back into the atmosphere can only wreak havoc.” It will be impossible to forget the sound of the meltwater as it spills into the sea and the sight of permafrost that may have existed for hundreds of thousands of years dissolving before our eyes. Both impressive and awful.

On uninhabited islands and in settled communities are the remains of abandoned Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radar stations, created during the Cold War to detect a Soviet nuclear strike. After the end of the Cold War, the sites, full of lead, PCBs and other contaminants, ultimately left more than a hundred landfills across the Arctic. Some sources blame DEW Line construction for permafrost melt and much environmental damage in the Arctic, and by extension, the impact on human rights and settlement in the far North. DEW Line stations scarred the landscape and brought profound social and environmental change to the Arctic. Buildings landed on buildingless land, on islands where no superstructure had ever stood. Sixty years later, as a southerner on the Canada C3 journey, I find the evidence of these northern changes is obvious.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier details the intense social, cultural and environmental changes to the far North. Her community went from dogsled to snowmobile in a very short period of time. She writes, “The modern world arrived slowly in some places in the world, and quickly in others. But in the Arctic, it appeared in a single generation.” To me, as a visitor, some of the most obvious evidence of these changes are on an uninhabited island, where an abandoned cabin slowly disintegrates in the pervasive winds, and the rusted shell of a decades-old Bombardier snowmobile sinks into the ground, symbols of the concept of “forever”—these human-made items are here to stay. Out of these kinds of dramatic changes to her Arctic home, Sheila Watt-Cloutier emerged as a leader and a voice for the Arctic and Inuit affected by fossil fuel emissions causing climate change that is particularly egregious in the Arctic.

We’re conditioned to think of the Arctic as pristine and untouched, but the truth is nowhere on the planet is as harshly impacted by climate change as the Arctic. The world’s warm climates produce Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which travel over long distances via air and water. As the Arctic Institute notes, the Arctic acts like a “sink” for pollutants that travel from regions far away. Once POPs end up in the Arctic they become trapped and accumulate in the cold air, soil, water and food chain. POPs accumulate and magnify in animals with large amounts of fat, such as whales and other arctic water mammals—the very animals that make up Inuit food supplies. The Arctic ends up with extraordinarily high levels of POPs. As Watt-Cloutier notes, “And the sad irony is that while our risk is so elevated, we have received no benefit—we have never used POPs for improved agriculture or to prevent malaria—from these toxins.” The Arctic, and the Inuit who live there, end up with the world’s pollutants infecting their land, air, water, food supplies and bodies.

For millennia the Arctic ice has formed and shaped a way of life central to Inuit culture. But changing, receding and disappearing ice means the way of life and the cultural knowledge that goes with the ice is in danger. On my Arctic journey I hear, from several Elders and hunters, a common refrain: “From my grandparents I learned how to hunt and how to be kind.” Their words resonate. What will become of young hunters who learn traditional ways of living and being on the land and ice once the traditional teachings no longer apply? Not only does this pose a survival danger to hunters, and to communities of people reliant on subsistence hunting activities, but the transmission of cultural knowledge from one generation to the next is disrupted. The loss of ice is the loss of the sacred, of ritual, and of time-immemorial rites of passage. After all, an Inuk has to be able to do the things that make them Inuk. And ice is at the foundation of all things Inuit.

On the C3 ship, Inuk hunter John Max speaks of the traditional time of year to catch and harvest the Arctic char, and how this tradition has changed in his lifetime. Char used to be caught in June, he says. But now the ice is too thin, you can’t set up fishing camps in June anymore. And then he says: The old ice is melting. This one small example helps me digest the profound and far reaching impacts climate change is having on the North. When you can no longer count on the Arctic ice, on the one thing thought to be permanent, it throws all other taken-for-granted ideas about your environment, your place in it, and associated links to cultural survival, into disarray.

Noting the concentration of climate effects in the Arctic in particular, Watt-Cloutier argues that the failure of the world to reduce emissions and counteract climate effects amounts to a human rights violation against the Inuit. A landmark petition brought to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claims that the failure of the United States to prevent climate change is tantamount to the US violating Inuit human rights.

After just ten days on the C3 ship it’s evident how easy it is for the rest of Canada, and the world, to ignore what’s happening to the environment of the Arctic. This despite the fact that Canada is a polar nation and controls 33 percent of the polar north. My obliviousness and ability to view the changes in the Arctic as a distant rather than immediate problem is a particularly southern privilege. For the North, it’s not news and it’s anything but distant. POPs are not new. DEW Line pollution has been lingering in the Arctic for decades. That Bombardier snowmobile will rust and rot on its uninhabited (by humans) island. The world’s collective unawareness of these issues demonstrates the privilege of southerners to be oblivious. It’s beyond time to hear the not-so-distant warning: the old ice is melting.

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LISA BIRD-WILSON

Lisa Bird-Wilson, a Métis and nêhiyaw writer from Saskatchewan, is the author of three books: The Red Files, a poetry collection (Nightwood Editions, 2016), Just Pretending, short stories (Coteau Books, 2013) and An Institute of Our Own: A History of the Gabriel Dumont Institute (Gabriel Dumont Press, 2011). Just Pretending is the 2019 One Book One Province selection for Saskatchewan. Her first novel, Probably Ruby, was published in 2021 by Doubleday Canada. Her shorter works have been published in periodicals and anthologies across Canada. Bird-Wilson lives in Saskatoon, SK. Find her at lisabirdwilson.com.


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