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A polar bear walks on the frozen tundra near Churchill, Man. waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over.
Cod fishing derbies are a big deal in Canada’s North. In Arviat, Nunavut, it’s held annually on the Victoria Day long weekend and Ruth Kaviok was there this year trying to win the big prize of $10,000.
But it wasn’t cod that the past president of the National Inuit Youth Council caught.
“I caught a starfish and I even yelled to my brother, ‘What the hell is this?’ “ said Kaviok, who was a panelist at a recent meeting organized by the United Nations Association of Vancouver to discuss circumpolar issues.
Starfish shouldn’t be in the waters off the western shore of Hudson Bay any more than the starving polar bear that wandered into her community last year and attacked a father egg picking with his children. There also shouldn’t be orcas or grizzly bears ranging so far north.
But with climate change, these are new realities in the Arctic.
On the Yukon River, Canadian Junior Ranger Devon Billy-Freeman said she and her fellow rangers are seeing salmon dying because the water is no longer cold enough to kill the parasites that attack them.
In the Mackenzie River — Canada’s longest river system — coho and chum are now routinely being found, according to John Nightingale, a director of Polar Knowledge Canada and former CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium.
“It’s like hell on Earth,” Kaviok said at the meeting. “Honestly, we are seeing the effects of climate change every day. One day it’s raining. One day it’s snowing, then it’s raining again.”
Kaviok, an eloquent, 20-year-old student, challenges people to answer a few simple questions: “How do we stop this? How do I prevent it so my baby nephew doesn’t have to go through this? When the sea ice melts, how will we teach kids how to go seal hunting or to go fishing?
“This is knowledge from time immemorial. Because cost of food need to be able to hunt. How are we going to do that if we don’t have the resources?”
Those are the kinds of questions that Kaviok says people in the south need to answer because nowhere on Earth is the climate changing faster than the Arctic. Permafrost is melting at rates 150 to 240 per cent faster than 20 and 30 years ago, according to a report last week in the Geophysical Research Letters journal. Already, the thaw is what researchers forecast would have occurred by 2090.
The melting is ripping apart the landscape, creating sinkholes. Last month’s Nature journal reported that it’s happening so quickly that scientific monitoring equipment is being wrecked .
Melting permafrost releases greenhouse gases and carbon into the atmosphere, fuelling the Earth’s warming.
Sea ice is also not only slow to form, it is at only about 40 per cent of its usual level in the early winter months. That’s led to increased shipping in the Northwest Passage and rising tensions over who controls the Arctic — Canada? Russia? The United States? China?
So what should be done? Earlier this month, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami released a report setting its priorities for a national climate change strategy. The organization represents Canada’s 65,000 Inuit whose homeland makes up nearly a third of Canada’s land mass and half its coastline.
The report sets five priority areas for action to meet “pressing adaptation, mitigation and resilience-building needs” that include knowledge and capacity building, food security, health, energy and infrastructure.
It insists that all of the recommended measures be done only with the Inuit’s active participation and engagement.
In the report’s preface, ITK’s president Natan Obed called for “nothing less than transformative actions” to curb greenhouse gas emissions and described climate change as “a formidable crisis that requires unparalleled action.”
If nothing is done, Obed wrote that it will create “an unimaginably stark climate reality for my children and future grandchildren … This is an emergency unlike any we have faced before, requiring all our shared strength and wisdom.”
Last week, the Senate standing committee on the Arctic’s report urged the government to finally develop a long-term and comprehensive Arctic policy after what it described as a “history of neglect and disregard.”
It makes sweeping recommendations, but emphasizes that the ultimate goal should be the devolution of decision-making powers to northern people and northern institutions.
It’s ironic that for all the recent chanting of ‘We the North,’ the Arctic is terra incognita to most Canadians. Few ever go there because most can’t afford it. Many will never have the chance to meet an Inuk.
It’s really not that far from here — if only there were roads and cheaper air connections. And climate change isn’t just affecting the North and the Inuit. Our lives are changing as well with more droughts, wildfires, tornadoes and floods.
For millennia, the Inuit have survived harsh conditions that defeated countless explorers and adventurers. They are Canada’s most resilient and optimistic citizens.
And as forerunners in this rapidly changing world, they have much to teach us, if only we’re willing to listen.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019