Adaptation, Indigenous People

Climate Change and Inuit Communities in the Canadian Arctic  

This article is written by Joseph Delgove.

What are the impacts of climate change on the environmental resources and the hunting and fishing practices of the Baffin Island Inuit communities (Nunavut)? This particular research digs deep in the ice to understand.

Photo Credit: Guillaume Weissenberger

For centuries, the Inuits prospered in a demanding climate thanks to their knowledge of the land, of the weather conditions and of the animals, providing them with food, clothing and shelters (Qikiqtani Truth Commission, 20133). Inuits used to be a nomadic people, relying on their knowledge of the annual seasonal changes to hunt and harvest essential resources for their survival. Nevertheless, for a little more than a century, Inuits in the Canadian Arctic have been pushed to adapt to the changes imposed by colonial and industrial processes but also by the changing climate affecting every aspects of their day-to-day life.

Centuries-long traditional way of living threatened by climate change

The Inuit lifestyle is essentially based on hunting, fishing and traveling. Their modes of practice are not only considered as a means of subsistence but also as part of a philosophy that understands humans as part of the Arctic ecosystem, not at the center of it, entailing a respect and balance between the Inuits and their environment. Although the dialogue between the locals and scientists is improving, the recent History of Canada has repeatedly shown the difficulties encountered by the non-inuits (« Qaalunaat ») to fully understand this philosophy and efficiently take it into account in Arctic adaptation strategies. From the installation of the Hudson Company to the massacre of sled dogs or the abduction of Inuit children by the Canadian government (Qikiqtani Truth Commission, 2013), the weight of the interventionist past of the westerners in the North has profoundly scarred the Inuit society at economical, social and spiritual levels, complicating the discussion at a time when we fully realise the importance of threats to the Inuit lifestyle, such as the changing climate.

Today, climate change threatens a lifestyle many are already struggling to maintain. Changes observed in seasonal weather conditions, sea-ice stability, primary production and species migrations are already causing problems for Inuit hunters. Some studies show that climate change affects not only the social, economical and environmental conditions in the Arctic, but also cultural factors by affecting the local knowledge system related to hunting and fishing practices and contributing significantly to the food insecurity of the Arctic people (Pearce and Smit, 2010 ; Dowsley and al., 2010). The access to local food is determined by multiple parameters and the changes in environmental dynamics and migration patterns make it difficult for Nunavut hunters that have to travel further from home in order to find fruitful hunting and fishing grounds. Climate change also brings a feeling of insecurity amongst hunters who travel by land to harvest : less predictable weather conditions and the thinning of sea-ice increases the accident rate and limits the availability of local food within the communities. These communities consequently rely on store-bought food to survive, hence progressively participating in the weakening of hunting practices as a harvesting mean and modifying the Inuit livelihood.

Photo Credit: Guilhem Pouxviel

In the last decades, an increasing number of scientists realised that it’s not possible to formulate an adequate policy of adaptation to climate change and/or of marine resources management in the region without working directly with the Inuits in an effort to consider their perspective, their philosophy and their knowledge which, associated with the western scientific knowledge could bring them to study the Arctic under a new prism and allow potential unforeseen discoveries (Weatherhead, 2010).

The importance of normalizing uncertainties and constant debate of the scientific results is one of the main focus point on which there is much work yet to be done, the scientific and Inuit visions often differ sharply on the matter of managing and responding to new events. The collaboration could also be encouraged and improved through the recognition of the role Inuit hunters can have in climate change related research or enabling the Inuit to have a more important voice in the decision-making process surrounding the management of their territory (Tyrell, 2006).

Although the majority of research on the subject belong primarily to the fields of anthropology or physical sciences, an important number of recent publications try to be transdisciplinary. There are also calls for collaboration between scientists and inuit communities in order to fully understand the changes under way in the Canadian Arctic and find adequate adaptation models. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find additional information in the resources below.

About the author: Joseph Delgove is a french master’s student in Adaptation to Climate Change and International Relations. After 3 years in Canada and 1 year in Lebanon, studying in multiple fields such as Geography, Criminology, Environmental and Political Science, he participated in the Green Edge project, coordinated by the Takuvik international joint laboratory, working on the impact of climate change on the Inuit lifestyle in the Canadian Arctic. A member of the Negotracking team, he is passionate about finding new ways to adapt to the present and future impacts of climate change.

Sources and Further Reading :
–    Bennett, J. & Rowley, S. (Eds.), 2004, Uqalurait – An Oral History of Nunavut, McGill- Queen’s University Press, p.43
–    Inuit Tapiriit and the Inuit Circumpolar Council (2012). Inuit and the right to Food, Ottawa, Canada, 2012, p.8
–    Changes in weather persistence : Insight from Inuit knowledge, E.Weatherhead, S.GEARHEARD, R.G. Barry, Global Environmental Change, 2010, 523-528.[Scientific Article]
–    Inuit vulnerability and adaptive capacity to climate change in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada, Tristan PEARCE, Barry Smit, Polar Record 46 (237): 157–177 (2010). Cambridge University Press 2009. doi:10.1017/S0032247409008602  
–    Should we turn the tent? Inuit women and climate change, Martha DOWSLEY, Shari GEARHEARD, Noor Johnson and Jocelyn Inksetter, Les Inuit et le changement climatique Volume 34, Number 1, 2010.
–    Qikiqtani Truth Commission, 2013. Community Histories1950-1975, Iqaluit, NU : Qikiqtani Inuit Association.
–       More bears, less bears: Inuit and scientific perceptions of polar bear populations on the west coast of Hudson Bay
,Author(s): Martina TYRELL
, Source: Études/Inuit/Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, L’influence de Marcel Mauss / The influence of Marcel Mauss (2006), pp. 191-208.

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