Climate witness in Boothia Peninsula, Canada
Inuit in Nunavut witness changes in snow conditions and polar bear behaviour
After a long flight from Toronto, we arrive in Taloyoak, a small community on the Boothia Peninsula in Canada’s Nunavut Territory. After months of phone and e-mail planning, I finally meet Darren Keith, a traditional knowledge expert, researcher with the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, and principal researcher for this project.
The project involves interviewing around a dozen Elders about what they are witnessing as the Arctic warms with particular focus on the impact on polar bears. In addition to sessions in three communities, we decided to also camp on land for three days with four Elders (Darren describes them as the four PhDs of polar bears). This will give us the time and setting it takes to delve in depth into the changes they have seen in the weather, the effects on the landscape and wildlife, and what can and should be done.
Along with Darren and myself, the team includes: co-researcher Jerry Arqviq, an experienced guide, translator and hunter from Gjoa Haven; his 14-yearold nephew Kenny; Samuel (Samo) Takkiruq from Gjoa Haven; Kean Moynihan, our videographer; Rudy Stroink, a Dutch architect and president of Holland’s largest property development company, who took up the offer from WWF-Netherlands to join our expedition; Simon Oleekatalik and Abe Okuqtunnuaq, Elders from Taloyoak; and Guy Kakkianiun and Levi Illuitok Elders from Kugaaruk.
We load up the kamatiks, homemade sleds about 15-feet-long, and depart Taloyoak, heading north-east, toward the Bay of Boothia. We travel around 100 kilometres across a series of frozen lakes and finally arrive at Nuvutiruq, a small island in the Bay where we set up camp and have dinner. Abe catches a seal, which he skilfully reduces to a seal-skin bag of meat to be eaten later.
It is almost difficult to understand the snow nowadays, because even when you are trying to work with your snow knife you can’t even cut through some of the snow.
It is hard to tell when night turns to morning, when the sun barely dips below the horizon but by morning, Darren and Jerry are huddled in a circle outside, with ever-present cups of tea. It doesn’t take long for the discussion to flow to detailed observations of climate change, each taking turns and comparing notes. Often there are nods of agreement and some joking. Darren is a keen interviewer; quiet, precise, not leading, head down and incessantly scribbling in his notebook, while tape recording everything. Jerry conveys the question in Inuktituk, listens intently, and quietly translates the responses.
As the talks progress into the second day, Darren and Jerry begin to ask for more precise details of climate change, including the changing quality of snow and ice, and patterns of bear behaviour.
Simon Oleekatalik says: “It is almost difficult to understand the snow nowadays, because even when you are trying to work with your snow knife you can’t even cut through some of the snow. And the layers are not the same. Some of it is too soft and some of it is too hard. Yes the snow conditions are different from a long time ago to today.”
They spend a lot of time identifying areas used by polar bears and pencilling them in on the map. Darren ensures that they touch on all aspects of habitat and behaviour including denning, mating, and hunting. The Boothia area has not been the subject of polar bear IK surveys before.
At a more local and personal level the elders agree that secure food caches would be a good idea since they are noticing more bears coming scavenging around towns for food.
Levi Illuitok says: “I feel that there are more bears than a long time ago. Because we used to cache our meat further from the community, but now you can’t even cache close to the community because the caches are taken by the bears. And they broke someone else’s cabin close to town. It is even scary to put a cache close to town because the bears are getting at them. I agree that it is scary to camp even for a few days. You have to always watch out for something. You are always scared of something nowadays.”
Towards the end of the talks, it is then my turn. I try to put the arctic warming that they are witnessing within the larger context of Canada and the rest of the world and WWF’s role in trying to convince industries, governments and people to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
I ask the elders what they feel needs to be done to address climate change in the Arctic. They speak about the youth and how important it is to have the knowledge and experience of living on the land. With an undue sense of guilt they refer to the “smoke” their snow machines and electric plants produce and indicate the need for people in the north as well as the south to act against pollution.
We break camp early the following day and head for Kugaaruk. The route crosses the open bay where the ice is very different – lots of pressure cracks creating ice castles and pools that turn a lovely aquamarine in the sun. My head aches, stomach is queasy and face is burned from 12 hours of bouncing in the kamatik.
Meet with hunters and trappers in Kugaaruk
Our meeting with the Kugaaruk Hunters and Trappers Organisation is very productive, both to introduce WWF and our objectives, and for their perspectives on changes in polar bears. There is talk of how bears seem leaner but also bolder, and concern about peoples safety both when they are out hunting and even coming into town. But as one Elder put it, ‘we are afraid of too many bears around now, but are afraid that there won’t be any later’.
A key point to this trip has been to build relationships and trust with Inuit communities so we can jointly respond to the challenges climate change poses. Mountains of scientific studies have obviously not been enough to compel our governments, industries and citizens to reduce greenhouse gases, but perhaps these compelling and personal stories of climate impact will be.