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book review

James Raffan

I suspect one reason so many Canadians love to hate Toronto is how we abuse the word "north." "Goin' up north for the weekend!" we'll say, meaning a three-hour drive up Highway 400 to a lake filled with Sea Doos slaloming across a line of latitude that, if you followed it due east, would cut through the vineyards of Bordeaux.

No one has more cause to be angry at this than the people who live in the actual north, which you could reasonably define as anywhere above 60 degrees. For his new book, however, James Raffan, author of Bark, Skin and Cedar and executive director of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., chose to circumnavigate that most famous of northern lines, the Arctic Circle – and it's the people who live on or near this line that are Circling the Midnight Sun's primary concern.

These days, when we hear about the Arctic, it's often tied to worries about climate change. Early on in the book, though, it becomes clear both to Raffan and to the reader that for people who live there, melting glaciers and forlorn polar bears are just part of a much larger story of loss. To mourn them in isolation is to forget that, long before it was a convenient indicator of how we're failing the environment, the Arctic was a homeland for thousands – and a stark reminder of how we're failing them, too.

The people in question represent many cultures. Raffan's journey begins in Iceland, notable for having, in the Sagas, the oldest written texts in the circumpolar world, but also for being the only polar nation without an indigenous population, and therefore a counterpoint to the rest of Raffan's destinations. As soon as the author is on his eastward way, it becomes clear that this is the story of the Sami people of the Sápmi region of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia's Kola Peninsula; the more than 30 ethic groups that also inhabit the northern crest of Siberia; the Inupiaq and Gwich'in of northern Alaska; the Inuvialuit of Canada's northwest; and the Inuit of Nunavut and Greenland. Pushing with ruddy resolve against the centuries-old idea of the Arctic as terra nullius, Raffan meets an array of characters whose stories dazzle in their magic and diversity, but also prove depressing in how often their bleaker elements echo one another's.

Whether he is in Murmansk or Shishmaref, Jokkmokk or Kugluktuk, Raffan hears stories that will be all too familiar to readers of Canadian news: forced relocations and residential schools, loss of language and traditional foods, widespread hunger, alcoholism and an epidemic of youth suicide that is among the greatest human tragedies of the modern age. Writing about a group of kids welcoming his kayaking party into Repulse Bay, Raffan drops one of several statistics that call into question how we define a just and healthy nation: "when they become teenagers… they [will] be forty times more likely to take their own lives than their counterparts in southern Canada." For these people, climate change is a presence, but much less so than the cultural change that is sapping their ability to continue existing as themselves. Many of them believe the two kinds of change are inseparable. Yet, when it comes to Arctic policy, their voices are almost always marginalized.

The most heartbreaking aspect of Raffan's journey is that, as much anger and desperation as he encounters, he's continually being welcomed to share the gifts of these suffering cultures. For all that they watch their elders and languages and teenagers die, for all that they understand climate change as a symptom of the same appetites that fueled colonial policies of conquest and assimilation, they're still eager to share their wisdom with southerners – to drive home that, in the words of Inuit leader Rosemarie Kuptana, "the very premise underpinning Inuit Indigenous Knowledge is that it must be shared."

If you go north, you'll almost certainly experience that generosity of spirit in person. You're also likely to hear the message voiced in Raffan's book by Martha Siikauraq Whiting, former mayor of the Northwest Arctic Bureau in Alaska: "We have lived here for generations. We're going to stay here for generations to come. We're going to have the best interests for what happens in our environment, because we're going to be here forever." We in the middle latitudes cannot seem to shake the idea that aboriginal people are a nuisance we're just waiting to die out, that the Arctic is mainly a place to get the gas for our Sea Doos. Raffan mixes a bit of hope in with his frustration, but the ultimate message is that we're still not listening to northern voices, even though they've known the north far longer and better than we have.

In amplifying a selection of them, Circling the Midnight Sun gives us a valuable opportunity to hear from the most vulnerable, but also the most resilient, residents of our planet. Far from being a cry of anger from a remote land, their message speaks to all of us who live with a changing climate that could soon mean big changes in our culture, too. We the North, indeed.

J.R. McConvey visited Nunatsiavut for his cross-platform documentary, Northwords. Follow him on Twitter @jrmcconvey.