Crowned by an unending sky, Martin Shiwak quietly hands his 12-gauge shotgun to his son Dane as they crouch behind their snowmobile, their gazes fixed on two white partridges in the sparse tree line.
Whispering instructions, Mr. Shiwak takes a step back. With two sharp cracks, eight-year-old Dane fells the birds and gives his dad a satisfied look before sprinting through the snow to retrieve them. Once the birds’ feathers are removed, Dane takes off his mitts and immediately presses his hands against the bodies to absorb their warmth. He makes sure I notice this and explains what he’s doing, proudly sharing a tradition passed down over centuries of living on the “Big Land.”
Mr. Shiwak, his father, is an experienced Inuit trapper and hunter who tries to impress upon his children the importance of understanding how to live off the land on Labrador’s rugged northern coast. He takes Dane out for regular trips like this one to catch dinner and gather wood to heat their home, just as generations before them have done.
It’s essential knowledge in a part of Canada where life is still is shaped by ice and snow, but it may not be for long. This generation of Labrador’s Inuit is facing challenges never seen before in the North.
Between the years of 1979-2013, Labrador was one of the fastest-warming places on the planet – inflicting higher winds, more snow and milder temperatures onto those reliant on the natural environment for sustenance and to maintain their traditional way of life. This past winter was one of the mildest on record in Rigolet, the southernmost Inuit community in Canada. And it is taking its toll on residents’ mental health.
“Global warming has gone crazy,” said Kenny Michelin, unloading a sled full of firewood outside his house near Rigolet’s village office. “I don’t know what it’s going to mean for us. But the way we live is going to change.”
The season that spanned 2010-11 became known locally as “the Year Without Winter” in Rigolet. Robert Way, a Labrador climatologist, says there was an overwhelming sense of distress up and down the coast as air temperatures remained 8 to 10 degrees above normal, and anecdotal reports claimed as many as one in 12 residents fell through bad ice.
For a people so deeply connected to the natural environment, many Inuit, particularly of the older generations, are experiencing a sense of loss over their eroding landscape that researchers are calling “ecological grief.”
Southerners may not think about grief in terms of the natural world, but for many Inuit it’s a very real and troubling phenomenon, according to studies by Ashlee Cunsolo, one of the leading researchers on the effects of ecological loss on mental health and the director of the Labrador Institute in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
During the Year Without Winter, the sea ice in the bay didn’t freeze until months later than usual, a major problem in a village with no roads, where reliable routes over the ice via snowmobile are a lifeline.
“It had a profound impact on community members,” Dr. Way said. “[It] resulted in ecological grief and a perceived feeling among some community members that they were trapped due to uncertain ice conditions.”
Village elders worry about youth who love to go snowmobiling outside of town, but haven’t yet learned how dangerous this unfamiliar, thawing land can be.
Inez Shiwak, a municipal employee who is working to preserve local Inuit culture in Rigolet, believes that getting out on the land is a central feature of her people’s traditional way of life. It’s critical to a community not far removed from the forced government relocation in the 1960s that caused them to give up their nomadic ways.
Rigolet’s residents are dealing with more than just the loss of their “ice highways,” Ms. Shiwak said. They worry they’re losing the connection to the land itself.
“It’s one of those things where your heart sort of breaks. It’s like when you lose something so important to you. Your heart is breaking. You’ve lost a little part of yourself,” she said.
That anxiety is perhaps felt most by the hunters and providers who are tasked with keeping the community freezers along the Labrador coast stocked year-round with wild game such as Arctic char, moose and even polar bear for elders and others who can’t get out on the land.
The tightly regulated polar bear harvest remains a vital Indigenous tradition in the region, and is a protected right written into the Nunatsiavut land claim with the federal government.
Back out on the frozen bay, Dane is cradling his father’s gun. It’s still warm from his shots, and he sits impatiently in the komatik sled hoping to get another chance at a bird or porcupine. His father hopes these kind of outings on the land will help his children learn the traditional ways of his people more than any iPad, smartphone or video game will.
“There’s a lot of kids now who are book smart, but when it comes to going out on the land, they don’t have that knowledge,” Mr. Martin said, squinting into the sun.
“A GPS isn’t going to tell you where the bad ice is. The only way to teach them that is to go out and show them where it is.”