Skip to main content

A hunter is seen on Baffin Island. Inuit in Clyde River, Nunvavut, are protesting seismic testing which they fear will disrupt the animals they rely on for food.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Most Canadians couldn't tell you what seismic testing is any quicker than they could find Clyde River on a map. The latter is a small Nunavut hamlet on the north side of Baffin Island. It is, above all, a hunting community, dependent on wildlife to put food on the table, and on Wednesday its hunters will be in Ottawa at the Supreme Court of Canada.

They're appealing a decision that allows international oil and gas companies to conduct seismic tests off their shores in the Davis Strait. The case's outcome could set a precedent that affects energy exploration across the country.

Seismic testing is a prospecting method: Compressed air is shot into the earth and the reflected signals are measured to determine what natural resources lie beneath the surface.

According to biology researcher Dr. Lindy Weilgart of Dalhousie University, the airguns can raise the noise level 100-fold over a 300,000-kilometre area. In 2013, Weilgart wrote that "seismic airgun noise must be considered a serious marine environmental pollutant."

Technically, the Government of Canada agrees – the Department of Fisheries and Oceans website says the noise from the airguns can destroy eggs and larvae and disrupt the feeding, breeding, navigation and migration of local marine life. The Inuit of Clyde River depend on that marine life and other wild animals for sustenance, as well as for clothing and income. Store-bought food, shipped in from the south, is prohibitively expensive.

This week, the hamlet will be represented by lawyer Nader Hasan, who will argue to the Supreme Court that Canada, acting through the National Energy Board, failed in its obligation to consult with indigenous communities before granting exploration rights to a consortium of companies based out of Norway.

To get a sense of what this case means to the 1,100 residents of Clyde River, so geographically and culturally removed from most of Canada, I spoke with former mayor Jerry Natanine, one of those Clyde River hunters who will be at the Supreme Court on Wednesday. He began by apologizing for not having any whale skin to offer me.

When you say whale skin, how is it preserved?

Frozen. Raw, that's how we eat it. Or you can dip it in soy sauce, like sushi. I'll ask my friends in Toronto if they have any in their freezer.

What are grocery prices like in Clyde River?

Non-perishable goods are shipped by airplane, once a year. All the canned food we get up there is three or four times higher than in Ottawa. Fresh food comes in more often but a head of lettuce is $7. A carton of milk is $7. Watermelon is $25. To live off store-bought food, I don't make enough money for that.

So what do people eat?

The mainstay is seal. That's our everyday food. The seasonal, migratory animals that we hunt and preserve, frozen or cached to ferment, are narwhals, Arctic char, bearded seal and harp seal.

How often do people hunt and what methods do they use?

We use rifles and harpoons. If the weather's permitting, every day people are going out hunting for seals. In the fall, we have sea ducks. The narwhals, when the ice is melting for the first time around June, they're migrating north, along the coast. That's when we hunt them in the floe edge. The floe edge is when it's still winter, lots of ice, but there's open water along the coast.

What methods of preservation do you use? Do you smoke as well as dry?

Smoking is not a tradition, unfortunately. All the sea mammals are very bloody. The narwhal is the bloodiest. Before we dry it, you leave it in the ocean, in about three feet of water, so that when the low tide goes out it's not exposed. That's how we take the blood out. When that happens, we cut it up like jerky and dry it outside.

Do you season them with anything?

In those old days, it was only the salt water. Now we have all kinds of seasoning, Montreal steak spices and vinaigrettes.

The European Union banned import of seal products in 2009. But an exception was made for Nunavut in 2015. In Clyde River, is seal hunted for revenue, as pelts?

We're also selling the pelts. But up north, making clothing out of it is still very active. People are still wearing their sealskin boots and mitts and jackets and pants. Not only seal, but caribou and eider ducks.

What are your concerns about the seismic testing?

I approached my father and he said in the seventies they did the same thing. And it had a terrible effect on sea mammals, particularly seals.

What happens in Ottawa on Nov. 30?

We're going to go to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, I won't get to testify. Our lawyer is going to speak on our behalf. He's going to present arguments, a lot of it based on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They [the National Energy Board] didn't truly consult with us. The questions we're looking for, they didn't answer.

If they rule against you, what will you do next?

If we should lose the case, we'll have to find out how else we can fight this. We're not planning to stop. If the seismic ships should go out there and we want to try to fight it directly, Greenpeace has helped us. They've done direct-action work. That gave us confidence.

I wish I'd gotten to taste the whale skin. I've never encountered the animals you live on, except Arctic char. What is seal like?

Seal meat is really good for barbecuing. We're doing a cookout in front of the courthouse. We'll have samples for people. Whale skin, whale fat, seal meat and Arctic char. We haven't located a barbecue yet, but we'll see.

This interview has been condensed and edited.