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'arctic circle' panel

The Globe’s ‘Artic Circle’ panel of experts and leaders is discussing seven key questions about Northern issues. Their responses and conversations will appear throughout the week on GlobeDebatePeter Power/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation of unprecedented change, to the climate, culture and politics of Canada's last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth

The Globe's 'Artic Circle' panel of experts and leaders is discussing five key questions about Northern issues. Their responses and conversations will appear throughout the week on Globe Debate.

Doug Saunders: Just 100,000 Canadians – about 0.3 per cent of us – live in the three northern territories. What do southerners most misunderstand about the Canadian North?

Mary Simon: I would like more Canadians to understand and value what it means to be "Arctic nation." Some years ago, when I was president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (Canada's national Inuit organization) I toured the country making presentations to Canadians on why the Arctic matters. The Canadian Arctic is the homeland of Inuit and other Aboriginal peoples, and compromises a large part of the geography of our country. It is not, as a former Minister of Indian Affairs mused, "our frozen treasure chest."

There is no other region in Canada that faces the breadth of complex environmental, social and political issues found today in the Arctic. Like all Canadians, Inuit are working hard to feed our families and live comfortably, and we want our children to succeed in school and find meaningful work. To achieve a lifestyle comparable to other Canadians, Inuit must be involved and truly benefit from resource development and not at a cost to the environment that families still draw a livelihood around.

Just look at what is brewing around the pipeline proposals. If the Arctic ice cap continues to melt, there will be a devastating impact on our communities and around the world. If Canadian leaders do not take serious action on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions or improving Inuit education outcomes or investing in services to address health and other social issues, Canadians will continue to see headlines about dysfunctional communities in the North. It should not be lost on Canadians that a special United Nations rapporteur was sent to Canada last year to explore these issues and concluded that Canada is facing a "crisis" when it comes to its treatment of indigenous people.

Tony Penikett: I would say the 20 or so northern land-claims settlements negotiated since 1973. Few Canadians realize the scale of these treaties. For 7,000 First Nations in the Yukon, the treaties recognize title to 41,000 square kilometres (along with subsurface rights on two-thirds of that land), which is more land than is contained in all the Indian reserves in all of Southern Canada. And the Nunavut treaty made the Inuit there the largest private landowners in the world, with title to 350,000 square kilometres.

Nor are these simple 'drafted-in-Ottawa' agreements. The text of the Yukon treaty is longer than the New Testament. Canadians, it is said, do not want constitutional change, but in the territories the changes have been enormous, all as the result of bottom-up innovation from aboriginal and territorial government leaders. Yukon aboriginal self-government agreements give First Nations quasi-provincial powers and were the model for settlements with the Nisga'a and others in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. But NWT First Nations have also experimented with regional shared governance arrangements with municipal authorities.

As Simon Fraser professor Doug McArthur has written: "There is a new constitutional settlement in the North." And nobody in the south knows much about it. Sadly, as a result, the Yukon self-government agreements we negotiated 20 years ago still represent more than half of all such agreements in Canada.

Wade Davis: Canadians forget how recently European contact convulsed the lives of the Inuit. Consider the town of Igloolik, the cultural heart of Nunavut. William Parry, with two ships of the British Navy, wintered in the ice off shore in 1821–22. In 1867 and again in 1868 the American explorer Charles Francis Hall passed through as he searched for survivors of the Franklin Expedition. A French-Canadian prospector, Alfred Tremblay, visited briefly in 1913, as did Peter Freuchen in 1921 as part of Knud Rasmussen's Fifth Thule Expedition.

This was the full extent of the European encounter until the 1930s when Catholic missionaries arrived with no intention of leaving. Their immediate goal was the destruction of the power and authority of the shaman, the cultural pivot, the heart of the Inuit relationship to the universe. To facilitate assimilation, they discouraged the use of traditional names, songs, and the language itself. As always, trade goods proved seductive, drawing the people toward the mission and away from the land, a process encouraged by government authorities whose presence was well established by the 1950s. A distemper epidemic rationalized the wholesale slaughter of Inuit dogs. The introduction of the snowmobile in the early 1960s increased dependence on the cash economy. Family-allowance payments were made contingent on the children attending school, creating another incentive to settle. The government conducted a census and because Inuktitut names were so difficult to transcribe, they identified each Inuk by a number, issuing identification tags, and eventually conducting Operation Surname, a bizarre effort to assign last names to individuals who never had them. More than a few Inuit dogs were recorded as Canadian citizens.

A final blow came in the 1950s when the government, battling a tuberculosis outbreak, forcibly evacuated every Inuk to a hospital ship to be screened. Those who tested positive, roughly one in five, immediately were shipped south for treatment, many never to return. The psychological impacts on both those evacuated and those left behind were profound, and not dissimilar to what families endured when their children were forcibly removed from the home to be educated for years at residential schools hundreds of kilometres to the south where they were forbidden to speak their language, denied the comfort of their culture, and often subjected to sexual and psychological abuse.

This, then, is the tragedy and perhaps the inspiration of the Arctic. A people that have endured so much – epidemic disease, the humiliation and violence of the residential schools, the culture of poverty inherent in the welfare system, drug and alcohol exposure leading to suicide rates six times that of southern Canada – now on the very eve of their emergence as a culture reborn politically, socially, and psychologically, find themselves confronted by a force beyond their capacity to resist. The ice is melting, and with it quite possibly a way of life.

Climate change for most Canadians is seen as a technical and scientific challenge, distant from their lives. The Inuit live its reality every day. They are a people of the ice. As hunters they depend on it for their survival even as it inspires the very essence of their character and culture. Indeed it is the very nature of ice, the way it moves, recedes, dissolves, and reforms with the seasons, that gives such flexibility to the Inuit heart and spirit. They have no illusions of permanence. There is no time for regret. Despair is an insult to the imagination. Their grocery store is out there on the land. To live they must kill the things they most love. Blood on ice in the Arctic is not a sign of death, but an affirmation of life. Death is the disappearance of the ice. Climate change for the Inuit is not an environmental or political issue, but rather an issue of cultural survival, with profound psychological and indeed spiritual implications.

Michael Byers: Few southerners appreciate the enormousness of the Arctic region. The Arctic accounts for roughly one-sixth of the Earth's surface. Canada is the second largest country in the world, and 40 per cent of it is Arctic. Russia is the largest country in the world, and 40 per cent of it is Arctic. The region, moreover, is centered on an ocean that measures thousands of kilometers across. The North Pole itself is located more than 700 kilometers north of Greenland and the northernmost islands of Canada and Russia. All this geography means that each of the Arctic countries already has huge, uncontested land territories and maritime zones.

Rob Huebert: First, most southern Canadians need to understand that in many ways northerners are as diverse as are southerners. There is a tendency in the south to speak of northerners as if they all share the exact same values, interests, likes, dislikes as one homogenous group. This just is not true. In many ways, there is as much diversity within the North as there is in the South. Some favour economic development, some want to protect the environment; some want more government action in their lives, some less; and the list goes on. One size does not fit all. Southern tendencies to lump northerners together as if they all have the same views, hopes, wishes, beliefs simply demonstrates that southerners are not willing to appreciate the true complexity and diversity of what the Canadian North has become.

Second, most southern Canadians remain unaware of the manner in which the rest of world is now interacting with northern Canadians and coming to the region. Look at any list of scientists that came north during the International Polar Year and it reads like a mini United Nations. Check the background of many of the workers who came to work in the diamond industry and it will be as varied as in any southern Canadian city. The desire of Asian countries such as China, Japan and Singapore to join the Arctic Council shows their desires to participate in the governance systems of all of the North. So it is clear that on an individual, economic and international level, the rest of the world is 'discovering' the Canadian North and is willing to make the effort to be there.

Shelagh Grant: This question posed a bit of a conundrum – since, as Rob Huebert pointed out, not all southern Canadians or Europeans possess similar knowledge about the Arctic, which itself differs greatly because of geography and history. Even for those who have visited or worked in the Arctic, their views are directly influenced by their own experience and not reflective of the diversity throughout the circumpolar region. Coffee-table books, TV documentaries, magazines and newspapers have done an admirable job in expanding public knowledge through images and words, yet very few have had the opportunity to visit, let alone live in the Arctic. Even fewer have experienced days on end when the sun never appears on the horizon, as I have. It is a far different world from the High Arctic in summer.

Unfortunately the "out of sight, out of mind" scenario seems to prevail among most southerners, unless faced with some sort of crisis – possibly why a perceived threat to Arctic sovereignty seems to be the only means to gain popular support for the high cost of fulfilling even the most minimal of government responsibilities. Costs are high in the Arctic and the circumpolar region is enormous, as Michael Byers points out. Yet very few southerners understand how and why Russia, as the largest country in the world, is so far advanced in developing its Arctic region, compared to Canada, the second-largest country. Nor do I suspect most even care.

At present, the greatest danger appears to be "the enemy within" – southern apathy. Perhaps a remedy – at least in part – might be to place more emphasis on good-news stories of successful investments to show that taxpayers' money is well spent, to gain support for further funding. Or perhaps, as Tony Pennikett implies, the influence of the Inuit and First Nations as a result of various forms of self-government in Alaska, Canada and Greenland may be more successful in arousing the socio-political conscience of southern governments and their electors.

Mary Simon has served as Canada's first ambassador for circumpolar affairs, as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council.

Tony Penikett was NDP premier of Yukon from 1985 to 1992, and the Nunavut's chief devolution negotiator until 2012.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, explorer, photographer, filmmaker and author of 20 books focusing on remote and endangered cultures. He is a member of the University of British Columbia's anthropology department.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.

Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History ofArctic Sovereignty in North America and adjunct professor of Canadian studies at Trent University.

John English is the author of Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples and the Arctic Council. He holds academic positions at the University of Waterloo, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.