Finis Dunaway is a history professor at Trent University. Norma Kassi is Vuntut Gwitchin (People of the Lakes), director of Indigenous Collaboration at the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research.
Every year, the Porcupine caribou herd embarks on the longest land migration of any animal on earth. Almost 200,000 animals journey from their wintering grounds in the boreal forests of northwestern Canada and northeastern Alaska, crossing over steep mountains and frozen rivers until, more than 1,000 kilometres later, they reach the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where they have their young.
The Republican-dominated U.S. Congress is poised to hand over this area to oil developers. Through backdoor moves and budget chicanery, American politicians are on the path to destroy a shared ecological resource and threaten the fabric of Arctic Indigenous culture. Canadians need to take notice and voice their concerns – before it is too late.
The Arctic Refuge was established by Republican U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 and doubled in size 20 years later. A 1980 law granted permanent wilderness protection to large swaths of the 19-million-acre refuge but left the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain in legislative limbo. Ever since, environmental and Indigenous activists in Canada and the United States have stood together to defend the refuge. Despite the enormous odds against them, they have faced down multinational oil corporations and powerful politicians to protect it – often through the narrowest voting margins.
Right now, as the U.S. Congress prepares to pass its 2018 budget, the Arctic Refuge faces its gravest threat. By including a drilling provision in the budget bill, Republican leaders hope to bypass the usual 60-vote threshold in the Senate to force through this extremely controversial measure.
For Gwich'in communities dotted across the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska, the drilling proposal represents an existential threat to survival. The Gwich'in have relied upon the caribou for millennia. Ever since the Reagan administration began pushing for oil development in the 1980s, the Gwich'in – from places like Old Crow, Yukon, and Fort McPherson, NWT – have spoken out. They have travelled from remote communities above the Arctic Circle to cities and towns across the lower 48 states, bringing their message to the grassroots. They have also journeyed to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and testify in congressional hearings.
While drilling proponents value the petroleum reserves that may be buried beneath the ground, the Gwich'in celebrate the ecological life that thrives above. For the Gwich'in, the coastal plain is, as they call it, "the sacred place where life begins."
Caribou biologists on both sides of the border agree with the Gwich'in that oil development would imperil the herd. Recent studies have documented the collapse of several herds across Canada, but the Porcupine herd remains strong. It doesn't take a scientist to figure out what could happen to the caribou if their nursery became an industrial landscape filled with drilling pads, pipelines, and processing facilities.
Many other species also rely on the Arctic coastal plain. Almost 200 species of migratory birds – from across North America as well as five other continents – depend on the refuge. The coastal plain also provides critical habitat for polar bears and other large mammals. As we are in the midst of what scientists describe as the earth's sixth mass extinction, the Arctic Refuge needs protection more than ever before.
Forty years ago, the distinguished Canadian jurist Thomas Berger urged prime minister Pierre Trudeau to protect Arctic ecosystems. Linking wildlife conservation to Indigenous land rights and cultural survival, Berger warned: "Destruction of the Porcupine herd would mean, in its turn, destruction of the subsistence economies on both sides of the international boundary." The Inuvialuit and Gwich'in land claims process that followed Berger's report led to protection on the Canadian side, as the Ivvavik and Vuntut National Parks were created to safeguard these critical areas.
But as long as the Arctic Refuge remains under assault, the future of the North – its habitat, its wildlife, its people – hangs in the balance. We applaud the Canadian embassy for its recent statement opposing oil development in the refuge. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should call for the defence of Gwich'in rights by taking a public stand against the drilling proposal.
With climate change bearing down on the North, the coastal plain is critical to the future of Arctic ecosystems. Although this debate will be decided by American lawmakers, it is important to remember that they have listened before to Gwich'in representatives, to Canadian political leaders and to North Americans from all walks of life who have insisted that this special place be protected. They need to hear that message again – and soon – before this irreplaceable ecological treasure is auctioned off to serve the needs of short-term fossil-fuel development.