Simon Awa, Deputy Minister of the Environment for the territory of Nunavut, talked with Global Warming 101 expedition member Elizabeth Andre about the Inuit relationship to the land, traditional knowledge about global warming and lessons we can learn from the Inuit experience with climate change.
Listen to the interview:
- What is the Inuit relationship to the environment?
- Has climate change impacted the Inuit relationship to the land?
- How can Inuit traditional knowledge be combined with Western scientific knowledge and research to move forward with an appropriate solution to climate change?
Elizabeth: Simon Awa, you’re the Deputy Minister of the Environment for Nunavut?
Elizabeth: Could you describe the Inuit relationship to the environment?
Simon: The relationship of the Inuit to the environment is that we really very much depend on the environment. We really much depend on the wildlife and the ecosystem. Because days before the southern culture came up to the north, in those days before our time, every necessary item for living; for food, clothing, shelter and tools came from our environment—from the wildlife. So even though we have adopted a modern technology and a modern way of living, those of us who were born a few years ago are still very very connected to our environment.
In fact, I could use myself as an example. Even though I do have a very demanding job, I take every opportunity to go back on the land; whether it’s a weekend, whether it’s an annual holiday, whatever, I try to take the opportunity to reconnect myself with the environment.
And also, we are still subsistence hunters and we still go out onto the land to supplement our diet from the store bought foods which are very expensive. We are still very much connected to and dependent on the environment and the wildlife.
Elizabeth: Has climate change impacted the Inuit relationship to the land or ability to travel on the land?
Simon: It has affected the Inuit to a certain degree. First of all, our parents and grandparents used to be able to predict the weather for the days to come, or a week to come, or even in a month to come. But if I ask an elder today now how the weather is going to be in even a week to come, he may not be able to tell me.
Using a good example, a few years ago I was planning to go out on a weekend. I asked this elder, what is your weather prediction for the weekend. He thought for a moment and then just bluntly told me, “No, I do not know. I am not God.” And from then on I never really ask for elders’ advice on what the weather will be like because the weather keeps changing constantly.
For that reason it is now very difficult to predict what the terrain, especially the ice conditions, will be like. Here in Iqaluit years ago, we used to have a normal ice road, or ice trail, from the town for about twenty to forty kilometers to go down to the floe edge. But over the last number of years, that ice road doesn’t freeze any more. If it does, it may freeze for a few days or a few weeks, but then it breaks up again. Today we have to go overland down to the floe edge instead of taking this usual short-cut that we used to have all along the ice where it was nice and smooth. Now we have to go over the mountains which is a long way to go. These are the types of things that are happening in the north.
Tragically it happens on occasion that we are beginning to lose the lives of skilled hunters who are not young people any more, where they used to go through their normal routes. Cape Dorset is a good example where we lost a couple of lives because they were going through their normal trail in the evening in the dark in snowy conditions and all of a sudden there was water. They continued and plunged into the water. So those are the types of things that are really starting to affect the hunters.
Secondly, we used to have ten months of winter. In some cases we are down to eight or maybe six. Using Pangnirtung as an example; they used to have a commercial turbot fishery in the past. Now they can’t fish any more through the ice because the ice is not forming. So their fishing grounds through the ice in Cumberland Sound, which was very good economically for the subsistence hunters—over the years their fishing season has been shortened and shortened—first by a few weeks, then a few months, and then this year they are not even fishing. So these are the types of things that are affecting us and will probably continue to affect us.
And not only in terms of hunting, the wildlife, of course, too are diverting their normal habitat or migration route somewhere else. Yes, it does affect the Arctic.
Elizabeth: You spoke a little bit about Inuit traditional knowledge and experience on the land. How can that traditional knowledge and those years of experience that the Inuit people have be combined with Western scientific knowledge and research to move forward with an appropriate solution to climate change?
Simon: I think the Western science should acknowledge our lifetime knowledge and experience of living in the Arctic for millennia. The Western science should give credibility to the traditional knowledge and try and take that knowledge with the Western science and combine them to try and have more credible information about climate change and wildlife.
With all due respect to our Western science, by combining the Western science with traditional knowledge, you might be able to get a better picture.
I moved to Pond Inlet, which is on the northern tip of Baffin Island back in 1971. I am originally from Iglulik on the Melville Peninsula side. The first thing I saw in Pond Inlet was these beautiful glaciers across from the town on Bylot Island and those glaciers were right down to the sea. Now today if I go back, I see those beautiful glaciers that have melted so much that they’re black in color because of all the sediment that was buried within because it’s melting. It has retreated I don’t know how many kilometers inland. So we have seen the actual evidence of changes that are affecting us.
I could say that I am now beginning to believe that in attending international conferences that western scientists are finally saying, “Lets work with the aboriginal people. Lets work with the traditional knowledge concept because they do have something to contribute even though their knowledge may not be written in paper.”
- How is the government of Nunavut responding to climate change?
- What lessons can people in the south learn from the Inuit experience with climate change?
Elizabeth: How is the government of Nunavut responding to climate change?
Simon: According to traditional knowledge the climate change scenario is a part of a natural cycle. According to traditional knowledge, the climate change evolves over time in many many years. It cools down and warms up; changes all the time.
However, with the man-made influence of the world population, the climate change that is happening in the world, especially in the Arctic, has speeded up.
What we have done in the government of Nunavut is that we really cannot control the environment. We have a role to play to mitigate [climate change] to a certain degree if all the stakeholders, meaning the world, participate to mitigate the effects of climate change. We have a huge territory in Nunavut, but we have a very small population and our emission is about .01% of Canada.
However, we are, in Nunavut, one of the contributors to climate change because every single one of our power generators in the all communities is powered by fossil fuels—diesel. So we are one of the contributors to global warming.
The challenge for us in Nunavut, in the Arctic, is adaptation. That is a key where we are going to need to focus our energies: adaptation. Adaptation in terms of hunting, Inuit culture, the infrastructure… Meaning that if the global warming continues and we are seeing that evidence today…the Arctic above the tree-line has permafrost and within the municipalities all the buildings are built on permafrost—that is why all the buildings in Nunavut don’t have basements. All the buildings either are built on the ground level or on pylons. So the adaptation part is how to deal when the permafrost keeps melting. It’s going to shift the foundations of the buildings. In the future, parts of the ground may collapse because the permafrost is melting. So the focus of our energies is going to be on adaptation to climate change and global warming.
We hear about an ice-free Arctic [ocean] fifty or one hundred years from now. That might be true, and that would be one of the other challenges if the Arctic in future years should become a major shipping route around the globe; especially the Northwest Passage and around the North Pole. The issue is going to be how to protect the environment and how to police the shipping companies. It’s going to be a major challenge. It would be a very expensive undertaking to do a proper patrol, especially in terms of environmental pollution. That will be a very big challenge for us.
Elizabeth: What lessons can people in the south learn from the Inuit experience with climate change?
Simon: I think a couple of things; do not wait until there is enough evidence that climate change will affect you. Because we know the Arctic is a thermometer to what is going to happen around the world.
Learn from us and start acting right now. Start your planning of what could happen years down the road because if this global warming continues at its pace it could have devastating effects on farmers, it could have devastating effects on cities. If they live in coastal areas, economically it will have a very big impact. So don’t wait.
Start planning now and start acting now. Do your part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
I think secondly what they could learn, as I said at the beginning, is that we are connected and very much a part of our environment and surroundings. We have learned that you cannot conquer your environment.
We have heard that people will try to conquer, for example Mount Everest, the South Pole, the North Pole…whatever challenges there are. Individuals, groups, companies will try and challenge what is out there in the environment.
However, no person in the world, whether they are a very strong nation or strong individuals for that matter, they will never ever conquer the environment. Mankind could do great things and say they have conquered Mount Everest.
What I can say is that people who do extreme things, climbing Mount Everest or whatever, will only be successful if the environment allows them to. If they try and go against the natural environment, they do not have a chance, they will perish as we have seen in the past.
The outside world has lessons to learn from the Arctic and we would be pleased to talk to the outside world.
Elizabeth: Simon Awa, I really appreciate the time you spent to talk with us today.
Simon: Okay. Thank you.