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Northwest Passage: No more warm and fuzzy ideals

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Cameron Dueck

The front yard of the average Inuit home will contain several snowmobiles, some of them working, some of them being repaired, some in a state of despair. There will also be a few quad bikes, and, if the resident works for the government or one of the town’s big companies, they will have a late model truck or SUV parked in the driveway. Mounted on a wooden stand next to their modest bungalow will be a steel tank containing diesel that slowly drips into their furnace and keeps them warm. Spread around the rest of the yard will be an array of broken toys, wooden sleds, chained dogs and the other detritus of modern northern life.

This is the home of someone who lives on the land, who relies heavily on the environment for their livelihood, culture and wellbeing. Yet they too, as do I and all my southern neighbours, abuse fossil fuels and litter their environment until it becomes uninhabitable. A summer of sailing through the US and Canadian Arctic has made me respect the Inuit and their generous, friendly communities, their easy-come-easy-go attitudes and their toughness. And it has changed my view of the Inuit and how they fit into the climate change equation. My view of them has changed from innocent victims of southern development who are waiting for the south to help them to being our partners in creating this whole mess, and hopefully our partners in solving it.

This realisation came to me at a house party in Tuktoyaktuk when a young man who loved hunting and life on the land said without reservation that arctic oil and gas exploration was a great thing for him and his people. It meant jobs, more money and training opportunities. And in the south we’re wringing our hands over how oil exploration will ruin their pristine and romantic lives on the land.

Of course the Inuit I met said they were concerned about how this exploration could affect their hunting grounds. They see how warmer temperatures are changing the land and the wildlife around them, how pollution is finding its way to the Arctic. But exploration also can bring them direct benefits, and they want the comforts of fossil fuel and modern convenience too, even as they see its negative side effects.

Inuit sustenance and subsistence hunting lifestyles are unsustainable without outside income. I did not meet a hunter who was living solely off the land, though I was told a rare few still did exist. The cost of fuel, processed food and manufactured goods are far too high in the north for a hunter or trapper to be able to feed his family and pay for imported goods from what he can harvest from the land. The Inuit hunters I met either had a part time job to pay for the snowmobiles and quads and big-screen TV, or wage-earning children that could pay those bills. Or, as was too often the case, they were on social assistance. In the north, social assistance, or welfare, is a way of life for many people because seasonal jobs and hunting are hard pressed to meet the high cost of modern conveniences. Unfortunately, welfare support will spell the death of the Inuit culture if it continues much longer. This is a culture that needs adaptation and innovation to keep itself alive, and social assistance dulls those instincts.

It costs a lot to heat a home and run fuel-guzzling cross-country transportation. It costs a lot to hunt for the animals that are deemed a cheaper alternative to buying high-priced food at the Northern Store. The best option is for that money to come from planned, large-scale development directed locally. Organic business growth is hard in the north, where towns are small and isolated from each other. High import costs and a fragmented market make independent retail business difficult, and retail is often at the heart of small, organic business growth.

Controlled oil and gas exploration, mining and other resource-driven development starts sounding better and better all the time. That’s hard to say after a summer spent marvelling at the arctic wilderness, but the alternative is to create a museum-like environment for the Inuit to live in, providing them with social assistance so they can do drum dances for cruise ship tourists and take rich sport hunters out to shoot at polar bear. Tourism is great, but the Arctic does not have the accessibility or variety of attractions to develop a tourism industry that can sustain its population.

So no more warm and fuzzy ideals of traditionally dressed Inuit that hunt and live exclusively off the land, removed from the modern problems of energy supply, waste management and resource greed. That doesn’t exist. Reality isn’t pristine like the igloo on the ice, it’s a bit messier and more functional – like the front yard of a home in Cambridge Bay. But while lifestyles have changed, the Inuit still know their land better than we do, and they know better than southerners what the land and its inhabitants can tolerate in terms of disruption, exploration and exploitation.

I think we need their help.

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