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This article originally appeared in The Circle 01.18. Find back issues here.

CINDY DICKSON, executive director of the Arctic Athabaskan Council (Canada) spoke with THE CIRCLE about the realities and challenges of development in the Arctic.

THE CIRCLE: What are the modern realities of living in the Arctic?

CINDY DICKSON: The reality is that the climate is changing. Our old way of life is drastically changing. We can no longer solely survive on the land as a way of life. In a modern world, we need jobs. Our children have similar tastes and want similar choices as other children.

When I was growing up – and I am under 50 – we did not have modern bathrooms with flushing toilets. We used ‘honey buckets’ and instead of regular sinks, showers and bathtubs, we used a steel tub and a wash-basin. If we wanted a shower we went to the school.

Having a house phone was a luxury and forget about cable. We wore hand-me-downs and were lucky to get out of Old Crow (Yukon) once a year. Nowadays we all have modern bathrooms, cable, cell phones and many of us travel to Mexico to vacation (although I have yet to go!). Our children want their own cell phones, latest fashions and whatever gadget the next kid has. All this convenience and its working parts comes from renewable and non-renewable resources and costs money. A lot of money.

There has been a huge change since my childhood. I don’t see the old way of living anymore. The values and choices are different. To go out on the land is very expensive. Most people use snow machines and fuel is very costly. People can no longer stay out for months and most have to come back for their day jobs. It’s not like long ago when everyone used to hunt from March to June. People don’t use as many fur products these days so that industry doesn’t thrive as it once did.

TC: From an Indigenous perspective, what needs to happen to make development in the Arctic more sustainable?

CD: In my opinion development is not sustainable. There is usually a beginning and an end and some type of impact. Unless, perhaps,
you are an organic vegetable farmer. I believe we need to see better communication, education, prevention and mitigative measures developed between government, industry, community and environmentalists.

There must be equal responsibility for all these things. For example, if an industry is going to dig a hole, it should be the responsibility of our federal or territorial government to educate the community on why the hole is being dug, what is being dug up, what it is used for and what are the pros and cons and jointly develop plans for prevention and mitigation.

TC: What ways can the various interest groups (industry, environmental, governments) work more effectively with Indigenous people to have a more sustainable Arctic?

CD: Having had the opportunity to work on environmental issues as well as with industry and First Nations, I firmly believe governments should fund First Nations to educate their membership and beneficiaries. People need the capacity to make informed decisions.

First Nations governments are extremely busy and wear many hats. It would be very helpful to have dedicated federal or territorial funding so that First Nations hire their own experts to educate and plan. Our communities need the capacity to make the best decisions. Once that happens it would be beneficial for industry, environmentalists and other governments to work collaboratively with First Nations to provide a balanced and proactive approach.

TC: What are the barriers to those relationships taking place?

CD: I don’t like to see our people divided because of inaccurate information. It’s time environmentalists and industry work together. In my experience it’s always one against the other and we don’t receive all the information to make informed choices. Even our environmental impact assessment processes seem set up to pit us against each other. There isn’t a common place where these issues and opportunities can be worked out. Others may disagree but having worked on both the research and environmentalist side, and with the oil and gas industry, I have come to this conclusion.

The reality is we drive our big trucks, own more than one house, wear expensive clothes – many of which are oil-based – and we all want these modern conveniences. To have the best of both worlds I think it’s time we embrace the reality that this is where we are, and we should set aside differences to have a better place for our children and grandchildren.

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