In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Learning from the North

Posted 6/4/2009 by Senator Grant Mitchell

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The North is remarkably beautiful, and I believe Canadians greatly appreciate it. The North is a way in which we define ourselves, and think about ourselves as Canadians.

Last June the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources travelled to the Western Arctic. Our interest in going there was motivated by resurgence of interest in the North driven by sovereignty issues, climate change and natural resource development. We wanted to listen and learn from Northerners about their perspective on these issues.

Here are some of the things we heard.

Climate Change

There is vivid evidence that climate change is beginning to take hold profoundly in the North. There was thunder, lightening and rain in December in Tuktoyuktuk. The permafrost is beginning to melt. The Caribou herd in the Tuktoyuktuk area has dropped in 5 years from 160,000 to 40,000. Insects and species of deer never before seen in the North are now migrating there. Polar bears are seen places they should not be and seem disoriented. Hunters who went out at the usual time to hunt certain birds discovered that they had missed them – warm weather had them migrating earlier. The ice roads are freezing later and melting earlier. The ice cap is melting and much more open water is evident. The passage is opening completely in the summer.

These climate change effects are affecting Northerners profoundly. Roads built on permafrost are looking like roller coasters; homes and buildings are sinking. Communities and development supplied by ice roads are seeing costs for food and other supplies dramatically increase since the ice road supply routes are open less long.  Traditional hunting is disrupted and with it the food supply that so many northerners rely upon.

Sovereignty

Climate change has raised the stakes in the Canadian Arctic because the melting ice cap means greater access to Arctic waters by foreign interests.  The question then arises as to how we maintain sovereignty over our Arctic lands. While there is something to be said for some additional military presence there, this should not be the only approach. Instead, we heard that people believe that we have to make sure that Northerners are supported in their use of the North, particularly the traditional Northern people. Government needs to support the traditional lifestyle because these peoples have been living in and using the North for hundreds of years. This kind of presence speaks very loudly in international legal proceedings on sovereignty.

Respecting Northerners

The phrase “use it or lose” has been applied to sovereignty situation. While it captures the core of that problem, it has an ugly implication that somehow the North is there to be used, in particular by the South. Perhaps our strongest impression from the trip is that the North cannot be treated as some kind of frontier to be exploited. There is a fear in the North and probably with some justification that Southerners are inclined to this position. Northerners rightly insist that Northern development must be based upon their needs and goals.

We also need to listen to the Northerners when it comes to the progress of climate change and the urgency that they put on doing something about it.

If you’d like to read our report on what we learned in the North, please click here.

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