Interview

Living in Nunavut with global warming

As the greater part of the developed world awaits the the arrival of the consequences of global warming, the population of the Canadian territory of Nunavut is learning to live in spite of them.

okalik128Global warming is an everyday reality here, as is its devastating effect on a delicate ecosystem which is the sole source of survival for a population of approximately 29,500, of whom 85% are Inuit. We asked the Premier Minister of Nunavut, Paul Okalik to give us his account of the effects of environmental and political changes on the communities in his territory.

Question: How has global warming effected everyday life in Nunavut?

Paul Okalik : Fishermen and hunters alike have fallen through the ice as the melting of the ice has left it thin and unstable. For the past two winters it has not reached our usual temperature of minus 40 degrees celcius which has had a devastating effect on the sea ice. The fishing and hunting industries have suffered as well, their equipment has fallen through the ice, causing a loss of equipment and a loss of lives. Other industries that are dependent on the sea ice as access to different parts of the territory, like mining companies have lost use of the ice roads that allow then to get supplies. This has been a difficult experience for some of our industries and I’m sure it will continue for a while.

Q. : How does the continued criticism of seal hunting in Canada by animal welfare agencies such as IFAW and SPA as well as well-known personalities like Sophie Marceau and Jane Birkin effect the Inuit and and Nunavut society ? Wasn’t the quota for seal hunting recently raised?

Paul Okalik :This issue has a direct impact on our communities. Actually the quota was reduced from 325,000 to 270,000 seals but those are some of the misconceptions involved when people that fund-raise for the welfare of animals do whatever they can to bring down the industry so they can get more money for their activities. They claim that we club baby seals for commercial purposes when that has been banned in the country since the 1980’s, so these distorted images will be played out by those that are fund-raising for their own welfare at the expense of the people that are depending on that income to survive. For us this gives us a very negative image, but we will always continue to hunt. This is a part of our culture and at the same time its a way of providing nutritious food for our families as no other fresh food is available. If you can picture 2 million kilometers of water and ice, that’s our land, it’s larger than the European continent and you can’t easily get to the communities unless you fly, so by the time any fresh fruit and vegetables did make it to the communities they would no longer be fresh or nourishing. So the freshest food available to these people is from the land and the sea. We need to allow these people to continue to harvest their food from the land and sea, just like farmers. Today as we live in centralized communities so our children can go to school, these hunters now have to travel further distances more rapidly and return quicker to provide their families with food and that requires income. This was first time we had need of income. The first ban on seal hunting in the 1980s, even though it was intended for the killing of baby seals which didn’t concern us as we only hunted adult seals, basically killed the market, creating serious economic problems and our families suffered terribly. We were once a very proud people that didn’t require governmental assistance, but with this ban and the resulting disappearance of income, we were then obligated to depend on government assistance. These are dire consequences that I fear we will face again if the European Union decides to ban once again the sale of seal skins to aid those who fund-raise for their own welfare. They do very well at the expense of our people. I have seen that one of them makes more money than half my cabinet combined. We need to look at these people with scrutiny, at least as much scrutiny that they claim to use on our industry

Q. : If you could address these fund-raisers and your critics directly, what would you say?

Paul Okalik : I think that those that are trying to preach to us about how we should live should scrutinize their own practices inside their own countries. For example I was in the Netherlands and the parliament wouldn’t even meet with me to explain their position, which is that they plan to ban seal skin sales in their country. That was unfortunate. As we use the fur and the meat, the sale of the skin is a byproduct of that and from what I understand that country kills and burns 400,000 muskrats every single year. They just burn them, what a waste. We don’t even come close to 400,000 skins a year, so to try and preach to me that we should stop what we’re doing, even though we are utilizing the whole animal, is quite hypocritical.
I would say look inside your own borders, please. We are doing our part. We have passed laws that regulate seal harvesting to assure that it is done in the most humaine way possible and that baby seal hunting is banned.

Q. : Do you agree with what the famous French Astronomer, Hubert Reeves said at the reception after the signing of the Tourist Agreement between France and Nunavut that listing the polar bear as an endangered species would be beneficial to the environment as it would pressure the United States into signing the Kyoto Protocol?

Paul Okalik : I would have some difficulty with this approach. More than half the population of polar bears lives in Nunavut. There is a part which is struggling a bit but the rest are very healthy. We still depend on the polar bear for food. We regulate its hunting very closely and we prosecute anyone who breaks our laws and that is what we’ll continue to do, protect them. We also depend on sports hunters who come from the US for the polar bear. There is a very tight limit on that, but this brings much needed income to certain families as well as food, the meat from the bear that the hunter kills but leaves behind. So we count on both of these sources for survival. If the polar bear is listed as an endangered species we will lose that income and food source, which is a great concern for us. Its welfare and health is essential for its future and ours, its survival is our survival so we’ll be there to protect it. To put it on the endangered list when there is no real scientific proof that its survival is threatened, this is a concern for us.

Q. : Do you agree with the comment made by the French Delegate Minister of Tourism, Léon Bertrand at the signing of the Tourism Agreement between France and Nunavut that increased tourism in Nunavut will help protect the traditional culture of the Inuit people?

Paul Okalik : Yes, and that is why we agreed to sign the understanding with France. As a government we stated that our priorities for this term that we are continuing this year are the economy and the retaining of our culture and our language. Encouraging French tourism is a great opportunity for both priorities as the French are very inquisitive and really like to learn about different cultures which will allow families to continue on with their traditional practices. At the same time much needed income will reach the smaller communities, so its a wonderful opportunity with a dual purpose for the Nunavut.

Q. : What are some of the recent social changes that the Nunavut society have been experiencing?

Paul Okalik : Concerning the social factors, we are seeing the highest numbers of high school graduates in Nunavut ever, so we are seeing positive change. We are now focussing on the post graduate levels of schooling.
We can’t forget that to make real change takes a bit of time, but we are going in the right direction. In the history of any society, when there is social upheavel, we always find an increase in social problems, but we are in transition. We need some more time to catch up to the rest of the world.

Q. : How would you characterize the modernisation of the Inuit society, especially since your objective is to maintain your language of origin and the traditional practices of the Inuit culture?

Paul Okalik : I use myself as an example, I am a lawyer, but I am an Inuk first and foremost. I fish and hunt to carry on that tradition, but I don’t always have time to practice these traditional activities because of my job. But I get a chance to travel, to see and learn about the other communities in Nunavut. Our genuine goal is to retain our language and to continue the traditional practices of our culture, the Inuit culture, while advancing in the modern world. We are now setting up our own cultural school to teach the language and pass on the traditions to the future generations, which is more important than ever as we are seeing our elders pass away more and more now, and these are the guardians of our traditions. We are hoping to open the school in the next two years.

Interview by Lesley Jessop, associate member of Le Cercle Polaire.

Paul Okalik, Former Premier of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, was in Paris, France, in April, 2007 for the signing of a tourism agreement between France and the Nunavut Territory.


© April 2007 - Le Cercle Polaire - All Rights Reserved

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