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Northern Canada facing the climate change challenge in practical, culturally meaningful ways.

This Op-Ed was originally published by The Hill Times on June 5, 2019. It is written by Kaitlyn Rathwell, Adam Fiser and Soha Keen of The Conference Board of Canada.

The threat of climate change to property and infrastructure has become increasingly apparent to Canadians. With increasing intensity and frequency, forest fires and floods are having a devastating impact on all kinds of communities, whether rural or urban. But imagine a world where climate change puts your way of life and cultural identity at risk.

This is an urgent reality faced by many of Canada’s remote northern communities. Their experiences and efforts to adapt and find strength, despite extreme vulnerability, has a lot to teach us. Environmental science and Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge are revealing a complex pattern of changes across the North. The growing list includes thawing permafrost and unpredictable sea ice formations; disrupted migratory patterns of traditional subsistence species such as caribou; the appearance of unexpected terrestrial and marine invasive species; and increased levels of contaminants entering the food chain, alongside unfamiliar vector-borne diseases.

This complex pattern of environmental changes can be highly disruptive for remote northern communities. Aside from weathering increased threats to infrastructure and transportation networks, they now contend with a range of climate-related stressors on population health and wellness, including increased food insecurity from not having reliable access to resources on land and sea.

Current research, including our own work at the Conference Board of Canada, confirms that the impacts on infrastructure alone will require governments and industry to dedicate more resources to climate change adaptation and mitigation. But the monetizable impacts are only a small part of the environmental changes disrupting life in Arctic communities. The intangible, but no less real, impacts of climate change are threatening the very cultural fabric of many remote northern communities. Such intangibles are difficult or impossible to monetize, but their intensity can be no less devastating for community well-being. The sense of self and identity of people and communities can be fundamentally shaken when their connections to vital ecological systems are severed.

Participating residents have described their limited access to sea ice as a kind of spiritual death or ecological grief. Unsurprisingly, depression and anxiety are not uncommon for communities that are losing not only their homes but also their way of life. There are ways to minimize these impacts, and there is no time to lose. Collaboration is fundamental. At the Conference Board, we’ve seen firsthand how remote northern communities are rolling up their sleeves and working together to share knowledge, practices, and resources. New partnerships that cross cultures, disciplines, industries, and governments are needed to help distribute the burden of risks and stimulate innovation to address the range of impacts.

The northern experience is already fostering new ways to design, build, and manage infrastructure. Adaptive approaches to ice road construction for example have emerged from collaborations between Indigenous communities, territorial governments, and industry partners. In this context, traditional ecological knowledge accumulated and refined by northern Indigenous peoples over millennia, helps them make sense of the practical and emotional/spiritual dimensions of climate change adaptation. Effective counselling techniques for how to live well in a radically changing environment are anchored, for example, in traditional Inuit values of patience, focus, connection, and gratitude. These values are being imparted to youth through innovative on-the-land programming that also exposes them to environmental science concepts.

These values are also reflected in creative art forms such as sculptural and graphic arts that help Arctic residents express the deeper intangible dimensions of climate change adaptation. Recent artworks made by Inuit artists from Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset, Nunavut, for example, depict the Inuit lived experience of climate change, and their resilience in confronting radical change. We must find ways to elevate these lessons and to make them accessible to young northerners.

Residents of Canada’s North are building capacity to navigate climate change in both practical and culturally meaningful ways. There is an opportunity for all Canadians to support their efforts and to apply their lessons at home. Remote northern communities have learned that surviving climate change requires collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and a refusal to give up on one’s cultural heritage. In this context, Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge as practiced, and held, in Northern Canada is a complement to environmental science, and a source of strength for communities that are grappling with extreme changes to their cultural identity and fundamental ways of life.

Kaitlyn Rathwell, Adam Fiser, and Soha Kneen are research associates with the Conference Board of Canada.

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