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Inuit Communities as the New DEW Line: Camels in the Arctic?

December 1, 2007


How can a Canadian social scientist in 2007 set aside economic development, energy security, youth perspectives, mental and spiritual health issues to focus on climate change as it related to hunting, sea ice, and the maintenance of an Inuit [pre-contact?] way of life? What kind of questions were posed in encounters with “Inuit in their homes, in their offices, at the hotel, on the street, [. . .] on weekends as well as weekdays?” How much trust and intimacy can you develop in each community as you seek Inuit to gather impressions when the six-week enquiry is divided between tiny, remote towns, communities and hamlets like Nain in northern Labrador; Kuujjuaq in Nunavik; Iqaluit, Igloolik, Arctic Bay in Nunavut; Yellowknife, NWT and the Inuvialuit in western Arctic Ocean communities like Paulatuk and Tuktoyaktuk reached in twenty-five zigzag flights covering 24,000 kilometres? How does that put people in the picture in our studies of the Arctic? Where is the background context based on Inuit-initiated research? Where are the sources so a public policy researcher can follow through with questions arising from this article? Has this article and lecture by the same name helped in anyway to revisit the distorted history of the Inuit as called for in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (1996)? These are some of the questions in response to Griffiths’ (2007) article published in the Walrus magazine. 

 It is misleading to suggest that increased suicide will be a future unintended consequence of the destruction of the Inuit lifestyle without acknowledging the heart-rending on-going tragedy of youth suicide epidemic, with rates that are among the highest in the planet, that directly or indirectly touches every northern Inuit community as well as thousands of urban Inuit in the south. How can any social scientist claim a people-centred ethnography while skimming over key social issues and structional changes affecting Inuit lives such as land claims implementation and human rights concerns regarding access to housing, employment, health and education services (the early exit from schooling). Two or three well-edited and well-researched paragraphs could have briefly traced a critical Inuit social history to dismantle some of the commonly held myths about the north. Readers would have benefited from a more accurate thumbnail sketch of the complexity of Inuit today: linguistic disparities, Inuit governing bodies, local initiatives, the long history of meddling in Inuit affairs by successive waves of interlopers. At the end of the lecture did the assistant from PEI understand that Inuit do not live in igloos anymore and that there are Inuit hunters who are politically-saavy individuals with cellphones and computers who travel frequently to regional, national and international conferences. Did no Inuit in his travels mention the northerly creep of flora and fauna? Would Griffiths not have found both those who are deeply troubled, skeptical or even optimistic about climate change among Newfoundland fishers, PEI farmers, Alberta ranchers, First Nations hunters? Would isolationist southern fishers, farmers and ranchers not also be found to be ruled by immediacy, pragmatic and immediate in their responses to climate change? “As in the Arctic, local opinion tends to be conservative. Quite apart from the collapse of Canadian historical awareness and our ability to interrogate the future, opinion everywhere is presentist in its intent to keep things as they are (Griffiths 2007).” Did Griffiths manage to make meaningful any larger significance derived from local observations he gathered in six weeks?

“Inuit in particular may have something to tell us about civility as we extend it from the domain of human relations to that of nature at a time when the human condition is directly threatened by civilization (Griffiths 2007).”

“A crisis narrative is one that tells of impending disaster, explains why it is coming, and instructs the threatened in what to do. It is presented by others, familiar or foreign, who seek to persuade us of their view of our situation, and of our need to join promptly in the measures they recommend. But for those who already see themselves as put upon by unfamiliar or foreign others, the call to accept a crisis narrative is especially galling. A discourse of disaster that originates with others who are known to be dominant cannot but present a threat to our autonomy, to our ability to set our own priorities, to trust what we observe and experience in our everyday lives. This is what Louis Tapardjuk was talking about in Igloolik. Accepted, crisis narratives legitimate the authority and control of distant experts, officials, and decision-makers. They open the way to large-scale intrusions into our way of life (Griffiths 2007).”

Franklyn Griffiths, George Ignatieff Chair emeritus of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto and co-founder of the Arctic Council, “travelled from one end of Canada’s Arctic to the other — from northern Labrador to the mouth of the Mackenzie River — between late April and early June. Seeking out and gathering impressions in encounters with Inuit from Nain to Kuujjuaq and Iqaluit to Igloolik and Arctic Bay, and on out to Yellowknife, Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, and Paulatuk, I flew some 24,000 kilometres in twenty-five flights. His initial contacts were with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). [. . .] I saw Inuit in their homes, in their offices, at the hotel, on the street, wherever I could, on weekends as well as weekdays. Setting aside economic development, energy security, youth perspectives, public health including the mental and spiritual, and any number of other possible themes, I determined to centre on climate change as it related to hunting, sea ice, and the maintenance of an Inuit way of life (Griffiths 2007).”

James Lovelock (2006) in his fictional horror story of climate change, a sensationalist crisis narrative, The Revenge of Gaia, described a world that’s became so unbearably hot that almost all humanity was destroyed and the last remnants of humankind subsisted in the High Arctic where they were forced to relocate. It became so hot there would be camels in the Arctic.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, “the former international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, who is seeking to bring the US government before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. She and other Canadian and Alaskan Inuit claim that the Inuit way of life is being destroyed as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the United States (Griffiths 2007).”

Inuvialuit in communities like Paulatuk and Tuktoyaktuk “are the most clearly menaced by foreseeable change, which could see average surface air temperature rise by as much as 6°C by the end of the century — about three times the expected global mean increase (Griffiths 2007).”

“[T]he Arctic is the world’s climate change barometer. Inuit are the mercury in that barometer. What is happening in the Arctic now will happen soon further south.” Inuit are adaptable and resourceful, she added. But she also foresaw “a time — well within the lifetime of my eight-year-old grandson — when environmental change will be so great that Inuit will no longer be able to maintain their hunting culture. Global warming has become the ultimate threat to Inuit culture and our survival as an indigenous people.” Speaking on her behalf to a meeting in New York, Mary Simon drew Watt-Cloutier’s message to a very fine point a couple of years earlier: “When we can no longer hunt on the sea ice and eat what we hunt, we will no longer exist as a people (Griffiths 2007).”

Kusugak’s (2006) Unikkaaqatigiit Putting the Human Face on Climate Change: Perspectives from Inuit in Canada publication refers to the fearful possibility of “having to completely reinvent what it means to be Inuit.”

Who’s Who

2000 Of all Inuit it was the Inuvialuit who first took climate change seriously, this with a path-breaking video co-produced with the International Institute for Sustainable Development and presented to Kyoto delegations at The Hague in 2000. Today, the Inuvialuit are planning for the relocation of coastal communities threatened by intense storm activity and rising sea levels (Griffiths 2007).”

2006 Kusugak, Jose. 2006. Unikkaaqatigiit Putting the Human Face on Climate Change: Perspectives from Inuit in Canada.

2007 Organized by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and held six times a year, the Breakfast on the Hill Lecture Series brings together parliamentarians, government officials, the media and the general public to hear important research on pertinent issues. In this November 22nd lecture, Franklyn Griffiths, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and George Ignatieff Chair Emeritus of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto, presented his findings on climate change, the Inuit and Arctic sovereignty. Entitled “Camels in the Arctic?“, this lecture is based on research Griffiths did while traveling in the Arctic.

2007 Griffiths, Franklyn. 2007. “Camels in the Arctic?” Walrus Magazine. November 30.

Kusugak, Jose. 2006. Unikkaaqatigiit Putting the Human Face on Climate Change: Perspectives from Inuit in Canada.
Franklyn Griffiths is George Ignatieff Chair emeritus of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto. He helped establish the Arctic Council.

Jose Kusugak is a past president of the national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK)

Webliography and Bibliography

Griffiths, Franklyn. 2007. “Camels in the Arctic?” Walrus Magazine. November 30.

Griffiths, Franklyn. 2007. “Camels in the Arctic?” Breakfast on the Hill Lecture Series. November 22. Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

http://cpac.ca/forms/index.asp?dsp=template&act=view3&pagetype=vod&lang=e&clipID=513

CC Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Inuit Communities as the New DEW Line: Camels in the Arctic?” >> Google Docs. November 30, 2007.

CC Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Inuit Communities as the New DEW Line: Camels in the Arctic?” >> papergirls. November 30, 2007.

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3 Responses to “Inuit Communities as the New DEW Line: Camels in the Arctic?”


  1. […] blog stats page revealed that one of the referrers to the December 12, 2007 post entitled “Inuit Communities as the new DEW line: Camels in the Arctic” was also found under a search for categories under “forgetting” as part of the […]

  2. Roisin Says:

    This was a very interesting read. I’m very interested in knowing what will happen to these people as climate change takes a firmer grip over the world. As a journalist, I am interested in doing a project about environmental refugees. Could we see swathes of Inuits moving south as the Artic melts? I’d be so interested in finding out if any are living in New York today having abandoned their way of life for environmental issues.

  3. makitagunarningit Says:

    http://makikuranium.wordpress.com

    Please visit our site to learn more about a plan to industrialize Canada’s eastern arctic on the scale of the tar sands and in so doing destroy barren ground caribou habitat forever with 20 uranium mines, nuclear power plants, transmission and gold and diamond mines.

    We are a very small group of Inuit and non Inuit trying to educate people about what is going on and the potential consequences.


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