Food and learning under northern lights, Part 3/4 Umiujaq

Kerrin's vista
Foster is a family name. Pammy’s great2granddaughter Eunice, who was Kerrin’s grandmother, was born a Foster. When Kerrin perceived the desperate need in the Inuit community, it became a personal commitment. Her foster daughter is Inuk. Right now (2013) she has just turned eleven and is living in Umiujaq, near the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, where Kerrin teaches at Umiujaq-Kiluutaq School. At the mid-point of the 21st century she’ll be in her forties and part of the generation in charge of Canada’s North.
Canada is a big, big country, bigger than any other except Russia, with which it shares a northern border. But more than nine out of ten Canadians live in a narrow strip of land a hundred miles deep, stretching 3,000 miles east to west along Canada’s southern border with the United States. The rest of the great sweep of the country to the far, far North is largely unpopulated. Yet it is a bank of wealth beyond any other known on earth, bursting with mineral deposits and awash in hydrocarbons.
Alberta oilsands, Saskatchewan potash fields, Quebec hydro power, Ontario nickel, zinc and uranium are the low hanging globes of mega opportunity. There’s more, much more, in the far North. And there’s the fabled Northwest Passage, sought for centuries by adventurers, explorers and builders of fortune, a way to cut transit times and costs from Europe to Asia in half. As the Passage becomes navigable the world will be calling, with all its flotsam and jetsam and spillage and naval muscle. At Canada’s Northern extremity one of the world’s busiest shipping routes is about to open. Hadn’t thought much about that.
It’s the task of Kerrin’s foster daughter to think about it more than the rest of us. She’s one of “the people” as they call themselves in this land of ice and snow and giant floes and bears and whales and gas and oil. She’s young just now. But as an adult she’ll find herself at a critical intersection of global warming and commercial globalization, the two most confounding revolutions of our time. She has roots in America deeper than most others. How will she and her Inuit cousins fare through the cataclysmic years on the horizon?
She already exceeds all expectations of birth and survival as the product of an inconceivably complex and divergent ancestry, spiraling and branching back into primordial beginnings. Think of the cruelties of accident, chance and predation that beset the newborn, not least in the unforgiving Northern tundra. Had her ancestors back over countless generations not been one hundred percent successful at procreating, she could not exist. We are all of us, of course, next to impossible beings who have bested astronomical odds to be here, but she even more so. She’s one who knows the North, gigantic and unforgiving, beautiful and cruel. And she’s Canadian. That’s a combo as cool as it gets this century.
Kerrin's Window Ulus2-384X161Canada’s North. It trips from the pen. But it’s been the tripping up of many, from Hudson, Franklin and Amundsen, who perished there, to unwary retailers of the 20th century who first offered free shipping “anywhere in North America.” Orders from the North for tinned goods and other heavy items by the case piled up. Shipping to the North is a big charge. There are no free deliveries any more to the North of North America.
Umiujaq, population 444, is a modern Inuit village. It was built and supplied within the last half century by order of the southern qallunaat (white guys, outsiders). It’s not alone in this respect. Many Inuk have been moved from traditional lands for reasons ranging from geopolitics (send some of them up North to bolster Canadian claims to sovereignty) to resource development (move them out of the way so we can get at the minerals and hydrocarbons we want). Umiujaq was one outcome of the massive James Bay hydro-electric project. It cost more than $20 billion to build, covers an area larger than the Maritime provinces and provides more than half of Hydro Québec’s output.
Part of a deal to relocate an Inuit community away from the Cree-dominated region. Umijuaq is 160 miles North of James Bay, where fish and game are not threatened by hydro development and they can preserve their traditional lifestyle. The traditional Inuit lifestyle sees most families in the North draw their livelihood from a combination of hunting, gathering and fishing, the sale of handmade commodities and a very modicum of wages. There are some local, small business opportunities for employment, some public service jobs, but very few or none in the smallest communities. Individuals and families may engage in all of these activities, making the best use of the opportunities available to them. Virtually no one lives by traditional pursuits alone, but few Aboriginal people in the North live entirely by wages, and there is little prospect that everyone will be able to do so in the future.
Country food harvesting and sharing have very high cultural value in Inuit communities. Social relations around producing food for the traditional economy are critical to the functioning of that economy, and the sharing of food through the extended family and community reinforce those relations.
Harvested country food is often cheaper and healthier than store-bought alternatives. It’s richer in protein and has lower fat content, particularly saturated fat, than meats imported from southern Canada. This applies not only to sea mammals and fish but also to beaver, muskrat, polar bear and caribou. Seal meat consists of 32% protein and two per cent fat, and caribou is 27% protein and one per cent fat. In contrast, beef is 17% protein and as much as 23% fat.
Construction of Umiujaq was completed in 1986 and the settlement took life. Of course in 1986 few people were talking about climate change. There wasn’t a lot of evidence of climate change. The ice wasn’t melting any faster than it usually did, or if it was who knew? The Northwest Passage was as impassable as always. Fish and game remained abundant. That was then.
Now it’s clear that climate change is causing the Arctic to warm twice as quickly as the rest of the world, trending toward an average annual increase of between six and 12 degrees celsius by the end of the century. One result already is a dramatic loss of the sea ice that reflects sunlight and helps cool the planet. Between March and September of 2012, 4.57 million square miles of Arctic sea ice melted. This area of melt is larger than the size of the continental United States. Another threat lies beneath the Northern permafrost, where massive amounts of methane are stored naturally. If this ever escapes it will add cataclysmically to global warming.
Sled Dog Pups245X184But nowhere is it more distressing than at home where interactions between environment, animals and people are all changing. We know that thin ice threatens hunters and fishers in search of marine life. It’s even more precarious when local knowledge is no longer as useful. Among animals, the narwhal, polar bear and walrus are susceptible and warmth could drive some species so far North that they’ll be extinguished.
But warming will also bring economic opportunity for the North, say the optimists. In May 2013 the U.S. Coast Guard and the White House released separate but complementary strategies for the Arctic region. As the Coast Guard puts it, “Sovereign and industrial activities will continue to evolve around access to an abundance of resources. These resources include an estimated 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil (90 billion barrels), 30 percent of undiscovered gas, and some one trillion dollars worth of minerals including gold, zinc, palladium, nickel, platinum, lead, rare-earth minerals, and gem-quality diamonds.”
Climate change has caused permanent ice cover to shrink to record low levels and, as the Coast Guard says, “environmental changes and economic incentives are driving a transformation of maritime activity.” Ships in Arctic waters have traditionally been there for exploration or scientific research. The new traffic is aimed at resource extraction, commercial shipments, tourism and many other pursuits. Arctic adventure and eco-tourism often involve transportation by vessel due to limited road and air infrastructure.
Kerrin's window inukshuk-278X336Economic opportunity is the primary driver for increasing human activity in the Arctic. An oceanic trade route across the Arctic from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific would represent a transformational shift in maritime trade, akin to the opening of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century. An Arctic marine highway would cut existing oceanic transit between Europe and Asia by an estimated 5,000 nautical miles. While a shipping route through Canada’s Northwest Passage has yet to prove economically viable (although transits of the passage by small craft are increasing), trans-Arctic traffic through Russia’s Northeast Passage is rising swiftly. In 2012, over one million tons of cargo transited this Northern Sea route, 46 vessels compared to 34 in 2011, and four in 2010. The Russians charge $400,000 per ship to sail along this route, for which they supply a nuclear-powered icebreaker when needed.
The Northwest Passage can’t be found on a map because the Passage is not a defined waterway but a route through various sounds, straits, bays, inlets and gulfs. Most voyages through the ice fields in the past 400 years or so have been by icebreakers. A Canadian icebreaker escorted an American oil tanker through in 1969. There was a flurry of concern about Canada’s Arctic sovereignty in 1985 when the U.S. Coast Guard sent the Polar Sea through without a “by your leave.” Since then Canada has waved U.S. ships through on a case-by-case basis, but the sovereignty question has been left in abeyance. Canada claims the Northwest Passage as internal. The U.S. and Russia believe it is international water. Others may take a stand in the matter anytime, a stand we won’t like, because the status of the Northwest Passage is going to become as changeable as the weather or, to be more exact, is going to change because of the weather. But like the weather, nobody knows for sure. The state of the science is imprecise. Speculation about what could happen ranges from one month of open water in 50 years to four months in 10 years.
But what is certain is that impenetrable pack ice will be free flowing waters for part of each year in the foreseeable future. An open Northwest Passage combined with the Northeast Passage across the top of Russia would encourage routine commercial shipping, spawn new fisheries and lead to smuggling, piracy, oil spills and all the usual problems of marine traffic that the nation with sovereign jurisdiction can expect to confront.
K. and Molly 256X144As the U.S. Coast Guard puts it, “The increase in vessel traffic presents challenges to sovereign capacity for incident prevention and response in the Arctic. A major casualty on board a large modern cruise ship in the Arctic would pose a significant challenge to responders and stress any one nation’s capacity for mass rescue at sea. If an oil tanker were to spill its cargo in Arctic waters the potential impact to the marine environment would be profound, and removing the oil would be challenging.”
If Canada is that sovereign nation, how would we do it, particularly if our jurisdiction should be challenged? Who knows? Through all the years since Canada acquired the Northwest Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870 until we bought 275,000 sq. km. further North from Norway in 1930 for $67,000, up until right now, our commitment to Arctic development and security has been more rhetoric than reality. Canadian forces in the North are members of the Canadian Ranger Patrol Group. They are part-time Inuit reservists who wear bright red sweatshirts and red ball caps or toques, get paid for up to 12 days on guard a year (more if they’re called for emergencies such as search-and-rescue) and are armed with a #4 Lee-Enfield rifle, last manufactured in 1955. They are dedicated and watchful but they won’t enforce Canadian maritime law against tankers.
As radical changes in climate and culture remake the North for the new millennium, the Inuit taught byPammy’s great4granddaughter Kerrin and her Inuk foster daughter are in the front line. But the responsible authority with all the clout is far away. Ottawa ranks among the coldest capitals on earth but it’s nowhere near what Canadians know as the North. It’s not near — it’s far away physically, culturally, environmentally, culturally — but it’s in charge.
The following links will bring you to Part 1 of this series, Yellowknife, Part 2, Kangiqsualujjuaq.and Part 4, True North

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One thought on “Food and learning under northern lights, Part 3/4 Umiujaq

  1. Fascinating insight into our North. I like the connection to Pammy’s descendants. Where’s the National Geographic photographer?!

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