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November/December 2011 | by Kelsey Rideout

Community-led holistic approach key to safer Arctic strategies

Major effects of climate change in Canada’s Arctic are prominently featured in national news coverage. Recently, stories have surfaced about the pending disintegration of winter roads and the growing ozone hole hovering over Arctic land. The ongoing saga of the government’s increasingly robust plans to develop future oil and gas deposits found beneath melting ice also appears below headlines.

Beneath these reported issues are the everyday realities of climate change that many Inuit communities amongst others in the North, are facing. While climate-focused policies often target the macro-level solution of mitigation through the reduction of greenhouse gases, it’s equally important for communities to adapt to climate change effects and uphold their quality of life.

Across the Arctic this is already happening. Collaborative efforts are underway with governments, organizations, communities and individuals combining their knowledge and resources to develop more effective adaptation strategies. An example of this kind of joint effort is the community-led adaptation work being done in Paulatuk and Ulukhaktok. Established by two passionate climate change scientists, James Ford (PhD) and Tristan Pearce (PhD), their Canadian-based organization, ArcticNorth, is teaming up with communities in the Northwest Territories to develop and implement adaptation action plans, as part of their vision to better assist communities, businesses and industry in adapting to a changing climate.

Changes in Paulatuk

Paulatuk is a hamlet located in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR), an area in the Northwest Territories that is bearing the brunt of climate change effects. Scientists and community members have identified several disconcerting climate trends. Temperatures are increasing at a rate more than twice the global average, permafrost is continually melting, and wildlife migration patterns as well as sea-ice regimes are steadily changing. For Paulatuk, where subsistence activities largely contribute to the social, cultural and economic well-being of the community, environmental changes make an enormous difference in the day-to-day lives of many individuals.

Part of the Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan’s mandate is to help establish five community working groups in Paulatuk. The groups are then divided into different themes, including: Business and Economy, Culture and Learning, Health and Well-Being, Subsistence Harvesting, and Transportation and Infrastructure.

Herb Nakimayak, a Paulatuk resident who was originally born in Inuvik, was a participant in both the Business and Economy and Health and Well-Being working groups. Herb described some of the challenges in Paulatuk that are brought on by climate change.

“Here in Paulatuk, everyone is a harvester … Unpredictable conditions is the concern as well as [people’s] livelihood if they’re going out hunting and fishing. It’s in our culture. The eroding banks in town, the amount of accumulation of snow we get in the winter… Our graveyard is right in the middle of town, and that’s [been] waterlogged too.”

Herb recalled when a search and rescue operation was conducted last year, after snowmobilers were unable to move because of melting ice conditions. The incident sparked concern amongst hunters in the community that winter.

“Everyone is sticking to the dry land, and travelling in pairs as well.”

After several months of working with the Amundsen for a McGill University research team that was assessing health in Arctic communities, Herb moved to Paulatuk, where he can apply his knowledge and skills in his home region. He is an active member of the Hamlet Council and serves as a liaison between exploration companies and the community. Herb believes it’s of critical importance to identify more effective adaptation actions at the community-level.

“We have to start teaching new ways in how to adapt and figure this out together. If we don’t, we’ll be left behind.”

Amanda Caron, a researcher at ArcticNorth, helped to facilitate the community working groups discussions on adaptation. She describes how climate change is impacting Paulatuk.

“People are finding that they’re having to take longer trips to access the same hunting and fishing grounds… There’s open water where there didn’t used to be open water. So they need different equipment and more gas. It’s become more expensive so some people aren’t able to go hunting or fishing as much or at all.”

Caron explains that it’s not only harvesters who are concerned about the changes occurring. Many worry that youth are not equipped with adequate local environmental knowledge — something that is vital for effective adaptation planning.

“The main thing that really struck me and that came up in every workshop regardless of the theme of the workshop was a strong concern that younger generations are not getting the practical experience and traditional knowledge of older generations, which is needed in order to hunt and fish and travel safely. This is especially important when people are describing changing and increasingly unpredictable conditions for travelling.” When carrying out discussions related to climate change and adaptation planning, it is essential that Elders are included and recognized for the invaluable knowledge they carry. They are leaders in the community whose concerns are rooted in a deep history and more intimate relationship with the land.

“Having the Elders’ inputs and knowledge, I don’t think any research can go on without it. Otherwise, you’re missing a huge link. It’s very important,” says Nakimayak. “Given they have travelled and lived on the land.”

Adaptation Report

In Paulatuk’s Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan, the list of outlined adaptation actions is extensive, ranging from promoting training opportunities for better diversification of the economy, to establishing more addictions services to help overall community cohesion and well-being. The report, which is a direct result of the community working groups’ findings, was submitted to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), the funder behind ArcticNorth’s adaptation work.

The gathered information shows the need to embrace a more holistic approach when it comes to climate change adaptation. In communities like Paulatuk, where people’s lives have a complex connection to the environment, all areas of community life must be considered in adaptation planning.

Addressing community health challenges that are seemingly unrelated to climate change serve as important adaptation actions. “Some participants noted the role emotional health plays in community cohesion and the ability to adapt, and expressed the need to strengthen support services in the community,” explains Caron.

In the report, adaptation actions are identified with varying levels of urgency and are followed by a list of resources that could assist in their implementation.

Actions related to transferring Elders’ environmental knowledge to the community, especially to youth, are seen as requiring immediate attention. These include: supporting initiatives to teach traditional skills and knowledge such as drum dancing, sewing, traditional art forms and storytelling, supporting land camps for youth, and identifying opportunities to record and pass on oral history of how Inuvialuit have adapted and been resilient to environmental changes throughout their history.

Reaching policy and moving forward

After conducting research on climate change vulnerability, establishing working groups, and developing an Adaptation Action Plan for Paulatuk and Ulukhaktok, Arctic North is now working in the last two stages of their four-stage approach to adaptation plan development. The group is currently overseeing a detailed assessment of the adaptation actions they have identified and are conducting a policy analysis related to the actions. They are also embarking on their final step, which is to implement the outlined adaptation actions and evaluate the progress being made in the two communities.

Pilot projects are being developed to test the effectiveness of proposed adaptation actions. In Paulatuk, a community kitchen series has brought community members together to share recipes that combine country foods and healthy store-bought foods. A strategically located snow-fencing project is also being built. In Ulukhaktok, the team is helping to develop an oral history database.

Caron would like to see the Adaptation Action Plans having some influence on future policy decisions related to climate change adaptation in the Arctic.

“Another major goal in this process is to communicate local ideas about what needs to be done to decision makers and policy makers at all different levels, at the local level but also regionally, territorially, federally.”

Shifts in policy could help alleviate some of the historical socio-economic problems that complicate local efforts to adapt to climate change.

“I think everyone in the community can relate to a policy-level frustration because local resources are already strained. Communities are dealing with a lot of changes simultaneously, many of which are the legacy of something that they had little control over, such as policies for permanent settlement and residential schools.”

Caron hopes that Canada’s Arctic communities will be given the same kind of attention in adaptation planning that other low-lying coastal communities in the ‘developing world’ have received.

“We need to acknowledge that there are high-risk communities within developed nations like Canada and the U.S., and they’re going to need some extra support as well.”

Discussions at the community level and collaborations with policy makers nationally enhance communication and promote better strategies for everyone. Until established climate initiatives are fully operational, the residents of Paulatuk will continue to adapt as best they can — something they have been doing long before climate change earned its hesitant position on the political agenda.

“Climate change is spoken at the coffee table…” explains Nakimayak. “If you go to the east there are a couple of rivers to worry about, and if you’re going out west there are other issues. Everyone is concerned about this. At the end of the day, it’s the safety of everyone.”