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Our People, Our Climate

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Qarmaq, photograph by Chelsea Qammaniq, Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Chelsea and her son sit in a replica qarmaq (sod house) with a row of modern houses in the background. © Chelsea Qammaniq

Inuit perspectives on climate change

Our People, Our Climate is a ground-breaking documentary film initiative, showcasing the storytelling skills of Nunavut youth and young adults. Inuit communities across Canada’s Arctic are essential to current climate change discussions, and this program brings together a range of Inuit creative expression to tell important stories through a unique and distinct cultural lens. Beginning in early 2020, the project emerged as an international collaboration between West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, the Centre for Contemporary Arts Glasgow, ilinniapaa Skills Development Centre in Iqaluit and University of Minnesota Duluth.

The content of this documentary film is the result of a collaborative skills development and training initiative, which supports the creative and technical abilities of Nunavut youth and young adults. Participants in this training program were first enrolled in a foundational course about climate change, created by Helen Roos, Lead Facilitator with ilinniapaa Skills Development Centre. This portion of the course provided an overview of climate change: what it is, what is happening in the Arctic, and how it is affecting them personally on Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homelands). Participants then proceeded to the technical portion, designed by Professor Olaf Kuhlke with the University of Minnesota Duluth. They reflected on the localized effects of climate change in their own communities, learning to visualize them through the art of documentary storytelling, including still photo graphy, videography and interview techniques. 

This curriculum was designed to be open ended, creating conditions for participants to discover what climate change means for themselves and their communities. William Huffman, with West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, explains, “From the inception of this initiative, it was meant to provoke new, grassroots perspectives on an environmental narrative, a move away from predominantly Southern‐driven storylines. We wanted young people from the North to create the discourse and illustrate it, with their uniquely Northern voices.” 

While much of the country was under lockdown, Our People, Our Climate pressed on, safely operating over weekly video calls and emails. In these sessions, participants from Clyde River, Iqaluit, Kinngait and Pond Inlet were guided by industry professionals, like Professor Olaf Kuhlke alongside Professor Alec Johnson with the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, as they completed their weekly projects. 

A Rising Tide Raises All Ships, photograph by Kendra King, Iqaluit, Nunavut. Kendra’s partner holds an abandoned briefcase in front of a snow-covered garbage heap, emphasizing the struggles of waste management in the North. © Kendra King

Youth participant Anna Irwin, of Clyde River found these weekly sessions particularly valuable, “One of my favourite parts [about the weekly sessions] was telling a story and seeing how other people reacted from that one image and then getting feedback.” 

In Anna’s photograph Water Truck, she documents the ways in which fuel is used in her community. Smoke billows from the exhaust pipe, echoed by the houses in the distance, with white clouds rising from their chimneys. Anna explains, “We rely on fuel every day, both directly and indirectly. Through the burning of fuel, our homes are heated, and our electricity is created. Water is brought to our houses by truck, which [also] requires fuel.” 

Participant Chelsea Qammaniq, of Pond Inlet also considers environmental impacts of everyday life. In her photograph Qarmaq, Chelsea and her son sit in a replica qarmaq, a traditional Inuit dwelling, with a row of modern houses visible in the background. Chelsea reflects, “As Inuit, [our traditional ways of living] never polluted the air, as we only caught what we needed and used what we needed.” The contrast between these structures demonstrate that lifestyles change over time. The connection between Chelsea and her young son makes us wonder, ‘how can we protect the environment for future generations?’ 

In addition to the photographs and footage produced by Our People, Our Climate participants, research on an archive of student drawings from the Nunavut Research Institute will be included in the film. From 1994‐1997 young students from across the north were part of a drawing and poster contest hosted by the Arctic Weather Centre. Environment Canada ran this contest to encourage children to think and learn about the northern climate. The project aimed to prevent traditional stories from being lost, to encourage young people to recognize the wisdom of elders as a tool for survival in the North, and to motivate students to think about climate change in their lives. Interviews with these former students, who are now adults, will be conducted to share their reflections on the drawings they produced in the ’90s and to amplify their thoughts on climate change today. 

Photographs, interviews and videography from the Our People Our Climate curriculum will come together with interviews and drawings from the Environment Canada poster contest as a documentary film of the same name. The work of this talented cohort will have an international audience, screening at the Centre for Contemporary Arts Glasgow in Scotland, during the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, taking place November 2021. Concurrent to this exhibition, material related to the Our People, Our Climate program will be hosted on the Centre for Contemporary Arts Glasgow’s website and will be accessible at ccaannex.net, beginning November 2021. 

VIACassandra Jesik
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