Monday, February 13, 2012

Warming waters: the impact of climate change on indigenous communities

By Stephanie Kelly
The New Brunswick Beacon
February 10th, 2012

Igloolik, Nunavut was featured in the documentary 
As a child, Zacharias Kunuk couldn’t imagine a world beyond his Inuit village on Baffin Island.

“I thought we were the only people on earth, living on the land moving around by dogs, building igloos and building sod houses for winter and hunting the animals,” he said.

Nearly fifty years later, with an Order of Canada and established career under his belt, Kunuk has made it his life’s work to connect both worlds through film.

About 150 people gathered at MacLaggan Hall on Wednesday evening for the screening of Kunuk’s latest film, Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change.

The documentary was co-directed by Ian Mauro and explored how climate change affects Canada’s Inuit population. It takes viewers to four communities in Nunavut and speaks with elders on how global warming is challenging their traditional way of life.

The Arctic has been making headlines lately for more than climate change. China is seeking observer status on the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental group that deals with topics concerning indigenous communities.
China does not have territory in the Arctic and some suggest their interest lies in oil and gas reserves beneath the frozen tundra.

Scientist and documentary co-director Ian Mauro said this isn’t unusual and the global spotlight is on the Arctic for many reasons.

“One is its resources, two is that climate change is actually creating the geographic conditions where the Arctic is going to be one of the most hospitable environments to live in the next hundred years and geopoliticaly, the Arctic is critical to the survival of the human species,” Mauro said.

Qapirangajuq premiered in the fall of 2010 and was the first Inuktitut film to cover the issue of climate change in Canada’s northern region. It took six months of filming, hundreds of miles of travelling and over a year of editing to create.

The Inuit survive on a relationship with the land. The culture teaches to take only what you need and to respect every part of nature. But elders say as the climate changes, their lifestyle must change with it.

Rising temperatures and warming waters are not a distant worry for Canada’s Inuit communities- it’s at their front door. Melting glaciers, collapsing river banks and shifting winds are a reality for a culture built on permafrost.

Climate change reaches deep into northern ecosystems, affecting both humans and animals living on the land. Pollution travelling from the south has contaminated caribou meat and the once soft and shiny seal fur is now thin and rotten.

Not long ago, it was rare to see polar bears wandering throughout northern communities, but thinning ice has forced the animals to come to shore. Villagers say it’s no longer safe to travel without a tent or a dog.

Inuit villages have been under scrutiny for hunting polar bears, which are endangered. But Elders interviewed said bear populations are as high as ever and that “southerners” are the problem.

Some point their finger at scientists who put radio collars on bears to track them. This means bears can’t hunt properly and can sometimes starve to death.

Kunuk got into the film business to reconnect youth with their Inuit culture and to educate the world on the Inuit way of life.

“It was to relearn our culture. It was first for our Inuit audience, but then the outside was so interested and you just connect the two.”

Kunuk got his first taste of TV production in 1981. He flew to Montreal to sell soapstone sculptures and bought his first moving-picture camera. Since then, he’s produced and directed over a dozen TV films and programs on Inuit culture. He is the co-founder and president of Iglooik Isuma Productions, the first Inuit-run television production company.

Kunuk said his most recent documentary, Qapirangajuq, looks at global warming through a different lens- the Inuit elders of Nunavut.

“The whole world is talking about climate change and we felt we were being left out.”

Co-director Ian Mauro is from Manitoba, but has been living in the Arctic on and off for the past ten years. He has a doctorate in environmental science and is the Canada Research Chair in Human Dimensions of Environmental Change.

When asked why he kept returning to the north, he said he wants to give back to the people who welcomed him into their families and taught him how to live off the land.

“It’s the human relationships. It’s meeting people in the Arctic and once you have the opportunity to meet Inuit, they are the most generous, knowledgeable and friendly people I’ve ever met.”

In a question and answer session following the film, audience members asked what role the public can play in stopping the negative effects climate change has on our northern neighbours.

Mauro said we need to take a lesson from the Inuit in conserving our energy and resources.
“It’s just a matter of studying up and saying ‘you know what, there’s a problem and we need to change the way we live.’

“Climate change is caused by the south, it’s caused by our industries, it’s caused by our lifestyles and the people who bear the brunt of it are people who have very little to do with causing it,” Mauro said.

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