As published by The Guardian
Maatalii Okalik is tired of seeing polar bears as the face of climate change. “Make it an Inuit face. We’re the ones that are really affected by it,” she told the Guardian in a phone interview from Paris.
At the Paris climate conference, the bear is a trope on banners and posters. Politicians and activists are taking note of the Arctic’s plight, invoking sprawling vistas and vulnerable wildlife as a cautionary tale. “This summer, I saw the effects of climate change first-hand in our northernmost state, Alaska,” Barack Obama said in his opening remarks at the conference. “Where the sea is already swallowing villages and eroding shorelines; where permafrost thaws and the tundra burns; where glaciers are melting at a pace unprecedented in modern times.”
But Okalik, President of Canada’s National Inuit Youth Council, says the soaring rhetoric of saving the Arctic is not enough. “Inuit continue to be the human barometer of climate change,” she said. “They have been saying to the international community for years that climate change is happening at a rapid pace.” If action if going to be taken on preserving life in the Arctic, she argued, traditional Inuit knowledge and experience needs to be included.
Bound by tundra, rock and frigid waters, Iqaluit is more than 2,700 miles from Paris.
Far removed from the world’s climate deliberations, it’s the centre of a quickly changing landscape. It’s also the Canadian Arctic’s capital and the consummate frontier city, with a rapidly growing population. The median age of the territory is below 25, and one-third of the residents are under the age of 15. The Arctic is young.
For the Arctic’s new generation, the last decade has been one of hollow promises in the face of ongoing crises. The territory is powered on costly diesel fuel, it lacks sufficient housing, and the cost of living is too high for many Inuit residents. Annual pilgrimages of political leaders to the north have been, for the most part, political theatre, accompanied by photo ops and platitudes to the residents asking for more money to alleviate the glut of problems in the region.
One youth leader has grown increasingly frustrated with inaction on both environmental and social issues affecting youth. Two months ago, Okalik used her role as head of the National Inuit Youth Council to question federal candidates before the Canadian election. “If elected and as our voice in Ottawa, do you commit to implementing the 94 calls to action put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and what specific measures will you take?” she asked to heavy applause from the crowd. As the moderator pointed out, she was one of the few young people in the crowd.
Two months later, she travelled to Paris for the COP21 conference as an Arctic delegate, representing the Nunavut territory to monitor the talks and to lobby for the inclusion of indigenous voices in the agreement. With many elders lacking the tools to engage the international community, Okalik sees a clear role in discussions for her generation.
“Inuit traditional knowledge has identified the impacts of climate change,” she told the Guardian. “Hunters know animal migration routes and how they’ve changed. We want traditional knowledge to be included as a valid form of evidence.”
Elders have told her the environment has changed dramatically over the years. While sea ice is the most common indicator of climate change, hunters have noticed more subtle changes. Seventy years ago, she is told, hunters could eat polar bear meat raw, with no consequence. Now, it must be boiled for more than six hours to prevent the harmful effects of trichinella. Ring seals, an Inuit favourite, are being pushed out of traditional hunting grounds by larger harp seals. The hunts now yield less, and the sea ice has grown increasingly unpredictable for experienced hunters. Last year, a veteran hunter disappeared just outside of Iqaluit during the spring festival. The constellation of impacts from climate change further exacerbates problems in a region suffering from chronic food insecurity.
“Elders who hold knowledge – they don’t have the social media skills, electronic skills or even English skills to speak up,” said Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuit filmmaker, of the capabilities needed to effect change and advocate for Inuit issues.
This hamstringing of an older generation, many of whom grew up in forced resettlement outpost camps and speak Inuktitut as their mother tongue, means that important voices in the community often go unheard. But for Arnaquq-Baril, it’s the younger generation who are emerging with the strongest voice. “In many cases, it’s the youth fighting to preserve culture and the elders saying, ‘No, let this go.’”
There was a time Inuit were discouraged from taking pride in their heritage, Okalik says. But the shame imbued within the community is fading quickly. Her generation is eager to absorb traditions and skills suited to thriving in a hard environment.
She studied political science and human rights at university, “but I put my experience hunting and cleaning skins and sewing kammiqs [boots] as my formal education”, she said.
This push for renewed pride and identity among Inuit youth emerges from a generation bookended by crisis. In October, red dresses dotted the capital. Hung on doors by friends and families, the garments were meant to commemorate young Inuit women lost to domestic violence. Suicide rates among Inuit youth are some of the highest in the world. “There isn’t one Inuk who hasn’t had someone close to them affected by suicide. It is so rampant and devastating and happens at such a high rate that it’s almost normal now,” says Okalik.
A dress hangs outside a house to commemorate the high number of indigenous women who are victims of violence. Photograph: Leyland Cecco for the Guardian
Much of this stems from a not so distant history, when Inuit were sent to government-run residential schools, though some living in the western Arctic were sent as early as the 1860s. The aim of the schools was to assimilate them into the Christian students, mirroring a southern lifestyle. For many, both their identity and body were beaten. “My mother’s generation was constantly told being Inuk is not good enough,” says Franco Buschemi, an emerging stand-up comic. To make sense of tragedy and pain, he takes an unconventional approach: he tells jokes.
Buschemi recalls reactions to poking fun at a rash of suicides in Canada’s northern territory that have led it to issue a state of emergency. “It’s pretty dark,” he admits. “But Inuit love to tell jokes.” His material is infused with enough social commentary to disarm his audience, but also to get them thinking. “The comedy I’m doing is northern art. There are jokes that you have to understand the culture of living in the north,” he says. With plans to cajole a friend “who does a great Inuktitut Donald Duck” into a comedy troupe, Buschemi hopes to wed northern humour with southern form.
As the world awaits a decision from Paris, Inuit youth draw optimism from the success of their ancestors adapting to thrive in the Arctic. “So much has happened in the last 70 years alone when it comes to Inuit having to quickly react and respond to change,” says Okalik. Using traditional knowledge, she feels the global south could do the same.