As published by Al Jazeera America
IQALUIT, Canada — Flowing deeply between ice and rock, the waters of the high Canadian Arctic have been unforgiving for centuries to those who dreamed of a trade route that would bring goods more quickly from Asia to Europe.
Expeditions to find the fabled Northwest Passage usually ended in failure, if not death. Perhaps the most infamous was the fourth attempt launched by British explorer John Franklin in 1845, whose crew was stranded for years, and, it’s rumored, succumbed to cannibalism
“The South has always been fascinated with the North and had a great imagination about it,’’ says Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, an Inuk poet of Greenlandic and Canadian heritage.
This imagination somehow failed to account for the people who actually lived on the land, ice and water that separated the two continents.
“The middle part was seen as this inconvenient emptiness,” says Williamson Bathory.
While the thick sea ice blanketing the region for much of the year frustrated traders, it long served as a bridge for the Inuit, connecting them to neighboring communities and hunting locations inaccessible during warmer months.
Now, it is climate change that is unforgiving.
Ice that was once present year-round is gone. Hunters say currents under ice floes are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Withering sea ice from an ever-warmer world is not only changing the landscape the Inuit relied on for their sustenance and culture. For the first time in history, the waning sea ice has opened up the Northwest Passage to commercial traffic.
While world leaders meet in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change conference and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issues dire warnings about Canada’s Arctic, the country’s Inuit worry they will be sidestepped when it comes to administering, monitoring and protecting the passage.
“We have never been the people sitting at a table, we’ve never been accorded that role,” says Aaju Peter, an Inuit activist based in Iqaluit. “It is continuously a lack of understanding or lack of respect or a lack of seeing Inuit as equal partners or autonomous.” At present, the Inuit have no formalized way to flag environmental concerns. An agreement between the Inuit and the federal government to form a Marine Council through which the Inuit would advise the federal government has yet to be fully formed despite years of false starts
In the hamlet of Clyde River, 280 miles above the Arctic Circle, worries of an oil spill hang heavy over the region. Sheltered in a bay, the community is on the east coast of Baffin Island where ships pass by on their way into the passage.
“An oil spill would mean our main food source would be contaminated and not suitable for consumption. It would mean our way of life would basically change forever,” says Niore Iqalukjuak, manager of the Clyde River Hunters and Trappers Organization. “Hunting is how everyone gets food for their families.”
Within the community, like so many others in the north, more than half of the communal diet consists of fresh game. The animals hunted by the residents, like narwhal, cover large distances in their migrations. A spill would have lasting impacts on vulnerable marine populations..
Even with the sea ice melting earlier and freezing later, the route remains fraught with obstacles that can capsize a ship, The freezing of sea spray on the top of a ship, known as icing, has the tendency to make a vessel top heavy and capsize. Growlers — icebergs sitting low in the water and difficult to spot — are notorious for sinking ships. Rocks and rogue waves are also a hazard.
Oil tankers like the Exxon Valdez often capture the public imagination and fear. But cargo ships, such as those who might use the Northwest Passage, pose a danger as well. In 2004, the MV Selendang Ayu was grounded in a storm off the coast of the Aleutian Islands. Carrying 132.6 million pounds of soybeans, the Malaysian-flagged ship broke in two, spilling more than 8,000 barrels of fuel oil.
“The US Coast Guard didn't even attempt a recovery of the oil because they had no facilities or personnel,’’ says Michael Byers,a legal scholar and Arctic specialist at the University of British Columbia and author of “Who Owns the Arctic.’’
That was on the south coast of Alaska. It would be even more difficult further North. At present, there is no technology able to separate oil from sea ice. If a spill did occur, ocean currents would likely push the oil or contaminants under the ice, where it would be impossible to track or remove.
“We can't afford to have an oil spill in the Canadian Arctic,” Byers says. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently formalized a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic along the north coast of British Columbia but to date he has remained silent on the environmental risks of ships passing through the Northwest Passage.
The last few years of weakening ice have opened up the passage for commercial shipping firsts in quick succession. In 2013, the Nordic Orion passed crossed the Northwest Passage assisted by an icebreaker. It was an historical first for non-ice strengthened bulk carrier, travelling from Vancouver to Finland via the Arctic. Opting to bypass the Panama Canal, it shortened the journey by four days and 1,000 nautical miles. Only a year later and unassisted by an icebreaker, the MV Nunavik carried mineral ore from Quebec to China through the vaunted passage.
There is no shipping boom- yet. Last year, 14,000 ships passed through the Panama Canal, producing $2 billion in revenue for the Panamanian government. Only 50 passed through the Northwest Passage.
Yet as the summer ice melt extends further into the year, commercial shipping through the North is becoming increasingly viable. “I'm certainly expecting that in the next 10-20 years, regular late summer, early fall shipping traffic will be considered normal in Canada's Arctic,” says Byers.
The mass melt-outs of sea ice beginning in 2007 reignited Canadian interest in the Northwest Passage and was a cornerstone of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ‘Arctic Sovereignty’ campaign in 2007. This campaign aimed to reassert Canada’s legal claims to Arctic waters. The Canadian government argues the waters encircling its northern archipelagoes are internal, rebuffing American objections that they are in fact intentional waters.
To strengthentheir case for sovereignty, the Canadian government cites the perpetual use and inhabitation of the North by Inuit.
Much of the waterway passes through Nunavut, an Inuit region of Canada, created by an historic land claims agreement between the Inuit and the federal government in 1993. Later granted territory status in 1999, Nunavut occupies 733,594 square miles- a fifth of Canada’s land mass. Through the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA), the Inuit ceded all treaty rights granted under the Canadian Constitution in exchange for the right to hunt and trap the land and water as they had for thousands of year, as well as control over environmental stewardship of the land and waters.
Despite pinning their claims to the Arctic on the Inuit, the Canadian federal government has been largely absent in terms of development or community engagement. For years, Inuit communities have been promised deep water ports, infrastructure projects and money to combat the food and housing crises. The cost of running cargo planes is largely unaffordable so cargo ships travelling from Montreal to Iqaluit remain the lifeblood of the North, bringing in building supplies and food. Iqaluit, located on the southern edge of Baffin Island, is only accessible for short period in the summer when the Frobisher Bay is clear of ice. There are no operational deepwater harbors in Nunavut, so cargo has to be offloaded to barges, a process that takes weeks at a time.
Byers speaks to audiences around the world about the Northwest Passage and finds the only argument non-Canadians take seriously is Inuit use and occupancy. But he has yet to hear the same degree of responsiveness from successive Canadian governments, presumably because it would take billions of dollars to resolve the crises the Inuit face, money that has yet to appear.
“It would be widely regarded as hypocritical if they were invoking the Inuit to support Canadian sovereignty the same time they were letting them down,’’ Byers says.
To date, none of the promises made to Nunavummiut have materialized. Prime Minister Trudeau has pledged to accelerate search and rescue capacity, alongside greater funding for Inuit-based programs to remedy what his Liberal Party sees as neglect over the last nine years.
“The social, economic and health crises in Nunavut are worse now than they were 10 years ago,” says Byers. “You spend a small amount of money on housing, but nowhere near what was needed to address the problems.”
Even before the route opened to commercial traffic, the first clash between Inuit and the federal government arose in 2009. Amidst the headiness of Canada’s Arctic claims, a Conservative Member of Parliament introduced a motion to rename the Northwest Passage as the Canadian Northwest Passage.
The move outraged residents in Nunavut. Paul Kaludjak, President of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (the Inuit organization responsible for overseeing and implementing the NLCA) spoke before Parliament.
“We are from Nunavut. Nunavut means “our land” and not anyone else's transit way,” he testified. “The term ‘Northwest Passage’ raises an immediate question: northwest of where and of what? The reference point seems to be London, England, and that, I think, is the mindset we are trying to get away from.”
Today, current NTI President Cathy Towtongie is equally clear where the Inuit stand. “The first preamble of our agreement says Inuit hold sovereignty for Canada. It’s written right into the agreement.”
A focal point for Inuit concern is Lancaster Sound, the rich waters connecting Parry Channel with the Northwest Passage. For generations, the Inuit have called it Tallurutiup Tariunga for the rocks rising out of the water that resemble the traditional chin tattoos on Inuit women.
“It's really important to see the Arctic, specifically Lancaster Sound, as a dynamic place. The animals are travelling in and out of those waters, the waters are very kinetic, there's currents going in and out of there all the time. The people are going in and out of there, living there, travelling there,” says Williamson Bathory. Angering the communities in the area, Lancaster Sound is flagged for oil exploration. With the influx of commercial ships in record numbers, there are worries that this ecosystem could be irreparably changed.
In 2007, former Prime Minister Harper famously declared that in order to preserve the sovereignty of Lancaster Sound, Canada and the Inuit needed to ‘use it or lose it.’
“There was no thinking of our people having lived and died for thousands of years in the area,” says Lazarus Kalluk, an interpreter from Pond Inlet, a small community near Lancaster Sound. “Sometimes, they don’t see us as Canadians.”
In addition to frustrations with government policy, Kalluk and others are worried about invasive species that could enter the area from shipping traffic. “We don’t know what could happen to the ecosystem if something new is introduced by accident on the hulls of these ships.” There already is legislation in place to prevent ballast water from ships from being dumped in certain regions, but Kalluk worries that might not be enforced. Byers supports this view, noting that with so little infrastructure and monitoring capabilities in the North, policing ship traffic and dumping is difficult. There is a constellation of unknowns for the communities given that international ships have never before moved through the Arctic en masse.
Sea ice, a mainstay of the North that inextricably binds Inuit to the environment, also looks increasingly vulnerable. Ships with reinforced hulls for icebreaking, or those with an icebreaker escort near hunting grounds rend the floes crucial for hunting. Hunters fear they will lose their ability to travel unfettered across the ice, a key mode of transportation for much of the year. Depending on how close ships choose to move to shore, ice breaking could damage the hunt. “There aren’t any shipping lanes established yet,” says Byers.
Recently, when the Baffinland mining company with large interests in the area proposed shipping ore 10 months of the year from Pond Inlet on Baffin Island to Germany, it met sharp resistance.
“Ice is an essential part of life in the North. For people, for polar bears, for seals and other animals in the North, ice is a bridge — both metaphorically to the past and present Inuit values and activities, also actually as a fact,” wrote Chairman Hunter Tootoo of the Nunavut Planning Commission. “Ice physically links Inuit to their culture and values.” Tootoo now serves as the Minister of Fisheries, Ocean and Canadian Coast Guard for the Federal Government.
“Most these ships that are coming, the international voyages, will go straight through. They'll be on tight schedules. They're trying to save time and money and they're not going to stop en route,” says Byers. Revenue from shipping would likely be directed instead to the federal government. Despite shouldering most of the risk associated with commercial shipping through Arctic waters, the economic benefit to Inuit would be very little.
Instead, the Inuit feel they put up social and environmental capital to fund Canadian expansion of the Northwest Passage.
“I think that since explorers started showing up in the Arctic, it's always been this place for Southerners to test their mettle,” says Williamson Bathory. “And therefore, everything about the North is conquerable, including the environment, the animals and the people.”