Inuit activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier grew up travelling only by dog team for the first 10 years of her life.
Now, the changes she sees in Canada’s north are “huge.”
The coast is eroding. Permafrost is melting. New species are appearing in the north. Ice is forming later each fall, with people boating well into November, she told The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson.
“You have to understand that ice, for us, is mobility and transportation,” Watt-Cloutier said.
When it becomes precarious, it becomes “an issue of safety and security right away.”
This hasn’t been a kind year for climate change news about the Arctic.
Permafrost in Canada’s North is melting decades earlier than expected, according to a June study. Melting permafrost — a combination of soil and rock melded together with ice — could impact ecosystems as well as infrastructure.
The government of Nunavut even released a homeowners’ guide to permafrost to address the issue in 2013, noting that thawing permafrost can “lead to uneven floors, cracks in walls and, eventually, serious structural problems.”
“The permafrost is melting very rapidly,” Watt-Cloutier said. “That creates infrastructure problems, where we’ve had to even relocate certain homes in my region, in Nunavik, in Salluit, to another place because the houses were buckling, the homes were buckling as a result of the permafrost on the ground.”
A recently released Arctic Report Card painted a dismal picture of a future Arctic with less ice and more greenery. A report by the Climate Action Network in August found the richest countries in the world — including Canada — were not leading the fight against climate change.
Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, with the Arctic warming faster than other parts of the country, according to a government report from April.
The report by Environment and Climate Change Canada called the warming “effectively irreversible,” saying if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, Canada could face 10 times as many deadly heat waves and twice as many extreme rainstorms.
Watt-Cloutier grew up in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik — the northern part of Quebec. She recalls seeing smaller vegetation on the landscape back then.
“Now we have huge willows and huge trees because as the permafrost melts, then it creates the ability for the trees’ roots to go deeper,” she said.
The author of The Right to Be Cold and the past chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council warns that “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic” and that climate change in Canada’s north is adversely impacting culture as well.
“Our very right to be Inuit as we know it is being diminished and destroyed as a result of climatic changes,” Watt-Cloutier said. “Our very right to be Inuit as we know it is being violated by the inaction of countries around the world.”
She’s not alone in her concerns. This past election, climate change emerged as one of the top ballot box issues on the minds of voters, with almost a third of survey respondents in an October Ipsos poll saying the issue could determine how they vote.
“Climate change is everybody’s responsibility,” Watt-Cloutier said. “If we wait for government to take action, we may wait an awful long time and we’re already in the late stages of what’s happening.”
“Our climate is not changing, it’s in crisis. It’s in trauma.”
But she acknowledges that the political arena is a “tough place to be.”
“It’s tough to be a leader in those elected roles, which is why I’ve never wanted to go into federal politics per se,” she said.
“We still have hope, though,” she added.
“We still have hope that Canadians will come together and address these issues as urgently as they need to.”