Aboriginal hunters tell their stories: Climate change in Hudson Bay

A five-year study by the municipality of Sanikiluaq and the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee records Cree and Inuit observations of their environment change.


Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT For as long as anyone can remember, winter has annually stranded the tiny Hudson Bay community of Sanikiluaq, enveloping the Belcher Islands west of Kuujuaraapik in a shifting, treacherous expanse of sea ice and open water.

In the days when the nearest Hudson’s Bay Store was 150 kilometres away, deep sea currents made supply trips by dog-team across the moving pack ice especially arduous.

“It was freezing, but the ice never stopped moving,” recalls Zachary Novalinga, who grew up on the islands in the 1950s.

But ice conditions have changed in recent years, according to Novalinga, co-author of a new study of the bay’s ecology, Voices from the Bay.

Not only does ice form earlier each winter, it’s interrupted by fewer and smaller polynyas expanses of open water. In addition, the island has been fixed to the mainland in recent winters by a solid ice bridge.

These changes, in turn, have had devastating effects on the local eider duck population, since the birds depend on open water for food and warmth when temperatures plunge below minus-40 degrees.

“It can only take a few days to kill quite a few hundred ducks when it freezes,” says Novalinga. “I think it’s so cold, they can’t fly anymore, [they’re] hungry, and then they freeze to death.”

Ice conditions changing

Ice formation is just one of seven aspects of the bay’s ecology that Novalinga and fellow authors Miriam McDonald and Lucassie Arragutainaq examined in preparing the study.

The trio spent five years interviewing elders, hunters, fishers and trappers in 27 aboriginal communities around the bay.

“I think what we found in doing the study was that the traditional knowledge provides insight into the ecological relationships that are occuring, how things fit together, how they work together and how they’re interconnected,” said McDonald, co-ordinator of the research, which was jointly published by the Municipality of Sanikiluaq and the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.

Traditional Cree and Inuit knowledge of water currents, weather, animals, rivers and human health fill the book’s 100-odd pages.

Voices from the Bay depicts a region undergoing considerable ecological change, written from the perspective of people who still rely directly on the land and the sea for their livelihood.

They note that fewer whales now visit the mouths of the Churchill and Nelson rivers, and report larger numbers in the Winisk and Severn rivers, where whitefish are abundant.

Inuit in the northwestern Hudson Bay communities of Whale Cole, Chesterfield Inlet, Arviat, Repulse bay and Coral Harbour wonder if there’s a link between migrating caribou feeding close to mine tailings and a high rate of cancer deaths they’ve noticed among elders.

And Hudson Strait Inuit report an increase in the sun’s intensity, an observation also made by Belcher Island hunters, who have begun sporting sunburns, “a phenomoneon considered very unusual,” according to the study.

Changes in ice formation are attributed to a general weakening of sea currents observed in eastern Hudson Bay, possibly as the the result of hydroelectric development in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.

“By reducing the flow of water flowing into the basin from three of the major rivers systems, you could indeed be altering the way that the currents flow within the bay,” McDonald says.

“It’s worthy of consideration and should be investigated further.”

Long-term traditional knowledge

Eastern James Bay Cree report a decline in fish and a shift in the migration routes of Canada and snow geese, which has in turn led to a change in coastal vegetation. They say the routes were originally disrupted by the construction of hydro-electric reservoirs in the James Bay region in the 1970s.

“The main migration is now through the mid-section of northern Quebec, and when they are heading south, they are avoiding coastal areas until they reach Moosonee, then they head west from there,” says Novalinga.

In the birds’ absence along the eastern shoreline, residents say that the eel grass marshes where the birds’ use to feed has been gradually overtaken by trees.

“Snow geese, when they are feeding, they are actually uprooting roots along the shoreline,” Novalinga says. “They are just like farmers.”

Development within aboriginal communities has also apparently altered the habits of marine wildlife, the study suggests. Fewer beluga, for example, are seen in James Bay and along the eastern coast of Hudson bay, while more are seen in the offshore areas of eastern Hudson Bay.

“Animals like quiet areas and they’re moving offshore where’s there less boat activity, less noise,” McDonald says.

McDonald says she hopes the report will find acceptance within the scientific community as a record of environmental change in the region and as a useful picture of conditions as they now stand.

But she acknowledges the study doesn’t offer any easy explanations.

“There’s many causes to a single event, and these are some of their insights into what they think the causes are,” McDonald says.

“It’s not a definitive work in terms of what the causes of these changes are. It’s more reporting on the changes themselves.”

Aimed primarily at various federal, provincial and territorial agencies that make decisions affecting the Hudson Bay ecosystem, McDonald says the study could be a starting point for discussions between aboriginal people and scientists who are trying to assess the effects of hydro-electric development, mining and logging in the region.

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