Nunavut must think big, not small, on polar bears

“Allowing ourselves to remain paralyzed by anger against certain environmental groups only keeps us stuck as victims.”

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SHEILA WATT-CLOUTIER

The question of polar bear hunting quotas, which unfortunately is now detracting from the larger picture of climate change as a fundamental threat, is why I am publicly entering into this escalating debate.

My points certainly are not intended to counter the voices of our hunters in their observations and wisdom. For the last 11 years in an elected position, I have dedicated my life to the collective wellbeing through the protection and promotion internationally of our hunting way of life, including the Arctic’s wildlife and environment.

In a world that barely knows who we are, let alone the negative impacts that globalization is having on us in very disproportionate ways, it is a daunting task.

I will repeat here what I have said many times, as I think it warrants repeating: the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), which incorporates our traditional knowledge as well as science, says that the Arctic is warming and melting quickly, the rate of change is accelerating and that emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide is the cause.

The ACIA also concludes that marine mammals, including polar bear, walrus, along with some species of marine birds, are threatened with possible extinction by the middle to the end of this century, as is our hunting culture, which largely depends on the cold, ice and snow.

We may not always witness or experience all of these changes immediately in Nunavut. However, I know with certainty that dramatic changes are already happening in our circumpolar world and that these challenges will surely accelerate faster than we care to acknowledge.

Largely as a result of the stellar research work of the ACIA, which involved many Arctic voices, including our own organizations such as ITK and ICC, and including the human rights petition I launched on behalf of 62 hunters, elders and women from Canada and Alaska, all of whose testimonies are recorded on video, the world is finally taking notice as to what is happening in the Arctic.

The world is finally starting to “get it” and more recently, governments including Canada and the United States, are actually considering taking solid action to address the issue of lowering greenhouse gases, which as I state above, is now largely accepted worldwide as the cause of climate change. A stronger global consensus on this important issue is very good news for us living in the Arctic.

But I am worried that if we remain focused on the smaller picture, playing smaller politics where we only focus on the numbers issue in terms of polar bear populations, we will lose, and lose big.

The rhetoric we hear today, our hunter’s observations versus science, journalists weighing in about science and traditional knowledge, and many more well-meaning individuals with their own take on this extremely critical matter is adding to the confusion.

Not so long ago, ICC and other Arctic indigenous peoples participated in the global negotiations leading up to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to guide and influence the global community to do the right thing: eliminate the toxins at their source.

Others tried to use numbers to argue that millions dying from malaria and dependent upon DDT were more important than anything else, including the poisoning of our country food and the nursing milk of our mothers. With diligence and optimism we persevered, and we flew above the rhetoric of numbers, choosing the high moral ground and insisting that the world can surely find alternatives to these chemicals to create a win-win for all.

By being focused, rational and strategic, we were able to influence the negotiations out of all proportion to our numbers, which ultimately led to the successful outcome of one of the fastest conventions to be signed, ratified and enforced in the history of the United Nations.

However the issue of toxins is not necessarily over. Nowhere else in the world are the two issues of POPs and climate change so intertwined. As the Arctic sink continues to warm, more persistent organic pollutants, which now lay dormant, will eventually be re-released into our environment. It continues to be our responsibility to keep the Arctic cold, not only for our own safety and survival, but for the safety of our country food, and ultimately our health.

Drawing upon the successful experience we had with the POPs negotiations, I believe we can create a win-win situation with the polar bear issue.

However, I believe our chances will be lessened if we ourselves are not sending a consistent message to the world, as well as reaching for the highest of standards and rigor as we substantiate our findings with traditional knowledge.

In many cases it is too easy for the outside world to dismiss traditional knowledge as though it were only anecdotal with no scientific basis. In order to counter that, we must take responsibility for getting involved and engaged in all research, especially polar bear research. Consideration should be given to replicate studies previously conducted and produced by the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board concerning bowhead whales.

This is stellar work that came from Nunavut itself and I have quoted from it many times in my international work. It has been most useful in promoting traditional knowledge at its best.

There is other highly credible work that uses traditional knowledge on caribou herds that the Northwest Territories produced that we can draw upon. I cannot stress enough that traditional knowledge must be set in the highest of standards and rigor for it to be accepted as credible with global policy makers.

Traditionally, functioning from high standards is not foreign to us, as one did not survive a few hours much less thrive a millennia with anything but the highest of rigourous standards in our daily lives. Historically, high standards and rigor is the Inuit way.

This is an opportune time for Inuit in the history of the world. With all eyes on the Arctic and with such interest building up we should be bridging gaps where they exist. We are well-placed to seize the moment to make our challenges as well as our aspirations heard. What a time for the wisdom of the land and our ancient culture to come through as leaders in modeling balanced sustainability for a world that has largely lost that perspective.

If we focus only on losing, then lose we will. However if we focus on gaining – then gain we will, on many fronts, as we are now in very solid standing globally at this time with a momentum of support that is only growing stronger. Educating conservationists, environmentalists and global NGOs in confident, inclusive ways to the larger picture of climate change as well as our need for economic stability is an important aspect of moving from a position of weakness to one of strength.

Allowing ourselves to remain paralyzed by anger against certain environmental groups only keeps us stuck as victims. It shifts our energy from a partnership building process to one of “us and them” and closes doors to the potential of creating further understanding where differences exist. For the sake of the next generation we need to move beyond our wounding as, perhaps without realizing it, we are modeling perpetual powerlessness and victim hood to our youth.

The trophy hunters are few when you look at the grand scale of things and believe me there are many more rich Americans as well as rich Europeans and Japanese who would love to come north to experience the Arctic, its wildlife and especially the habitat of the polar bears itself.

It is already happening with Nunavik’s cruise ships bringing in these eager tourists. If we plan effectively and implement strong eco-tourism initiatives, we can surely in the coming years double or triple the $1.5 million our hunters have come to rely upon annually. Surely our hunters deserve more than short seasonal incomes, and surely they should not be the ones to carry the economic burden as a result of the limited short-term actions and limited visions of some of our institutions.

I am aware that many of our own Inuit experts in all four countries of Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Russia are active members of the global Polar Bear Specialist Group meetings and they have attended these international meetings leading up to the listing of the polar bear at the IUCN. I am confident they will continue to be vigilant in ensuring our own governments and other global governments do not repeat history, which could bring yet again negative ramifications to the economic well-being of our hunters without a contingency plan to offset the losses.

Putting on our critical, strategic thinking hats will be key now in finding solutions that do not sacrifice the larger picture of what we must protect: an Inuit society that defends and builds upon the wisdom of our remarkable resilient hunting culture.

We owe it to the next generation not to highjack their future due to short-term thinking and we must insist from ourselves and our leaders, innovative and sustainable means of keeping our hunters hunting safely and sustainably so that they may remain the true sentinels and guardians of this majestic homeland we call the Arctic.

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