Opening the Canadian Arctic

Inuit worry about waning sea ice and rising ship traffic in the Northwest Passage

Inuit worry about waning sea ice and rising ship traffic in the Northwest Passage

Flowing deeply between ice and rock, the waters of the high Canadian Arctic have been unforgiving for centuries to those who dreamed of a quicker trade route between Asia and Europe.

Expeditions to find the fabled Northwest Passage usually ended in failure, if not death. Perhaps the most infamous was British explorer John Franklin’s fourth attempt, launched 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.

Early sea ice begins to form near the end of October in Clyde River, a small community on the east coast of Baffin Island. (Click to enlarge images)

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 recorded history, the waning sea ice has opened up the Northwest Passage to commercial traffic.

While world leaders meet in Paris for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issues dire warnings about the 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 come to fruition, after 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 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, the manager of the Clyde River Hunters and Trappers Organization. “Hunting is how everyone gets food for their families.”

In the community, like so many others in the North, more than half the diet consists of fresh game. The animals hunted by the residents, like narwhal, cover large distances in their migrations. A spill would have lasting effects on vulnerable marine populations.

A hunter inside a fjord, top left. Hunters prepare to hunt narwhal after a pod was spotted entering the sheltered bay near Clyde River, and hauling the carcass of a narwhal, a principal source of food in the community. (Click to enlarge images)

Even with the sea ice melting earlier and freezing later, the route remains fraught with perils for ships. The freezing of sea spray on the top of a ship, known as icing, can leave a vessel top-heavy and make it 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 pose a danger as well. In 2004 the Malaysian-flagged Selendang Ayu was grounded in a storm off the Aleutian Islands. Carrying 133 million pounds of soybeans, the ship broke in two, spilling more than 8,000 barrels of fuel oil.

“The U.S. 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 an Arctic specialist at the University of British Columbia and the author of “Who Owns the Arctic?”

That was on the southern coast of Alaska. Handling a spill would be even more difficult farther north. At present, there is no technology able to separate oil from sea ice. If a spill occurred, 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. Trudeau recently formalized a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic along the northern coast of British Columbia, but he has remained silent on the environmental risks of ships using the Northwest Passage.


Source: Department of Environment and Natural Resources, "Trends in shipping in the Northwest Passage and the Beaufort Sea," May 2015. Map by Alex Newman/Al Jazeera America.

The last few years of weakening ice in the passage have led to a number of commercial shipping firsts in quick succession. In 2013 the Nordic Orion crossed the Northwest Passage, assisted by an icebreaker — a first for a non-ice-strengthened bulk carrier. Traveling from Vancouver to Finland via the Arctic instead of the Panama Canal, it shortened the journey by four days and 1,000 nautical miles. Just a year later and unassisted by an icebreaker, the 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 transited the Northwest Passage.

But as the summer ice melt extends, commercial shipping through the North is becoming increasingly viable. “I’m certainly expecting that in the next 10 to 20 years, regular late summer, early fall shipping traffic will be considered normal in Canada’s Arctic,” says Byers.

Women from Pond Inlet participate in a parka-making workshop at the Piqqusilirivvik cultural school in Clyde River, top. Laakuluk Williamson Bathory with her daughter, Arnatuk, left and enjoying a meal in her cabin. (Click to enlarge images)

In 2007 the mass melting of sea ice reignited Canadian interest in the Northwest Passage and was a cornerstone of then–Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Arctic Sovereignty campaign, which aimed to reassert Canada’s legal claims to Arctic waters. The Canadian government argues the waters around its northern archipelago are internal, rebuffing U.S. objections that they are international waters. To strengthen its case for sovereignty, Canada cites the use and inhabitation of the North by Inuit for millennia.

Much of the waterway passes through Nunavut, an Inuit region of Canada, created by a historic land claims agreement between the Inuit and the federal government in 1993. Granted territory status in 1999, Nunavut occupies 733,594 square miles — a fifth of Canada’s land mass. Through the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the Inuit ceded all treaty rights granted under the Canadian Constitution in exchange for environmental stewardship and the right to hunt and trap on the land and water as they have for thousands of years.

Despite pinning its claims to the Arctic on the Inuit, the Canadian government has been largely absent in terms of development and community engagement. For years, Inuit communities have been promised deep-water ports, infrastructure projects and money to combat food and housing crises. The cost of running cargo planes is largely unaffordable, so cargo ships traveling from Montreal to Iqaluit remain the lifeblood of the North, delivering building supplies and food. Iqaluit, on the southern edge of Baffin Island, is accessible for just a short period in the summer when Frobisher Bay is clear of ice. There are no operational deep-water harbors in Nunavut, so cargo has to be offloaded to barges — a process that takes weeks at a time.

Supplies to Clyde River, Canada, arrive via cargo ship. (Click to enlarge images)

Byers speaks to audiences around the world about the Northwest Passage and has found that 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.

“It would be widely regarded as hypocritical if they were invoking the Inuit to support Canadian sovereignty [at] the same time they were letting them down,” he says.

To date, none of the promises made to Nunavummiut have materialized. Trudeau, who was sworn in as prime minister on Nov. 4, has pledged to accelerate search-and-rescue capacity and to provide more funding for Inuit-based programs to remedy what his Liberal Party sees as neglect for nearly a decade under the Conservative Party.

“The social, economic and health crises in Nunavut are worse now than they were 10 years ago,” says Byers. The federal government spent “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 over it between Inuit and the federal government arose in 2009. Amid the headiness of Canada’s Arctic claims, a Conservative member of Parliament introduced a motion to rename the Northwest Passage the Canadian Northwest Passage.

The move outraged residents in Nunavut. Paul Kaludjak, at the time the president of Nunavut Tunngavik, the Inuit organization responsible for overseeing and implementing the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, 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.”

Clyde River has a population of around 970. (Click to enlarge images)

Current Nunavut Tunngavik 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,” she says.

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 traveling 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, traveling there,” says Williamson Bathory. Lancaster Sound has been flagged for oil exploration, angering the communities in the area. With the influx of commercial ships in record numbers, there are worries that its ecosystem could be irreparably changed.

In 2007, 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.”

"We've been waiting 40 years for a harbour," says Lazarus Kalluk, left, an Inuktitut interpreter. Future Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, center, meets with Hunter Tootoo, the newly appointed Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard at a campaign rally in Iqaluit prior to the federal election. (Click to enlarge images)

In addition to frustrations with government policy, he and others are worried about invasive species that could enter the area through 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,” he says. There is legislation in place to prevent ballast water from being dumped in certain regions, but he is concerned that rules might not be heeded and enforced. Byers supports this view, noting that with such limited 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 moved through the Arctic en masse.

Sea ice, a mainstay of the North that inextricably binds Inuit to the environment, looks increasingly vulnerable. Icebreakers and ships with reinforced hulls for icebreaking 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 to shore ships travel, icebreaking could damage the hunt. “There aren’t any shipping lanes established yet,” says Byers.

Recently, when the Baffinland mining company, which has 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.

A resident walks down a back street in Clyde River on an October afternoon. (Click to enlarge images)

“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 in a report for the Nunavut Planning Commission. “Ice physically links Inuit to their culture and values.” He 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 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.”

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