Cold warriors (Page 1 of 6) Fifty years ago, Inuit landed on the southern shore of Ellesmere Island and
settled Canada’s northernmost community. Now the changing climate is
forcing them to adapt once again. By Lisa Gregoire, photography by Patrice Halley
“You lean when I lean,” yells Marty Kuluguktuk
over the engine’s shrieking. We’re careening sideways on a
snowmobile around boulders and frozen tundra, approaching
the foot of a glacier just east of Grise Fiord (pop. 141),
Canada’s most northern community. Bare-faced in the cutting
May wind, Kuluguktuk knows only two positions on
the throttle: full and idle.
The vast landscape Inuit navigated for centuries by
reading its subtle signs is becoming warmer, softer
and unpredictable because of the changing climate.
On a steep embankment, we lean hard to no effect. The
uphill ski lifts, and we teeter on the brink of flipping over.
I pry numb fingers from the safety bars and clench his
waist like someone drowning. Kuluguktuk accelerates to flat
terrain. “I don’t want to die today, Marty,” I yell with unconvincing
He shouts back his trademark reply: “Nothing serious.”
Halfway up the glacier’s smooth white tongue, he pulls
over to a pair of aluminum poles poking out of the ice and
cuts the engine. One of the poles is attached to a white metal
box and a solar panel — a remote weather monitor. “This
is where we measure the glacier,” says Kuluguktuk, Grise
Fiord’s assistant senior administrative officer. “Last year, it
shrank 1.5 metres.” We continue northward up the slope,
pull a U-turn at the top and head south along a rocky ridge
dusted with snow. He points to a hill leading to town.
“That was all glacier just 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s gone.”
The glacier is Grise Fiord’s main water supply. Fragmentation
is accelerating its retreat into the hills, and last
summer, the runoff didn’t fill the reservoir. In spring, when
the hamlet ran out of water, officials dispatched a front-end
loader to chip off chunks of an iceberg just offshore.
Grise Fiord, or Ausuittuq as it’s called in the local language, means “the place that never melts.” (Video: Lisa Gregoire)
A tottering scramble over jutting rocks leads to an
inuksuk on the edge of a cliff — a sturdy sentry over Jones
Sound and distant Devon Island. Mountains separate
Ellesmere’s southern fiords like talons. The air is cool and
moist, and the evening’s 24-hour sun glows through a gauzy
haze. Directly below us is Grise Fiord, a cluster of dots
tangled in a spiderweb of snowmobile trails. Like the
25 other Inuit communities in Nunavut — the two-millionsquare-
kilometre territory that covers Canada’s eastern Arctic — Grise Fiord is at the epicentre of global climate change.
But it’s not just change that has Inuit families reeling, it’s the
pace of change, says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who was nominated
for a Nobel Prize last year for travelling the world,
raising concern about the impact of global warming and
pollutants on her people, the Inuit.
In the wink of one generation, nomadic children raised
with dog teams in the 1950s wound up in sedentary nine-to-five jobs, many disconnected from
the land, their elders and their P. Diddy-and-Facebook offspring. The consequences
of this wholesale cultural shift are well documented:
violent crime and suicide rates are climbing; life expectancy is falling. Surviving on the
land taught Inuit patience, persistence, courage — skills that could ground them, and
their children, during this modern tumult. But the vast
landscape they navigated for centuries by reading its subtle
signs is becoming warmer, softer and unpredictable because
of the changing climate. “It’s the very thing we’re going to
need as we go into the second wave of change,” says Watt-Cloutier, whose book in progress,
The Right to Be Cold, frames the climate-change debate around human rights and
indigenous self-determination. “It’s ironic, the very thing
we’re reaching out to is under threat.”
Grise Fiord figures
Named by Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup, Grise Fiord
means "pig fiord," for the piglike sounds made by walrus
that once inhabited the fiord.
Population 141 (2006 Census)
Location Southern Ellesmere Island, 1,544 kilometres from
the North Pole and 1,160 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle
Sunlight 24-hour daylight from May to August;
24-hour darkness from October to early February
Extreme temperatures Lowest recorded since 1985 is
-47°C (January 1990); highest recorded since 1985 is
14.3°C (July 1999)
Average temperatures -31.4°C (January); 3.5°C (July)
When Inuit arrived on the southern shore of Ellesmere
Island some 50 years ago, it was colder and farther north than
any of them had ever been. They called it Ausuittuq, “the place
that never melts.” “Never” proved to be a very short time.
The creation of Grise Fiord and Resolute, on southern
Cornwallis Island, established at the same time, was a social
experiment perpetrated on a handful of ill-prepared families
from northern Quebec and northern Baffin Island in what
many believe was an attempt by the federal government to
assert its ownership of the Arctic islands within what it
considered its northern boundaries. Most of the relocated
Inuit had never experienced 24-hour darkness or seen a
muskox before. The first few years were extremely difficult.
Some families eventually returned home. Others made a life
here despite being tethered to the air supply and government
assistance common to almost any remote fly-in community.
Those who stayed adapted to a new climate and a new
environment and it appears they’ll have to do so again.
Meanwhile, their leaders are lobbying governments at
home and abroad. Mary Simon, president of Canada’s Inuit
organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is urging governments to help her people prepare for the future by selecting an Inuit
model community to address building and engineering
challenges related to slumping permafrost and to experiment
with culturally sensitive design and sustainability. Watt-
Cloutier, who was instrumental in helping to push through
the 2001 Stockholm Convention banning Persistent Organic
Pollutants, which were turning up in the flesh of marine
mammals that are a critical part of the Inuit diet, is unflinching
before world leaders and international forums. She insists that the time to mitigate global warming has nearly
expired. “We can’t stop it entirely,” she says, “but we can
maybe slow down the process.”
Online exclusive: Canadian Geographic Photo Club
Join us for an interview with photographer Patrice Halley and get
a behind-the-scenes look into a photo shoot for Canadian Geographic.
By Michela Rosano
I've been to Grise Fiord just after a Narwhal slaughter. It was an amazing sight to see the butchered whales seasoning in the open air and the tusks being cleaned by the bacteria in the water. It is a beautiful, tranquil place.
What happened to the Beluga trapped in the ice was sad. The video made me feel terrible for these whales who are being killed because they can not get away. I know this was some time back but it is still a sad sight. I lived in the north when this was going on.
Having lived in Grise Fiord the portion of the article "Sunlight 24-hour daylight from May to August 24-hour darkness from October to early February" is not correct. The last sun is seen Nov 3rd and then peeks over the horizon on Feb 11th. Between these dates there is about 10 days of twilight before total darkness sets in.
Lisa Gregoire has once again provided your readers with experiences of yet another adventure. She puts you right there along with her. Well done as usual.