• Catherine McKenna at Torngat Mountains National Park

    Environment and Climate Change minister Catherine McKenna speaks with Torngat Mountains National Park cooperative management board member Jenny Merkuratsuk on the park's Rose Island. (Photo credit: Ministry of Environment and Climate Change)

  • Catherine McKenna at Torngat Mountains National Park

    McKenna chats with Torngat Mountains National park cooperative management board chair Annie Baron (left) and member Jenny Merkuratsuk at Torngat Mountains Base Camp. (Photo credit: Ministry of Environment and Climate Change)

    Jenny Merkuratsuk 

  • Catherine McKenna at Torngat Mountains National Park

    Catherine McKenna and Natan Oben, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, near Torngat Mountains National Park during her August tour of the area. (Photo credit: Ministry of Environment and Climate Change)

  • Catherine McKenna at Torngat Mountains National Park

    McKenna surveys the fjord landscape surrounding Torngat Mountains Base Camp with Enivronment and Climate Change Canada research scientist Paul Smith. (Photo credit: Ministry of Environment and Climate Change)

  • Catherine McKenna at Torngat Mountains National Park

    McKenna with an Arctic char she caught at North Arm in Torngat Mountains National Park during her August tour. (Photo credit: Ministry of Environment and Climate Change)

“Our people were put into zoos,” says Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Inuit national representational organization. Despite his soft, quiet tone, the statement has the impact of a knockout uppercut punch from a heavyweight fighter. It floors you.

Obed’s not on a high horse, either. He’s just stating the facts over lunch with Environment and Climate Change minister Catherine McKenna and a group of scientists at the Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station. McKenna is touring the self-governing Labrador Inuit territory of Nunatsiavut and Torngat Mountains National Park, to learn more about the area, the park’s heralded cooperative management board (believed to be the nation’s only such all-Indigenous body) and real-life impacts of climate change.

Obed grew up in Nain, about 250 kilometres as the minkie whale swims south of here, and both his parents and grandparents plied the waters and woods here before him. This is his homeland. He’s glad for the opportunity to educate the minister further about the region and the realities of the impacts of colonialism on Inuit. McKenna seems sincerely engaged in the schooling.

Responding to her query about Inuit access to the work of foreign researchers in the park, park superintendent Gary Balkie — a local Inuit, as all the park’s staff are — notes that its now mandatory for researchers, domestic or otherwise, to share their research with locals. But, Obed points out, that hasn’t always been the case, and, indeed, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of years of research on Inuit that the people today can’t access.

***

The landscape of the Labrador coast here gives one the distinct feeling it was created by harsh forces. It’s home to some of the oldest known rock in the world — some 3.8-billion years old — and the mountains jut up from the sea at every angle imaginable, huge glacier erratics dotting the land as though they’d be randomly tossed by a giant. As the minister’s group take a short hike up a 300-metre-high cliff to an Inukshuk overlooking base camp, Andrew Anderson, the park’s visitor experience coordinator, says there are stories of giants creating the area, pushing up the fjords with their feet. From the lookout, visitors get a vista of base camp and the park’s lands to the north, cut by islands and fjords as far as the eye can see.

After the climb down and a well-earned dinner in the camp’s dining hall, the minister and Obed gather around a table in a tent the size of a large boardroom with the seven members of the park’s all-Inuit cooperative management board. It was established to advise the minister on all aspects of the operation and management of the park, and there’s no better opportunity to learn about the board and its impacts than meeting with them face-to-face.

Sammy Unatweenuk, for instance, was born in the northern part of the park and grew up fishing for char and hunting caribou here. Joey Angnatok's grandmother grew up in the area and was 11 before she saw a white person. “That’s how remote this area was,” he says.

Local caribou populations are a focus of the discussion. In 2013, a moratorium was placed on hunting the George River caribou herd, which has seen a 99 per cent decline in its numbers in the last 20 years, by the provincial government. The local Inuit, however, are upset that the ban didn’t accommodate for a symbolic harvest so that elders could pass along traditional knowledge of the hunt to area youth, not to mention the restrictions seriously impacted one of their primary food sources, with no replacement. Now the Torngats caribou herd is expected to be reviewed for protection under the federal Species at Risk Act and the cooperative management board is worried about a similar outcome with the Torngats herd.

“We like to think that through collaboration with our fellow Inuit, we can come up with recommendations on keeping this herd for years to come,” Angnatok, tells the minster.

“I think it’s a very important model that you have in Inuit Labrador, sharing your expertise and your experience,” says McKenna. “And I think that’s a very good model. I’m certainly hearing from you that the caribou is an important country food that not only connects you with your community but also with the land, and a connection to the elders and youth. And I can only imagine how challenging that is, that you can’t just replace it with something else. It is clearly a very big challenge. There won’t be any decisions without working together.”

***

“I finally got one!” the minister shouts jubilantly as she hooks into and lands an Arctic char on the rocky beach at the end of the North Arm fjord in Torngat Mountains National Park. The day’s stop is the latest on the minister’s hop-scotching visit to various areas of the 9,700-square-kilometre park, including Ramah Bay (home of a quarry of Ramah chert, a rock historically used as a tool by local Indigenous peoples and found to have been traded along the northeast coast of North America) and Hebron, a Moravian mission site. ITK’s Obed, already having landed numerous char, helps the minister fillet her catch and remove its eggs for a fresh taste of caviar.  

The minister, Obed, parks staff, members of the cooperative management board and visiting researchers have gathered here, a traditional Inuit meeting place and char fishing grounds for thousands of years, for shore lunch. Locals also harvested a seal and elder and cooperative management board Willie Etok shares chunks of raw seal liver, considered a good luck charm, with the group, as the seal is butchered. The valley just up from the beach and the cliff sides framing the fjord harbour evidence of the minister’s second objective for the trip, seeing real-life signs of climate change. 

One of the most obvious signs of climate change in the area is shrubification, where shrub growth is increasingly overtaking typical tundra vegetation. Here, some shrubs are growing more than a metre high, and growing higher up the mountainsides than ever before. Indeed, along this fjord, shrubs are growing nearly three-quarters of the way to the top. According to Paul Smith, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada who joined the minister’s trip, there’s been a six-fold increase in shrub growth in this area over the last 20 years.

“From the 1950s to the early 2000s, there was modest or no warming at all, even winter cooling,” says Smith. “Then there was a really rapid warming in the last 15 years that has contributed to the shrubification.”

Climate change is also suspect to have had an impact on dwindling caribou populations in the area, changing distributions of wildlife with species such as red fox and capelin (a small fish) moving north and forest birds appearing, which is likely also related to the increased shrub growth. Scientists also suspect there are changes occurring in permafrost in the region.

“Climatologists predicted this would be a challenging area to predict the impacts of climate change,” says Smith. But the signs are clear.

***

Later that evening back at the Torngat Mountains camp overlooking Kangidluasuk (or St. John’s Harbour), minister McKenna reflects on her visit to the park and Nunatsiavut region. “It’s hard to even appreciate that you have these huge cliffs that go right into these waters, and fjord after fjord where every time you turn around, bang, it’s a different view,” she says. “Also, meeting Inuit who live here and realizing that parks are much more than parks. People live here, and there’s a really long history, and that has to be part of how we tell the story of the park.”