Climate Change Devastates Arctic Indigenous Cultures

It’s Arctic day, and since I’m from the Arctic I thought I should post something. But it’s late and I’m exhausted so I’m going to post a story I recently shared on a panel discussion for the Canadian School of Public Service.


My name is Daniel T’seleie. I’m a member of the K’asho Got’ine First Nation from Fort Good Hope, NWT. K’asho Got’ine are part of the Dene Nation.

Fort Good Hope is located on the shores of the Deh Cho, “Big River,” also known as the Mackenzie River. It’s far north, on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle. This means that on the summer solstice, we can see the sun 24-hours a day.

Our traditional territory is vast, and we travel on tributaries that take us into the mountains, deep into the boreal forest, and as far away as the barren lands.

My story begins long ago, in a period known as “floating time.” This is a period before non-Dene ever set foot on our traditional lands. This was a time when, according to our legends, animals could communicate with people. This was a time when a legendary being, name Wicheditela, roamed our land, hunting giant beavers and creating many of the lakes, islands and natural formations we still use for navigation today.

Traditional skills and knowledge have been passed down since this time through stories and an oral tradition. Our people had no written language.

Things began to change for us in the late 18th century when Alexander Mackenzie and his group of voyageurs travelled down the Deh Cho in search of a shipping route to the Pacific Ocean.

Stories from the first contact with Europeans are still told in Fort Good Hope. A group of hunters returned from the River, and spoke of a group of strange men. These men were paddling down the River with strange-looking equipment. Their skin was pale, like birch bark, and they had bushy hair all over their faces. They had small sticks in their mouth with smoke coming out of them.

In the decades to follow, more Europeans came down the River. They were mostly fur traders and missionaries. Over the next hundred years or so, Dene peoples’ lives slowly changed. Guns, metal knives and axes, flour, tea, sugar, and tobacco all became popular items that were traded for furs. Catholic missionaries slowly began to convert and batptise the Dene.

But for the most part, Dene people still lived a traditional lifestyle, unhindered by the rapid encroachment and development that was typical in other parts of North America. We did not fight the so-called “Indian wars” that occurred in the prairies.

Things began to change much more quickly around 1920, when oil was discovered at Norman Wells, just up-river from Fort Good Hope.

In 1921 a representative of the Crown, along with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, travelled down the Deh Cho to sign a treaty with the local bands of Dene.

On July 21, 1921, in Fort Good Hope, my great-grandfather (T’seleie) signed Treaty 11 on behalf of the K’asho Got’ine.

For signing the Treaty, Dene people were offered a stipend of five dollars a year, with a slight bonus in that first year. Two-hundred and ten K’asho Got’ine were paid at that treaty signing.

In total throughout the NWT, seven Chiefs were paid $32 each, 12 Headmen were paid $22 each, and 1,915 “Indians” were paid $12 each. For a total of $23,468. When all was said and done, Denendeh, the Northwest Territories, became part of Canada. It only cost them $23,468.

Treaty 11 gave Canada the right to exploit the resources on our land, but it also guaranteed Dene people the right to, “pursue their usual vocations of hunting, trapping and fishing.”

Things changed very rapidly after the treaty was signed. World War II and the cold war sparked rapid development of fossil fuel resources, and associated pipelines. The discovery of gold near Yellowknife in the 1930s brought in many southerners.

Communities began to spring up, and the government decided they had to assimilate the Dene. Children were forced to leave their parents and attend residential schools run by the church. They weren’t allowed to speak their own language, or practice their own culture.

That’s my story, but I’d like to tell you another story.

This is the story of a territory that covers an area of more than one million square kilometres, yet has only 40,000 people spread over 33 communities. It’s the story of a territory with eleven official languages. It’s the story of a territory where abandoned mines and dumps can be found in even the most remote locations. It’s the story of a territory that is still recovering from the effects of the policies of assimilation that were employed throughout most of the 20th century by the government of Canada.

This is the story of the Northwest Territories.

I could talk all day about how the Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as the global average, and about the associated changes in the north. Average winter temperatures have increased by more than five degrees celsius in some NWT communities in the last 50 years, river levels are dropping, the timing of the fall freeze-up and spring break-up is changing (contributing to irregular flooding), small lakes and wetlands are disappearing, exotic species are moving north (e.g., coyotes and magpies) and pest outbreaks are destroying the forests, native species are suffering, permafrost melt is releasing greenhouse gases at a rapid rate and contributing to environmental contamination by releasing toxins like mercury, and warming water temperature are increasing the rate at which methy-mercury accumulates in aquatic animals that we rely on for food.

I could talk all day about how communities and infrastructure are being impacted by climate change. Ice road seasons are getting shorter, roads and building foundations are at risk from permafrost melt (it could cost more than $400 million to replace all the foundations in the NWT that are at risk due to permafrost degradation), shorelines are eroding quickly (Tuktoyaktuk is losing one metre of coastline a year), landslides on the banks of rivers are threatening to destroy historic buildings, and sanitation infrastructure and water treatment systems are being stressed.

I want to talk about how climate change is impacting our culture and way of life in the north.

Dene culture in the North has suffered greatly. Residential schools and other instruments of assimilation have left our languages and cultures in dire straights. Languages are being lost. Cultural practices are being lost.

As a young Dene man, the onus is on me, and my generation, to carry on our culture into the future. Until recently, it seemed like the only barrier to this was our own willingness to work hard to overcome the problems in our communities, and embrace our own culture.

But now, the biggest barrier to cultural preservation in the north is climate change.

Our cultures and languages are intimately tied to the land and natural ecosystems. As species are lost, as features of the land are lost, as aspects of the climate shift, parts of our languages and cultures effectively become obsolete. In a Dene dialect, how do you retain a word or term that describes something that no longer exists?

Climate change is making it harder for us to practice our culture, namely hunting and trapping. Climate changes are making it difficult or even impossible to hunt the way we have for countless generations. This leaves our communities reliant on imported-store bought food, which is much more expensive and far less nutritious than traditional foods that we harvest from the land. As people become more reliant on store-food, it increases the risk of health complications like obesity and diabetes.

The government is part of this story too. Remember that Treaty 11 gives gives us the right to hunt, trap and fish as we always have on our land. Climate change is taking this right away from us. Climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emission from the burning of fossil fuels. The government knows this, and yet they choose not to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to mitigate climate change.

This is a choice on the part of our governments. They are knowingly taking away our ability to hunt, trap and fish. They are breaking the treaty.

But this is not just violating a legal agreement. This is about the wilful destruction of a cultural. By not mitigating climate change, the government is practising cultural genocide.

Pretty depressing story.

I’d like to tell you another story. This one is fiction.

It’s the story of a land where people are allowed to practice their culture. Where small communities don’t have to deal with a diesel generator in the middle of town just to provide themselves with electricity. Where communities aren’t constantly worrying that the ice road might not open, that their food might have to be flown in year-round, causing the price to skyrocket.

In this story, Dene communities produce most of their food and energy locally. The food is healthy, and the cost of living is manageable and not subject to the wild price fluctuations of the fossil fuels markets.

Governments don’t give billions of dollars a year in subsidies to fossil fuel companies, and instead invest in industries that don’t pollute, like harvesting morel mushrooms, which grow abundantly after forest fires in the NWT and can sell for upwards of $500 a kilogram on the international market.

In this story, governments have done all they can to mitigate global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But, they realize that we are already locked-in to decades if not centuries of abnormally warm temperatures. They realize that the climatic changes already experienced in the north are contributing to environmental contamination and are stressing natural ecosystems. Consequently, they embrace the notion that in order to adapt to the climate changes we have created, we have to cut back on other stresses to the environment. Things like mines, cut-lines through the forest, and tar sands developments must go. We can no longer control the climatic changes we have already created for ourselves, but we can control the other stresses on the environment.

Governments also embrace the traditional environmental knowledge of our elders. And, in good faith, they fully incorporate this knowledge into public policy decisions, especially concerning the environment. For example, in this story governments look to traditional environmental knowledge to establish environmental baselines in order to measure the magnitude of the changes.

Governments no longer participate in token environmental studies that are largely funded by industry, studies with flawed methodology that are used as a whitewash to support claims that developments have had no impact on the environment.

It is no longer up to small, Aboriginal communities with no capacity to make the case that their land has been contaminated; the onus now falls on governments and industry to establish that developments have had no impact on the environment.

Wouldn’t that be a nice world.


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