Friday, April 27, 2007

When a change in the weather means less for dinner

The issue of climate change has been all over the news recently. In Canada our government has just announced a new environmental plan that proposes real reductions in carbon emissions over many years, though falls short of the Kyoto Protocol (to which Canada is a signatory). All major political parties in Canada are developing comprehensive environmental plans in what looks like a run up to an election. For the first time in Canadian history it looks like the environment will play a major role in the election.

For many Canadians an environmental identity is important. The idea of the Canadian wilderness is almost omnipresent in Canadian literature, poetry, and media. The idea of camping, cottaging and canoeing are part of Canadian collective consciousness. Whether we live in Toronto, Vancouver, Temiskaming, or Pond Inlet, we all seem to have the idea that the wild part of Canada is closely accessible.

In the past we may have assumed that our wilderness was so vast that it was immune to the effect of man, and exempt from our doings. Over the past 50 years it has become fairly clear that this is untrue. Severe erosion of shoreline on the east coast, dangerously hot summers in Quebec and Ontario, alternating floods and drought in the Canadian mid-west, the swath of destruction of forests by the pine beetle in BC; Most Canadians are aware of some element of local environmental stress.

The northern part of Canada is particularly vulnerable to environmental changes. Most predictive models show polar areas warming at a rate far in excess of tropical and temperate areas. In northern Canada this means changes in sea ice, changes in permafrost, changes in local vegetation, and northern migration of the treeline. All of these examples are already starting to happen. One of the tangible results of even the subtle early changes that have already occur ed is that the territories of large animals have shifted. Changes in the location of the floe-edge mean changes in where the fish, seals and polar bears live. Changes in seasonal sea ice, and increased freeze/thaw patterns means migration routes of caribou have shifted. From an armchair in the south it is easy to sigh with relief because these animals are adapting to changes. For a resident of the north, who may rely on these animals for sustenance it is a far different story.

It can be difficult for those of us in the southern part of Canada to remember that some Canadians still rely on game for food. In the south hunting is a guns debate, and an animal rights debate, but in the north it is really a food debate. When groceries cost 4 times what they do in the south (would you pay more than $10 for 2 litres of milk?), more economical means of food acquisition are called for and this means game hunting. This year in Iqaluit it was common to hear 'there's not much game this year', 'it's been hard to find caribou'. Traditionally a nomadic people could and would have followed the moving game, but settled life has it's own complexities.

As the environmental debate and agenda in Canada evolves I think we can learn much from looking northwards, towards people deeply involved with and affected by the environment. We can remember that it is not just a debate about cars, and florescent light bulbs, and industry and carbon taxes. It is a debate about food, and it is a debate about how we, as Canadians, interact with the wilds that are deeply part of the Canadian collective consciousness.

To finish, a little Canadian poem...

I PASS where the pines for Christmas
Stand thick in the crowded street,
Where the groves of Dream and Silence
Are paced by feverish feet.

And far through the rain and the street-
My homesick heart goes forth
To the pine-clad hills of childhood,
To the dark and tender North.

And I see the glooming pine-lands,
And I thrill to the Northland cold,
Where the sunset falls in silence
On the hills of gloom and gold!

And the still dusk woods close round me,
And I know the waiting eyes
Of my North, as a child's, are tender,
As a sorrowing mother's, wise!

Northern Pines
by Arthur Stringer

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