Building Resilience and Safety in the Arctic

The story of Nunavut MLA Pauloosie Keyootak’s eight days on the unforgiving Arctic tundra (“Nunavut MLA built igloo to stay alive while awaiting rescue on tundra”) has reminded Canadians of the extreme conditions of the northern landscape. Keyootak, along with his son and nephew, survived due to his years of land experience and traditional knowledge. Reports of the search highlighted the role of elders and hunters in directing search crews based on their familiarity with local landscape and survival strategies.

Though few searches receive as much media coverage as the operation this past week, in 2015 there were 251 search and rescue missions across Nunavut — more than double the number there were a decade ago. This troubling trend not only comes with a high financial cost but each incident represents an emotionally and physically traumatic event for individuals and communities. With this in mind, there is a moral imperative not only to allocate sufficient resources for future searches, but also to invest in prevention initiatives.

In the north, going out on the land is central to the health of both individuals and communities, both with respect to cultural identity and to food security. Keenan Lindell describes this need:

Hunting is a part of our identity. It is an essential, healthy, and strong part of our community. Many youth grow up learning hunting skills and knowledge and respect for our environment from their families at a very young age.

Living most of my childhood in the south, my hunting skills were and still are quite limited. As a teenager I was very embarrassed at my lack of skills. I started to avoid hunting, trying to ignore my deep feelings of loss. It is amazing when I look back and understand how much harm I was doing to my mental health. It affected my language, my personality and my connection with our land, my relationship with my family also my overall self-confidence.

Inuit traditional knowledge is central to search and rescue prevention in the North.

As Joe Karetak, hunter and recipient of the Governor-General’s Medal of Bravery, explains, “Things I was taught as a child I still use every day. Learning these skills and knowledge has a deep meaning, it grows ones respect for our environment and culture, it grows confidence in one’s self and it teaches perseverance and strength mentally and physically.” Mr. Karetak had to rely on this knowledge firsthand when he rescued a helicopter pilot from a sinking ice floe in 2013, and is a firm proponent of the need for all youth to be trained in land safety. “Survival training not only can save their own lives and others, it teaches you how to approach anything and everything. It teaches you to have an open mind, to understand all the different factors which helps when solving problems.”

The transfer of this knowledge to Inuit youth, however, has diminished over time. Elders and youth alike cite lack of resources, the imposition of technology, and economic and demographic shifts as reasons for the waning connection between youth and traditional knowledge. Despite these changes, the need for connection to the land is strong.

Increasingly, there are initiatives throughout the North that foster opportunities for youth to spend time on the land. The Young Hunters program in Arviat exposes middle schoolers to activities on the land, teaching them fundamental land skills such as navigation, igloo-making, and reading the weather. For young adults who may have had fewer opportunities to develop their land skills, a course is being developed to teach land safety skills through experiential learning and community mentorship. Learning these basic skills and knowledge can have a positive impact on the lives of youth as well as save their lives. These programs have the potential to give youth more confidence in themselves and in their cultural identity, help them become safe respectful providers for their families and eventually pass on their knowledge to the next generation.

As climate change intensifies, environmental conditions become less predictable and create greater risk for individuals on the land. As a result, making use of all available resources, both old and new, is essential to land safety. In conjunction with efforts to increase traditional knowledge transfer, there remains a need to integrate technology in prevention efforts. This includes encouraging people to bring SPOT devices (satellite beacons), which are available to rent in Nunavut communities, and to check online weather reports prior to going out on the land. There is an urgent need for government and communities to collaborate and fund prevention initiatives that promote Indigenous knowledge transfer across generations and that make safety tools and equipment widely accessible. These investments could help reduce the number of search operations required, and potentially lead to better outcomes in remaining searches.

Keenan Lindell is the Climate Change Research Coordinator for Arviat, Dylan Clark and Sarah MacVicar are climate change adaptation researchers from McGill University. Keenan, Dylan, and Sarah facilitated the recent Land Safety Course for Arviat youth, a pilot project aimed at helping youth develop land safety skills through mentoring from local elders and community members.