When unfamiliar striped bass invaded rivers and streams in the territory of the NunatuKavut Inuit in Labrador, the community wondered whether climate change was to blame.
People could not understand how and why the invasive fish were appearing, said Todd Russell, the president of NunatuKavut Community Council, who spoke last month at the eighteenth session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) on the value of traditional knowledge and land management.
Russell learned from some of the older generation that a few foreign fish had been observed in the waterways in the early 1970s but that the recent sightings were much more pervasive in comparison. People questioned whether the presence of the striped bass was due to climate change, he said.
These are not the only changes noticed in recent years in the vast NunatuKavut territory, which straddles the coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean on the north-eastern edge of mainland Canada.
“There’s a lot happening on our lands and in our waters,” he told Landscape News, explaining that at the U.N. forum – where the focus was on traditional knowledge and languages – he was trying to show how the colonial relationship with Canada has had a fundamental impact on identity.
“Much of colonization is about separating Indigenous peoples from their lands and resources,” Russell said. “It’s important to understand the linkages between colonization, land and people – some people feel that climate change itself is another form of colonization.”
We have a very intimate relationship with the land, the waters, the ice – place is so much a part of who we are and our identity, he added.
“If climate change is actually changing the face of the land. If it’s having an impact upon our relationship with our land, our ways, our waters, our harvesting, our travel, our health, it’s really, really important for the government and for us as well to understand.”
For generations, Nunatukavut Inuit, now numbering about 6,000, have hunted, fished and gathered food from boreal forests, bogs, lakes, rivers and the ocean. Now, they are collecting data, monitoring precipitation and water temperatures as part of a climate change adaptation project.
“What we’re seeing is that there are changes happening on the land and water – we’re trying to get a better picture from our people to understand how it’s impacting our lives,” Russell said. “We’re observing certain species on the land to see if there’s any change in terms of behavior and patterns.”
Snowfalls have been heavier, ice patterns more varied and people are concerned about how shrimp, cod, salmon and char will be affected for both food harvesting and commercial fisheries, he said.
In the winter months, ice travel for hunting and fishing are common.
“We find that sea ice doesn’t last as long or that it’s not as strong,” Russell said. “Water currents are a little bit more forceful in places and that could have an impact on ice strength. People have to be much more careful about travel routes.”
The region, which overlaps in places with the territories of the Innu, Naskapi, Cree and other Inuit, once supported one of the largest migratory caribou herds in the world, known as the George River Caribou Herd. In 2001, there were about 385,000 caribou in the herd, according to a survey from the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial Department of Fisheries and Land Resources.
By 2010, the population was estimated at just 74,000 caribou. By 2016, despite a moratorium on hunting, the population had declined to 8,900 animals, and in 2018, there were only 5,500 caribou counted, a decline of 38 percent in two years.
“There’s a lot of concern about the future of the caribou and questions get asked: ‘What impact has man, industry and climate change had on the herd and how much did that contribute to its demise?’,” Russell said. “If we can get our heads around that, that might help us find solutions to help the caribou to be with us, so they continue to form part of our culture, our life, our food security.”
The stability of the region is also under threat from a massive hydroelectric dam project at the 15-meter high Muskrat Falls on Churchill River, which has led to protests and conflict in the region. The system, set to begin operating this year, will provide electricity to the island of Newfoundland, the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and the north-eastern United States.
The local community is concerned about the surrounding environment, food security and health risks related to methylmercury. The toxin is concentrated in fish when forests and vegetation are flooded.
“Muskrat Falls will flood traditional areas, impact hunting areas, berry harvesting and trapping,” said Russell, who has led protests over the project and been arrested several times.
“When Indigenous peoples are protesting and land and indigenous rights are involved, our justice system tends to unjustly criminalize those actions,” Russell said. “It’s discriminatory.”
Another project that has had an impact on the region is the new Akami-Uapishku-KakKasuak-Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve. It was created by a significant land transfer from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to the Canadian government, which will oversee it.
“Our people still use it, and the formation of the new park and the policies around it do allow for traditional activities and connections to take place, but we have to continue to play an active role in ensuring that Inuit traditional knowledge is incorporated in decision-making,” Russell said, explaining that the park is carved out of traditional hunting, trapping and food gathering grounds.
Since last year, the Southern Inuit have been more formally involved with Canada’s national government in negotiations over rights that could ultimately lead to greater autonomy, the most recent stage in a protracted process that has been ongoing for more than 30 years, Russell said. He is optimistic that the Recognition of Indigenous Rights and Self-Determination process will ultimately produce positive results.
The NunatuKavut Inuit signed a treaty with the British in 1765, a historical and significant Inuit-Crown agreement that was intended to end strife and bring peace between the two parties. It allowed for the British to engage in a seasonal commercial fishery in our territory while we retained all rights and ownership of our land and resources, Russell said.
They came for our resources and they are still coming for our resources, sometimes with little regard for the people, but we are finally starting to see some positive change, he said.
“We need infrastructure,” he added. “We have communities without any water or sewer systems. We have people still going to shallow ponds with plastic buckets and barrels collecting water for their homes through the ice. This does very little when it comes to water security and the right to water.”
Indigenous knowledge, a key theme at UNPFII, should be central to transparent governance, he added, explaining that the term is not static. Some of our Inuit knowledge could be that gained very recently or it could have been knowledge that was passed down through the generations, he said.
We transmit knowledge from mothers to daughters, from fathers to sons, Russell said. “This forms part of that body of knowledge that we refer to as Inuit knowledge.”
“We ask ourselves how Canada can decolonize,” he said. “One important way would be to truly accept, honor and appreciate our traditional knowledge.”
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