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The Day After: Arctic

The sixth installment in an ongoing series analyzing the perils and possibilities of our collective response to COVID-19

Indigenous PoliticsEnvironmentCOVID-19

The Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories, Canada’s largest watershed, and the tenth largest water basin in the world. The river runs 4,200 kilometers from the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies to the Arctic Ocean. Photo courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr.

The Day After: Arctic marks the sixth installment in an ongoing curated series that asks contributors to imagine the perils and possibilities that will ground our collective response to or emergence from the COVID-19 crisis. The first installment was about animals, the second was about food, the third was about energy, the fourth was about infrastructure, and the fifth was about extraction.

This series asks Canada’s leading scholars to respond to questions of “human-environment” relations to consider our post-COVID future: What opportunities make you hopeful and what risks do you see at the “human-nature” interface? How can we build an ethic of care for socioecological systems?

These scholars of critical environmental studies have dedicated their professional lives to grappling with questions of environmental conflict, governance and justice—here, we have asked them to turn their reflections toward the public. Together, we hope this contributes to a broad and ongoing discussion on how the COVID-19 crisis can produce visions of the future of “human-environment relations,” for better or worse.

Our sixth edition, about the Arctic, features contributions from Crystal Gail Fraser, Julia Christensen, and James Wilt.

Dr. Crystal Gail Fraser is Gwichyà Gwich’in, originally from Inuvik and Dachan Choo Gę̀hnjik in the Northwest Territories, and an assistant professor in the History and Classics Department at the University of Alberta. Her PhD research focused on the history of student experiences at Indian Residential Schools in the Inuvik Region between 1959 and 1996.

The pandemic of SARS-CoV-2 has touched nearly every corner of the globe, including the Northwest Territories. On March 21, the NWT reported its first case of COVID-19 and four more cases followed. But by May 13, all five cases were recovered. The relatively low number of COVID-19 cases have not, however, stopped public health officials from imposing some of the most conservative restrictions in the country, including a border closure (with exceptions). This has prompted northerners to redefine how they engage with their communities. Many northern Indigenous Nations are matrilineal, so it is no surprise that women have been leading our communities in this shift.

Teetł’it Gwich’in artist Tania Larsson was among the first to publicly shift her activities to an online platform. She explained that “even though we feel extremely alone in our houses, it’s OK to talk with one another and be very social.” Larsson hosted an online beading circle from her home studio and engaged in material cultural reproduction with her friends, colleagues, and strangers—even a front-line healthcare worker from the United States joined.

Dene artist and actor Melaw Nakehk’o also identified an opportunity during the pandemic. Nakehk’o left her Yellowknife home with her two children and travelled 600 kilometres to join her parents at their family’s camp, on the Deh Cho (the Mackenzie River). There, Nakehk’o and her family tanned hides, observed seasonal changes, hauled water, and chopped wood. COVID-related policies allowed this family to reconnect with land and culture for five weeks. In an Instagram post, Nakehk’o wrote “Mahsi river. Mahsi ancestors. Mahsi Land.”

Finally, the online Dinjii Zhuh Ginjìk language group, Dachan Choo Gèhnjik Gwitr’ìinjòo kat k’ìighe’ nikhwaginjìk teet’àih (Our language will be kept strong by Tree River women) was launched in April as a way to learn and practice Dinjii Zhuh Ginjìk. Language mentors and elders Agnes Mitchell and Alestine Andre lead the group (with members from NWT, Yukon, Alberta, and British Columbia) to teach the Gwichyà dialect. This class emerged as a result of self-isolation practices and serves as another example of cultural resurgence and resilience for Indigenous peoples during the pandemic.

Although Indigenous northerners are incredibly resilient and have placed culture at the centre of their lives, the pandemic has revealed deep social inequities, such as housing issues and domestic violence.

Indigenous women in the North continue to lead and teach important cultural teachings. Every day, undertake the important work of slowly undoing the effects of Indian residential schooling and colonialism in Canada. And although new public health orders have resulted in many changes, northerners have found innovative ways to share their cultures.

A meeting of the online Dinjii Zhuh Ginjìk language group, Dachan Choo Gèhnjik Gwitr’ìinjòo kat k’ìighe’ nikhwaginjìk teet’àih (Our language will be kept strong by Tree River women), launched in April as a way to learn and practice Dinjii Zhuh Ginjìk. Photo supplied by the author.

Julia Christensen is a professor in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Canada Research Chair in Northern Governance and Public Policy. Her research examines the role of northern social policy and governance and uneven rural-urban geographies in rising visible homelessness in urbanizing Arctic locales.

Stay home. In northern cities, the shuttering of local libraries, office buildings and restaurants in response to the pandemic meant that for people who had nowhere to go during the day, there were no more places to duck into to get warm when temperatures were still well below zero. Shelter in place. But how?

In Yellowknife, the dilemma pushed local NGOs and government to act quickly—within days, emergency funding secured from the federal government was committed to a shelter-in-place harm reduction program for a group of Yellowknifers who were previously using the city’s day shelter program. It was the first time that harm reduction measures were made available in the Northwest Territories. It took a pandemic to finally get there.

For the past two decades, the number of people living in Yellowknife without housing has grown steadily. Meanwhile, a tension has emerged: on the one hand, there are those who perceive homelessness as a threat to public safety and a scourge on an urbanizing North; and on the other, those who see it as symptomatic of an ongoing housing and health crisis. Ultimately, homelessness is a threat to the homeless themselves. Caught in between the push and pull are real human lives—people who are often cast as dis-belonging in the northern city, either discursively through social media or in material ways, like the anti-loitering signs plastered on the walls of the city’s one, increasingly vacant, shopping centre.

The shelter-in-place program, combined with harm reduction, has already seen incredible outcomes. At the same time, people who were previously skeptical of harm reduction are learning to see not only its benefits in terms of improved health outcomes, but also its humanity.

Now, we find ourselves in this strangely calm period between the first and a seemingly inevitable second wave of this virus. There is a palpable desire to return to some semblance of life as it was before. But “before” failed a lot people, including those trapped in never-ending daily rotation between shelter and street. We simply cannot return to the status quo. We need governments to recognize that their ability to act swiftly, depoliticize humane approaches to substance use, and address the root cause of homelessness—a lack of housing—can be carried forward into a more compassionate future beyond the pandemic. If we allow ourselves to learn from pandemic experiences in the North, let one of our lessons be that caring for each individual within a community benefits the whole.

Street art in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Photo from Flickr.

James Wilt is a white settler in Treaty 1 and master’s student in the Department of Geography at the University of Manitoba. His current research analyzes the history of proposed natural gas transportation projects in the Arctic Islands during the 1970s and 1980s, with a focus on (attempted) production of scientific knowledge about ice.

While the North has largely been insulated from the ravages of COVID-19, the pandemic has had massive impacts on scientific research into climate and environmental crises.

The cancellation of all non-essential travel has grounded long-planned studies, rendered much existing data unusable, reduced international collaboration, and required the rapid replanning of ongoing field work. It also prompted new scientific approaches, including researchers using reduced marine traffic to evaluate underwater noise and relying more heavily on northern communities to complete ongoing work.

This pause in Arctic scientific research is an opportunity to reflect on its social and political function. Of course, most researchers would likely claim that scientific work is the very opposite of political. But the history of science is inextricably tied to colonial ambitions for the North.

The Polar Continental Shelf Project, a government program that organizes logistics for Arctic scientific expeditions, was launched in 1958 by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker as part of his “Northern Vision” to expand what Richard C. Powell has described as “scientific sovereignty” throughout the Arctic. Resource extraction and the military were the primary beneficiaries of these large-scale efforts, producing new claims to authority and expertise about who could speak for the Arctic (Métis scholar Zoe Todd notes that even the concept of a meta-category like “the Arctic” can function to erase Indigenous peoples, philosophies, and laws).

Western scientific practices, defined by reductionism and a tendency towards displacing “superstition,” imposed new ways of knowing and seeing the Arctic’s ice, winds, snow, and waters. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or Inuit knowledge passed down through oral and experiential teachings, was ignored and undermined, with its radical cosmological critique of “progress” largely neutralized by the state and its concept of “sila” as a seamless and sentient force ignored. This process can and should be understood as “a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence.”

Inuk scholar Pitseolak Pfeifer has argued Arctic science continues to “operate in a colonial framework” by privileging formally trained researchers from the south over the expertise of Inuit hunters and residents. While Inuit knowledge is being increasingly leveraged for research like the locating of the Franklin expedition wrecks, much of the work continues to serve the interest of colonial management of the Arctic and requires settlers to ask many critical questions of such practices.

For instance: how does contemporary Arctic science expand what Edward Said dubbed an “increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control” over colonized places? What does it mean when scientific knowledge is used to advance “extractive hegemony” in the Arctic? What practical use is Western scientific knowledge that ice is disappearing, that wildlife is retreating, that homes are slipping into the ocean if the colonial state is not prepared to radically restructure society to reduce emissions and allocate massive reparations, infrastructure, and funding to Inuit and northern communities to survive catastrophic climate change?

Most fundamentally: what does it mean if the Arctic is not “ours” to know and manage at all?

Jonathan Peyton is an associate professor of geography at the University of Manitoba and author of Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia.

James Wilt is a master’s student in geography at the University of Manitoba and author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk.


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