Book Review

Listening to the North: Canada's indigenous peoples are in touch with the cadence and rhythms of the land

TERRY FENGE Polar bears are in trouble. Arctic sea ice -- their habitat -- is melting and the U.S. administration has said recently that it is considering listing them as "threatened" under its endangered species legislation. Ursus maritimus , the world's largest land carnivore, Canadian icon and global symbol of untrammeled wilderness is scheduled to become a casualty of our SUV-addicted, greenhouse gas-spewing, climate change-causing culture.

But the only real surprise is that the announcement attracted media attention worldwide. Inuit, Inuvialuit, Athabaskans, and other northern indigenous peoples have for years reported the impacts of climate change on wildlife and the environment.

A British journalist once characterized Canada as a "clothesline of a nation," reflecting, of course, the millions of Canadians who live huddled against the border within spitting distance of the United States. Reflecting his own peripatetic existence, Yann Martel thinks of Canada as a hotel -- a place to temporarily stop on a journey to somewhere else.

Tell this to an Inuk elder from Igloolik scanning the horizon for a seal or walrus, or a young Gwich'in boy from Old Crow crouching low in the bush on the banks of the Porcupine river, rifle in hand, heart pounding, waiting for the barren-ground caribou. Canada is home, not a hotel, to northern indigenous peoples.

And so we should listen, for there is insight and a warning of global importance in the voices of northerners still in touch with the cadence and rhythms of the land. Even the United Nations Environment Program wants us to look north: a resolution by its governing council in February, 2003, characterized the Arctic as the globe's early warning or barometer of environmental change. In a very real sense, northern indigenous peoples are the mercury in that barometer. So what is the barometer reading? Few hunters tap on computers, so not many books about the Arctic are written by indigenous people. Voices from the Bay (Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, 1997), a collaborative venture of CARC and the Inuit community of Sanikiluaq, draws out the voices of Inuit and Cree in Hudson Bay, bringing together their traditional ecological knowledge with Western science.

An extraordinary picture of a stressed ecosystem in flux emerges, including a model of sea ice formation more enlightening than anything in an academic journal. Quitsak Tarkiasuk, one the voices from the bay, notes: "The world can tell us everything we want to know. The only problem for the world is that is doesn't have a voice. But the world's indicators are there. They are always talking to us." Yes, but is anyone listening? Barry Lopez is a perceptive listener, as well as an award-winning writer, based in the western United States. In Arctic Dreams (Scribner, 1986), an examination of imagination and desire in a northern landscape, he is immersed in open space that goes on, literally, forever.

Plunk yourself down in the Arctic and walk east or west. You are always, well, there.

But as he soon finds out, open space does not mean uninhabited space. The Arctic is not terra nullius , the legal fiction of unoccupied land that enabled settlers in Australia, as well as North America, to brusquely take what they saw, no questions asked.

As is the case with all aboriginal homelands, the Arctic is known and named. Travelling with the Inupiat in Alaska, Lopez concludes: "To hunt means to have the land around you like clothing. To engage in a wordless dialogue with it, one so absorbing that you cease to talk with your human companions . . . the working mind of an aboriginal hunter redefines patience, endurance, and expectation." Hunters are astute, meticulous observers and draw upon knowledge passed down from past generations. They have to be. Kith and kin depend on them for food.

Might the environmental insights of northern hunters seep into and inform the policies that underpin our urban, energy-dependent way of life? Tony Penikett, former premier of Yukon and a B.C.-based consultant, suggests in Reconciliation (Douglas & McIntyre, 2006) that the voices of northern aboriginal peoples can be heard and heeded to the benefit of us all, if only we understand our history.

As Spain raped the Americas and shipped gold back to Europe, a debate in Valladolid in 1550 between lay jurist Juan Gines de Sepulveda and Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Cases, inquired into the nature and rights of the people Columbus had named "Indians." Were they "natural slaves" or people with rights like everyone else? Were their voices to be heard in the councils of the great, good and powerful? The council, set up by King Charles V of Spain to hear the debate, did not issue judgment but the issues discussed continue to reverberate to this day.

It was only 25 years ago that aboriginal rights were, at last, enshrined in Canada's Constitution. Penikett, an optimist in the social democratic tradition, believes aboriginal self-determination, self-government and land rights provide a foundation for aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in North America to talk together. Sitting across from each other day after day, negotiating such arrangements is, he suggests, a sure way of learning what makes the other side tick.

Let's hope he is right. Tap the glass face of the barometer and the needle swings toward rough weather ahead. Who's next after polar bears? Terry Fenge is an Ottawa-based consultant who works with aboriginal peoples in Canada and the circumpolar Arctic. Northern Lights Against POPs: Combatting Toxic Threats in the Arctic is his most recent book.