Inuit want voice in Churchill port plan

Posted on Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Institute of the Environment

Blog Post

OTTAWA — Churchill’s Nunavut neighbours want a say in the federal government’s plans to ramp up shipments at the Manitoba port, telling researchers increased boat traffic is already changing their lives.

"Inuit and northerners really wish to be, and should be, included," Natalie Carter, a community lead with the Arctic Corridors Research Project at the University of Ottawa, said.

Her team has visited more than a dozen Inuit communities across the North to hear about the impacts of increasing ship traffic, including in Arviat, 250 kilometres north of Churchill.

Shipping is already ramping up across the Arctic, in part because of mining projects, yet there’s a major information gap in how that’s impacting locals, said project lead Jackie Dawson, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Environment, Society and Policy.

For example, environmentalists worldwide are concerned about rising sea levels, but it’s increasingly shallow water that has Arviat locals worried.

That’s possibly because of oceanic uplift, when sandbars and the ocean floor slowly push upwards as tectonic plates move. In any case, beluga whales seem to be moving closer to the shore — which has been rising almost a centimetre a year — while some fish migrate further into the bay where the water is colder.

"It’s very dynamic. People think it's straightforward, but it's not," Dawson said. "It’s creating new hazards for vessels to navigate in the waters around Arviat. The concerns were the risk of groundings or spills."

Icebreaking is particularly a concern, she said.. Some in Arviat believe it could bring seals closer to the shore, thus saving on snowmobile fuel costs, while others worry about disrupting wildlife patterns.

Already, researchers heard, the taste and quality of meat and fish takes a hit when those animals have been stressed by marine traffic.

Meanwhile, a community farther north reported hunters being trapped when icebreakers cut them off from the mainland, leaving them stranded on an ice floe.

"That's why they're super-worried about shipping in the winter," Dawson said.

Last summer, Ottawa helped transfer the Hudson Bay Railway and Port of Churchill from Denver-based Omnitrax to a local consortium that includes Indigenous governments, a Toronto financier and a Saskatchewan grain giant. All of them see the port become a major export hub for a variety of goods.

Dawson said the shipping industry is a massive, growing market, and people in Churchill and beyond need to help shape it. She’s requested funding to survey how people in Churchill — where she once lived — are coping.

"Churchill is the only Arctic deep-water port in Canada. It's going to be one of our most important maritime communities in the Arctic, and they should be a leading voice in the future development of shipping corridors," she said.

Her research project surrounds low-impact shipping corridors, the terms for shipping routes that Ottawa and regional governments have agreed are likely to cause less disruption to locals and offer safe passage to ships. But those routes were only selected in recent years and haven’t been thoroughly studied.

"There's lots of opportunities, but lots of concerns. It just warrants us paying attention to it, really," Dawson said.

Inuit have been eager to help with search-and-rescue and clean-up efforts as needed, using the traditional navigation and knowledge passed down for centuries, Carter said.

"Inuit and northerners really wish to be, and should be, included. That came through loud and clear," she said.

Her team conducted most of their interviews through Inuktitut interpreters, gathering perspectives across the region through open houses, radio phone-ins, interview tables set up in grocery stores and on Facebook pages.

They visited Arviat in November 2016, and followed up in March 2017 to confirm their findings aligned with locals’ perspectives.

Churchill has had ties with western Nunavut for decades, serving as the area’s main hospital and logistics base. But the town’s success has also caused tension with communities farther north.

Last July, a polar bear mauled an Arviat father to death, and elders blamed Churchill's tourism operators for making the bears less afraid of humans.

Dawson hopes Ottawa will use the research to craft its Arctic policy, a fledgling attempt to co-ordinate Canada’s economic goals and military security with Indigenous rights and environmental conservation.

"We have a moral responsibility to make sure everybody's included in the path forward," she said.


Originally posted on Winnipeg Free Press by Dylan Robertson. Original article here

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