Canada’s North in a changing climate: Hearing from the women of Nain

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There are two kinds of days in Nain, says Sandra Owens, days when the Inuit stay in the village and days when they go out onto the land.

In 2002 Owens travelled to Nain, a northern coastal community in the region of Nunatsiavut (Inuit territory in Newfoundland and Labrador). She describes the area as a vast expanse of land next to the sea, with hills that roll on forever, rocks and lichen and trees that don’t grow very tall. As fieldwork for her master’s thesis at Laval University, Climate Change and Health: A Project with Women of Labrador, Owens listened to the stories of 18 Inuit women who have been residents of Nain for at least 30 years. She sought out women because very little research has been done on climate change from a gender-specific perspective, in order to produce a more balanced view of local knowledge.

Collectively, these women had given birth to more than 100 babies. Three had killed polar bears, and several had lost their mothers at a young age and were cooking for the household by the time they reached adolescence.

All of them had stories about changes in the snow, ice and storm patterns and the effects on their lives.

“They had really lived their lives on the land,” says Owens. “Eating wild foods and going out onto the land are cornerstones of their health.”

The women talked about the change in the taste of wild food. Spruce partridge no longer tastes “sprucy” and many plants and berries no longer have a strong scent. The necessity of eating wild food was commonly reported. Owens recalls one older woman’s story about how, when someone had killed a seal and they were cutting it up in the open, she saw a woman scoop up some snow and suck the blood out of it. “They are always looking for traditional food,” says Owens. “It is a continuous quest.”

But these days, there is a growing reticence to go out onto the land. With the warmer climate and changes in ice formation, the ability to skidoo on the ice and reach natural resources has diminished. Not everyone is willing to take a risk with the dangers of the ice breaking up, and storms creep up much more quickly, says Owens. So, there are fewer opportunities to access wild food and to experience that connection and rejuvenation of being out on the land.

“Only 50 to 60 years ago they were semi-nomadic,” says Owens. “People go stir crazy being in the village.” One 78-year-old woman said, “Nothing is going to stop me,” and spoke of her determination to leave the village as often as possible.

Women’s insights about climate change came from their experiences travelling, hunting, harvesting, hanging fish and laundry outdoors to dry, and raising their families. They made the connection that variable weather conditions, warmer climate and more humid conditions led to more colds, lethargy and a loss of vitality. Younger women talked about their children having sunburns—something that didn’t happen in the past. They refer to the sun as “strong” or they say the sun is “burning now,” says Owens.

Health Canada report on climate change

Stories of personal experiences with changes in the ice, rain, snow and storms are critical to understanding the complexity of regional differences in climate change. A 484-page report released in July 2008 by Health Canada, Human Health in a Changing Climate: A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity, says some regions in the North are getting wetter, while others are getting drier. The report calls for more case studies, saying that in some instances Aboriginal knowledge and local reports are the best and only sources of information on health vulnerabilities.

The report looks at how climate change is affecting the health of Canadians today, how it may increase health risks in the future and what needs to be done to protect our health. It also says those most vulnerable to climate change include seniors, children and infants, as well as people suffering from cardiovascular and respiratory disease or those in frail health. Aboriginal communities and women were also identified as among the vulnerable.

Owens’s research with women in Nunatsiavut is cited in the report, highlighting that little work has been done examining the importance of environmental accessibility and its relationship to health. The report does refer to dietary surveys done in communities in the North, which show that eating food from the land, sea, lakes and rivers contributes a significant amount of protein, vitamins and essential nutrients to the Aboriginal diet. With a shift toward store-bought foods there is expected to be an increase in obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The Inuit women Owens spoke to say that wild food makes them feel strong and healthy, and they do not function well without it. Owens points out a regional health survey, which reveals that 76% of Inuit adults get half or more than half of the meat, fish and birds they eat from hunting and fishing.
The Health Canada report confirms socio-economic status as an indicator of vulnerability. Those who can’t access nutritious food are at increased risk of being overweight, having chronic health conditions, mental health challenges and a lower learning capacity. In Canada, women and Aboriginal people are among those most likely to report difficulty in obtaining nutritious food. In Nunavik, single-parent households led by women have the least access to traditional foods and limited access to healthy alternatives.

A decrease in lichen and vegetation because of heavy snow, ice and freezing rain linked to temperature variability is being associated with animal die-offs and a steep decline in Arctic caribou, reducing wild food intake. Melting permafrost has resulted in fatal avalanches (killing nine people and injuring 25 in Nunavik in 1999), as well as the deformation of airstrips critical for medical evacuations. Ice roads, all-season roads and airstrips at the mercy of permafrost warming also affect the availability of fruits, vegetables and other market foods.

Owens’s study in Nain is exploratory, and she confirms that research in other areas of the North is needed to verify the results. Based on the Nain research and other studies on climate change impacts in the North, she concludes that further research is needed to:

  • Investigate the cultural impacts of climate change in the North and evaluate the economic impact of living with climate change for northern residents.
  • Modify public health surveillance programs to detect and report cases of heath events related to climate changes.
  • Include the input of local residents about the significance of climate change to their health.

According to one of the authors of the Health Canada report, Pierre Gosselin, a professor at Laval University and a physician with the Quebec Public Health Institute which conducts surveillance and status reports of health in the North, Canada is still investing billions of dollars for new infrastructure based on information from the past 50 years that is no longer valid for the future.

“New information is needed about rain, wind and temperature to adjust the physical facilities of the health-care system, to reconfigure health care in aid of the most vulnerable, in order to reduce the impact of extreme weather events,” says Gosselin.

Another author, Christopher Furgal, a professor at Trent University, has been going to the Arctic since 1992. But it was around 2002 that he started to hear comments from hunters about birds arriving earlier in the year and some mammals disappearing. “Hunters were seeing things that they couldn’t understand or had not seen before,” he says.

Elders in Tuktayaktuk told him they were seeing bees for the first time in their lives, and some had severe allergies to bee stings. Our understanding of what climate change and health means is at a very preliminary stage, Furgal says. “The report is just scratching the surface.” 

Furgal says that how climate change is monitored is still not fully developed, and data collection is critical to understanding the scale of adaptation that needs to take place. “If there is an accident or an injury, we don’t know if it happened out on the land or not, or what the weather conditions were,” he says. “We don’t have the data to measure [climate change] in the epidemiological sense. There is a lot more to be learned.”

As for Sandra Owens and her research, when she returned to Nain in 2004 to present her findings, they came as no surprise to the community. “They told me I had confirmed what they already knew,” she says. Nain has a very young population with few old people who remember a childhood of calm, cold weather.  “Climate change is something they live with every day, in the midst of other issues,” such as access to health care and poor housing.  But she goes on to say that the Inuit have dealt with a multitude of challenges, from politics to the environment, and the women are resilient and adaptable.

Meena Nallainathan is a freelance writer living in Toronto