Breaking Stereotypes: How Canadians Really See the Changing Arctic

What comes to mind when someone mentions the Arctic? My bet is that most people picture snow and ice—and lots of it—and maybe a polar bear or two. The reality, of course, is that the Arctic is so much more than that; however, the majority of Canadians have never or will ever travel there.

Red and yellow plants cover a rocky landscape along shore.

Autumn in the Northwest Passage, Nunavut. Image: Michelle Valberg © Michelle Valberg

On February 7, 2013, the museum hosted its second de Natura event, an evening of panel discussion exploring the very real issues facing our Arctic and its people.

Matthew Swan, Aaju Peter and Michelle Valberg.

Our three panellists (left to right): Matthew Swan, Aaju Peter and Michelle Valberg. Image: Danish Meman © Canadian Museum of Nature

The panellists included Matthew Swan, founder of Adventure Canada; Aaju Peter, Inuk lawyer, activist, clothing designer and Order of Canada recipient; and Michelle Valberg, renowned Arctic photographer and founder of Project North. Lucy van Oldenbarneveld of CBC fame moderated the event, asking pertinent and pressing questions that the evening’s participants wanted to know.

The first question asked the speakers what they have noticed as the biggest change in the Arctic and what worried them about it. Without missing a beat, Matthew stated that the disappearance of the ice is by far the most visible change and the most cause for concern regarding potential impacts.

While this fact is certainly not surprising to many, as climate change has dominated the media for years, he believes that because of the ice loss, now people are starting to notice. “Now that the Arctic is getting more attention than ever, everyone wants a piece.”

Icebergs.

According to Matthew Swan, the disappearance of ice is the most important change happening in the Arctic, and the more worrisome. Image: Michelle Valberg © Michelle Valberg

Hopefully, Canadians will take it upon themselves to visit the Arctic before it visibly changes too much. As many previous Arctic travellers have often told me, visiting the Arctic is indeed a life-changing experience. And as Matthew stated, “Although most Canadians live near the American border, we still consider ourselves a Northern people. It defines who we are.” He emphasized that we should explore our own country and get to know it a little better.

Michelle Valberg also held this stereotypical view of the Arctic, until she made the first of many trips north herself. She hopes that her photographs show the Arctic in a new light.

“Everyone has an idea of the Arctic as flat, white and cold. But so few people have an idea of what it really is.” Photographs, such as the one featured, shed new light on Canada’s Arctic in hopes of broadening our knowledge and understanding.

A person holds an Inuit drum overhead in a tundra landscape of hills, plants and water, while another person sits in the background.

Michelle Valberg’s photographs portray the Arctic in a new light, often breaking previous stereotypes. This photograph shows that the Arctic is very much alive and is far from “flat, white and cold”. Image: Michelle Valberg © Michelle Valberg

Another major topic of the evening focussed on the importance of education and its influence on decision-making regarding Northern issues.

Many of the evening’s participants, including myself, were completely ignorant of the fact that all three Canadian territories do not have the same government jurisdiction relating to their own land as the provinces do.

As Aaju stated, “All decisions regarding the North are currently being made thousands of kilometres away from the Arctic. Territories don’t have power, and that needs to change.”

Directly linked to this fact is the lack of higher-education institutions located in the Arctic. Many people who wish to seek out a university education will leave their community to do so and often never return.

As Aaju expressed, “They may not feel any allegiance or duty to their small community, so they leave to pursue their own interests. If more people had access to education, the Arctic would be a very different place.”

Aaju Peter.

Inuit lawyer, activist and recipient of the Order of Canada Aaju Peter shared many of her views regarding more involvement of the Inuit people in the decision making that affects their communities. Image: Michelle Valberg © Michelle Valberg

One audience member differed in opinion, stating that the North should focus its attention on more lucrative investments, such as natural resource development and extraction, instead of solely on education.

Aaju’s response to this? “Why can’t we do both?” She emphasized the importance of educating the people who live in these communities, who could then work for natural-resource companies and provide valuable information based on their previous knowledge. She also warned, though, that the North has much more to offer than just natural-resource extraction.

“We can’t all be miners or scientists,” she stated. “We need good education in other fields to provide ample opportunities to lots of people.”

The panellists sit at a table with microphones.

Moderator Lucy van Oldenbarneveld raised many thought-provoking questions while also keeping our speakers focussed at the topics at hand. Image: Danish Meman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Although many more current issues were brought forward throughout the panellist and round-table discussions between participants, the overall feeling I got from attending de Natura was the pressing need to visit Canada’s Arctic.

Each panellist emphasized that no one can truly understand a place or its people before experiencing it for themselves. As Michelle Valberg herself felt after her first expedition, “People will leave that much more educated and appreciative.”

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