Arctic Anglicans face dangers of climate change

With Ungava Bay not yet frozen in mid-December, traditional hunting and fishing are impossible. It's a "life-or-death situation," says General Synod reconciliation animator Melanie Delva. Photo: Melanie Delva
Published December 24, 2018

City dwellers may not know just how many kinds of ice there are.

“There are all sorts…just the same way that there are all sorts of snow,” says Esther Wesley, co-ordinator of the Anglican Healing Fund. It’s a distinction important to northern communities where ice can be gathered to melt down into drinking water.

“They know the colour of the ice that is going to make good water,” says Wesley. “It is almost dark blue. It’s clear, clear but dark blue. That’s the strongest ice you can get.”

Wesley, along with Anglican Church of Canada reconciliation animator Melanie Delva, spent two weeks in December travelling with Bishop David Parsons of the diocese of the Arctic to communities on the Ungava Peninsula, in Nunavik, northern Quebec.

In Kangirsuk, an Inuit village in northern Nunavik, community member Zebedee Nungak presented the two women with a jug of water. They soon found out that for Zebedee to collect this gift meant travelling upwards of 17 km.

Water in Kangirsuk typically comes from a nearby lake, about three miles away, but rising temperatures have caused ice to freeze less deeply and become contaminated by silt. The community has running water, Zebedee’s wife, Jeannie Nungak, says, but the taste is not as good. “There are more minerals than there used to be…the taste is different for tea or coffee.”

This is one of the many daily impacts of climate change on Canada’s North.

“It’s not a theory up in this part of the world,” says Parsons. “We’re the canary in the mine.”

Temperatures that used to be common in October, he says, this year didn’t arrive until January, and unpredictable weather events are becoming evermore commonplace.

There are many more blizzards now than there used to be, says Jeannie, “big, bad storms.”

The jug of water in Kangirsuk got Wesley and Delva through one such storm. Another blizzard, which left them stuck for two days in Aupaluk, was so strong that the windows and the water in the toilet bowl were shaking. They later found out that the wind had reached a speed of 110 km per hour.

Media coverage of climate change, Wesley says, often focuses southward, to the hurricanes and tropical storms in South America. But, she says, the same thing is happening in Canada’s North. “We don’t hear [about] the impact on people’s lives…nobody mentions that this is happening in our own country.”

Parsons says that the federal government often makes decisions without listening to Indigenous regional and territorial governments. Two territorial premiers have accused the Trudeau government of failing to consult them about the ban on new oil and gas development in the Arctic, he notes.

In its annual report for 2017, released in December, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests that warmer temperatures represent a “new normal” for the Arctic. Permafrost is melting, and sea-ice decline and surface ocean warming are increasing at a magnitude and pace “unprecedented in at least the last 1,500 years,” the report states.

When Delva and Wesley visited in mid-December, Ungava Bay hadn’t yet frozen. For communities that fish on this ice, and travel across it to hunting grounds, it’s more than an inconvenience.

“People are dying trying to get to the hunting grounds,” says Delva.

“It’s where their fish comes from, it’s where their meat comes from,” says Wesley.

Without these food sources, people have to rely on what can be obtained at the grocery store, where the expense of importing goods to a fly-in community is reflected in high prices and a lack of fresh food.

Throughout their two-week trip, Delva and Wesley say that climate change was a pressing issue that people spoke of in every community they visited.

The water in Kangirsuk “made the whole thing hit home” for Delva. Zebedee’s generosity, “to give us this huge thing of water which helped us get through one of the storms,” she says, drove home what she “takes for granted coming out of the tap.”

“I see climate change as something that happens somewhere else. It’s an inconvenience, it might mean bad weather sometimes,” adds Delva. “But for them, it’s a life-or-death situation. That really impacted me.”

This article first appeared on January 22, 2018.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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