Our Magnetic North
The Arctic is central to Canadian identity — our sense of nature, our history and and our imagination
The Canadian Arctic is vast. It encompasses millions of square kilometres though numbers vary depending on how you define it. Even its shape and scale is misrepresented on maps, because Mercator projections distort its dimensions relative to more familiar regions closer to the equator. It is smaller than it appears, and yet it is bigger than we can imagine.
For centuries, the Arctic’s importance has been lost on outsiders, southerners. It was seen as an unforgiving and hostile wasteland, an expanse of emptiness, of snow, ice and cold, void of life. Until recently, it was described as “the largest uncivilized land on earth.” To early European explorers, the Arctic wasn’t a place, it was an impediment, blocking passage to conquest, to glory and to the wealth of the rich cultures and lucrative trade with Asia. These attitudes persisted well into the 20th century; most Canadians saw the “barren lands,” the northern third of the country, as little more than hostile environs to pierce and navigate, to exploit and colonize with mining outposts and Cold War radar stations. The Arctic — the Canadian Arctic — was as foreign and inhospitable to Canadians as the Sahara.
Perhaps, at last, today southerners are coming to know and appreciate the North. Certainly, a new generation of meteorologists understands the fundamental role that Canada’s North plays as a regulator of the global climate, cooling the planet and governing the currents and circulation of warm and cold waters between the oceans north and south, and that Arctic waters produce 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe. Contemporary biologists recognize the Arctic’s unique biodiversity and the essential wilderness that provides habitat to distinctive species such as narwhal, polar bear, muskox and Peary caribou, and breeding grounds to millions of migrating geese, ducks and shorebirds. Climatologists too are coming to understand the important role Canada’s Arctic region serves keeping the entire planet cool as the planet’s best “carbon sink,” absorbing and holding onto carbon dioxide, a central cause of climate change. And at long last, we are beginning to recognize the people who have inhabited it for thousands of years, a rich and hardy human culture that lived there, thrived there, in concert with and not opposition to the demanding environs. For them, climate change is not an abstract problem, it is an existential reality: a danger to their livelihoods, their culture and their lives.
The threats are numerous. Climate warming — occurring in the North at double the rate of more temperate climes — is forcing wildlife to adapt or perish. For plant life, the lengthening growing season has invited southern shrubs and trees to “invade” northward even as lakes empty and coastlines erode, threatening the survival of native plants. Earlier and wider melting of snow and ice is allowing wildlife normally found further south, including migrating seabirds, foxes and bears to move north and compete or hybridize with their Arctic counterparts. And the most destructive species is moving north as well: humans. The warming climate brings resource exploration and exploitation even as the melting permafrost compromises existing infrastructure. The opening of the Northwest Passage to ships carrying cargo and tourists will bring invasive species, garbage and disruption to sensitive marine areas.
Yet there is cause to be optimistic. Canadians are growing aware of the importance of this rich and diverse land. We see it in the advanced research and monitoring underway, in the establishment of nature sanctuaries and in the cooperation with the peoples of the North. In the South, we are becoming attuned to the fact that action is needed to conserve the nature and culture of the North.
In the extraordinary, almost musical radio documentary that pianist Glenn Gould made for the CBC during the nation’s centennial more than 50 years ago (available online and still worth a listen), he talked about the “the Idea of North” being central to Canadian identity — our sense of nature, our history and our imagination. Today, above the Arctic Circle, that imaginary line at 66°30', the issues and the challenges are very real. So are the opportunities to define our diverse nation as caring, inclusive and forwardthinking stewards of this globally essential place. It will take commitment, collaboration and, yes, imagination. Above all, it will require careful action, from all of us south and north, in Canada and around the world.1
Until recently the Arctic seemed as foreign and remote to Canadians as the Sahara. Perhaps–finally–southerners today are coming to appreciate the North