Our Mag­netic North

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Matthew Church

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

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