In June, a group of ambassadors and high commissioners packed their bags and flew north for a nine-day tour of northern Canada. They came from all over the globe – the U.S., the E.U., Africa and Asia – to learn more about the Canadian Arctic, its environment, peoples and cultures.
The tour, organized by Global Affairs Canada, covered more than 10,000 kilometers and included visits to Cape Dorset’s Kinngait Studio and the future home of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station. Although it was once an annual occurrence, the Northern Tour was canceled in 2012 due to high costs and the last one took place in 2013, according to Nunatsiaq News.
Arctic Deeply touched base with some of the ambassadors who made the trip, and asked them to reflect on the experience and write about what they saw, who they met and which memories will stay with them.
Anne Kari Hansen Ovind, Ambassador of Norway to Canada
Diversity from Sea to Sea to Sea
It is often said that where you stand on different issues depends on where you sit. I could not agree more. When giving presentations on Norway, I therefore start with showing the globe from a circumpolar perspective, reminding the audience how far north Norway is located, which are our neighboring countries and how vast our maritime area is compared to our land area. A circumpolar map can also shed light on the fact that the Arctic is not a homogenous region. There are great differences in terms of climate, ice conditions, population, infrastructure, governance and security depending on whether you are situated in the North American North, the European North or the Asian North. In order to have a meaningful conversation about the Arctic, we need to understand these differences.
This is also true for the Canadian North. I experienced the diversity of the Canadian North during an amazing northern journey covering 40 percent of Canada, visiting the three northern territories and the north of three provinces. Going north is simply necessary to truly understand the vastness and the greatness of Canada. The abundance of resources and access to resources vary greatly, resulting in different livelihoods across the north. The landscape varies from boreal forest, taiga, tundra and ice, creating diversity in terms of flora, fauna and marine life. The impact of global warming is visible. On the one hand, climate change is posing a threat to biodiversity and livelihoods. On the other hand, the melting ice cap is opening up new economic opportunities.
My encounter with the Canadian North was simply breathtaking. Nevertheless, it was my encounter with the people that made the biggest impression during the journey. The Canadian North is home to more than 110,000 inhabitants comprising Inuit, Métis, First Nations and northerners of diverse backgrounds. All rich in cultures and traditions and with more than 11 official languages. On my journey, I met officials and local leaders explaining the importance of traditional knowledge. I met students and young leaders determined to realize their full potential as responsible citizens. I met representatives from business and cutting-edge research communities investing for the future. It struck me that regardless of the many differences across the circumpolar Arctic, the overriding objective is common for all Arctic states: maintaining the Arctic as a peaceful region, thereby ensuring sustainable development for the people in the North through collaboration and partnerships.
Niels Boel Abrahamsen, Ambassador of Denmark to Canada
The fantastic tour of Canada’s North is bound to be one of the highlights of my stay in Canada. I was struck by the differences within Canada’s North and the similarities to the Kingdom of Denmark.
Greenland and Canada’s North share more history and culture than most people think. The connection goes back to the time when the Inuit people migrated from Canada to Greenland. It was remarkable to witness the historical bonds and shared cultural traits between the population of Nunavut and the Greenlandic people.
The people of the Arctic stand out by their resilience in an incredibly harsh environment. I have noticed this in Greenland and Canada’s North, as well. The strategies of adaptation they apply are remarkable. For example, the way in which they use all parts of hunted animals, such as seals and reindeer, for food, clothing, art decorations and to make fuel. This is a very sustainable way of thinking, I find it inspiring and more innovative approaches could spring from this.
Traces of Shared Arctic History
The Danish polar scientist Knud Rasmussen traveled from Greenland through Canada to Alaska in 1921-24 as the leader of the fifth Thule Expedition. I was fascinated to experience parts of his path through Canada. And incredibly, I met people who, through their oral history, had preserved and were able to tell me the stories from the time when Knud Rasmussen visited their village.
Another highlight on the tour was my visit to the Kitikmeot Heritage Society. Together with researchers from Carleton University, they are working on a project to digitize the documents, photographs and artifacts from the fifth Thule expedition. The aim is to preserve the history of the Arctic and make the findings from the expedition accessible to the general public. I hope to see this project inaugurated during my time as ambassador to Canada so that future generations can enjoy and understand the history of this fantastic and changing region.
Per Sjögren, Ambassador of Sweden to Canada
The Northern Tour and the excellent program organized by the Global Affairs Canada gave a wide and deep overview of many opportunities and challenges for the people in the Canadian Arctic. It concerns governance issues in the territories, effects on the environment caused by climate change and the need for a resilient policy. We met many strong leaders in the North, which included women and youth. Education is, and will continue to be, of crucial importance to the further development of these regions. Finally, it is important to recognize that many of the challenges and opportunities in the Arctic are shared by other countries in the region, which underlines the need for dialogue and cooperation to achieve a sustainable economic and social development.
Bruce A. Heyman, Ambassador of the United States of America to Canada
An Arctic Experience to Remember
In a 12,000-kilometer, 15-stop trip over nine days, I benefited from a Government of Canada-organized Arctic trip to teach diplomats more about Canada’s Northern communities. The Arctic is a region of incredible importance to the United States. As current chair of the Arctic Council, we are working with Canada and other Arctic and observer nations to address the challenges facing the region and maximize opportunities for its inhabitants.
The trip spanned three provinces and three territories, and highlighted the strength and resilience of Inuit and other Northern communities, which face a range of social and governance issues, limited infrastructure, lack of economic and educational opportunities and unpredictable environmental changes. Community leaders spoke candidly and in remarkable unison about the tremendous challenges their populations face in terms of economic viability and frankly, the sustainability of social structures. Youth suicide rates are skyrocketing while high school dropout rates top 84 percent. As the outside world continues to encroach on even the most remote places, social structures are feeling the strain. Just two generations ago, the population traveled by dogsled and kayak. Now youth are on snowmobiles and use electronic devices. In essence, Inuit are transitioning between two worlds. Participation in a wage-based economy remains challenging, yet they can’t remain wholly in their traditional subsistence way of life.
Despite these challenges, members of each community expressed their hopes for the future. At the community center in Cambridge Bay, the local government provides a small business assistance program and helps with resume writing, interviewing skills and free internet. In Inuvik, residents transformed a defunct hockey rink into a community greenhouse, an effort that helps support their food security. In Rankin Inlet, with a population of 2,800, local business loans support local entrepreneurs with three Tim Hortons franchises. The West Baffin Eskimo Co-op in Cape Dorset has won national acclaim as the country’s most exceptional source for Inuit art. Yukon College, in Whitehorse, Yukon, is striving to become a university – the first in any Canadian territory – by maintaining a focus on responsible resource extraction, climate change and indigenous government. This will allow future leaders to be best positioned to meet the needs of the territories’ populations.
Mentoring and role models will be indispensable as Canada’s northern communities combine their traditions with innovation and resilience to take full advantage of all that 21st-century life has to offer.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Arctic Deeply.