Blog - December 2016

(BLOG) Canada’s Northern Communities: The Front Lines of the Struggle to Mitigate Climate Change

Canada’s Northern Communities: The Front Lines of the Struggle to Mitigate Climate Change

Just over one year ago we Canadians went to the polls to exercise our democratic rights and cast our vote for the individual who we wished to represent our riding in the federal government. We entered the voting booth, located the candidate on the list that we thought would best represent our interests and checked the corresponding box. This election would be different though. The government of the day had been in power for over a decade and, for a vast array of reasons, many Canadians desired some sort of change. The reason that we desired change varied widely between individuals. Some felt that our international image had become un-Canadian, others felt that we needed to give more attention to indigenous issues that had up until now been neglected, while still others felt that Canada’s flirtations with xenophobic policies were too much. One of the major issues for me and many fellow Canadians in the last election was climate change policy and how Canada was going to address the threat of a changing climate with the interests of all Canadians in mind.


The new Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to take climate change seriously and to take serious steps to address it in order to ensure the safety and security of current and future generations. Indeed the signing of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and its ratification along with collaboration and agreements with the provinces and territories has given many of us hope, but it remains unclear exactly how much progress Canada is going to make, especially with the seemingly contradictory pipeline approvals in western Canada. The effects of climate change are by no means easy or simple to measure and since we are dealing with a massive, organic system, these effects are difficult to predict. There is one area where the effects of climate change are quite obvious, and that is in Canada’s north. Northern communities (primarily Indigenous communities) are and will continue to be witness to some of the most rapid and drastic changes to their environments due to climate change.


Several programs have been instituted by the federal government such as the ecoENERGY for Aboriginal and Northern Communities Program which provide funding to said communities for renewable energy projects. Others look to mitigate the inevitable changes that are taking place in the north by preparing communities and equipping them with the tools and knowledge necessary to cope with a drastically changing environment. The latter programs are likely the most important. You need not look any further than the Alaskan village of Shishmaref, whose residence had to vote whether or not to relocate the entire village because of rapidly encroaching sea levels. Northern communities in Canada face many of the same challenges as the residents of Shishmaref and will soon have to make similar choices. It’s difficult to imagine what it must be like to have to face the reality that your home may soon be submerged by the encroaching sea.


While the current initiatives offered by the Canadian government to assist northern communities in mitigating the effects of climate change are necessary and having a positive impact, the approval of pipelines like Trans Mountain and Line 3 which were approved just recently seems to contradict and invalidate any efforts by the government to assist those in the north. Northerners are facing not only the threat of sea level rise but also that of melting permafrost, changing weather patterns, and ecological instability. Many northern communities depend on the stability of the local ecosystem for food, and the effects that climate change will have on local animal and plant populations is uncertain. Approving pipelines that support the production of the very emissions that the government is has me scratching my head. The approval of emissions intensive projects such as these seem to demonstrate that the government’s priority is not to protect vulnerable communities from the effects of climate change. The aforementioned programs to assist northern communities are only band-aid solutions while pipelines continue to be constructed and approved. To truly support northern communities in the fight against the effects of climate change would be to address the problem at its source, and that doesn’t mean approving projects that make the problem worse.  Trans Mountain and Line 3 would mean an increase in emissions by 25 megatons per day, which is by no means a drop in the bucket that is Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.  The greenhouse gas emissions of these projects will linger in the atmosphere for over a century, further exacerbating climatic instability and increasing the risk to vulnerable communities.


Last year Canadians voted for change, for climate leadership and climate leadership includes addressing the threats of climate change to Northern communities. So far the change in climate leadership has rendered mixed results. While the recent progress on the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change is encouraging, the approval of major pipeline projects is not and begs one to question the legitimacy of Canada’s commitment to meaningfully address climate change and its effects on the most vulnerable of our citizens.  Will Canada do more to help northern communities, or will we continue to miss the point of climate change mitigation and avoid addressing the problem at its source?  Emissions intensive projects cannot continue to be approved on such scales while entire communities stand on the brink of disaster.


Devin Hock

About Devin Hock (KWIC Blog Contributor

Originally from Caledonia, Ontario, Devin is a recent graduate of Trent University's Environmental Science program. Devin's interests concern global and local environmental law and policy and how these subjects are conveyed and understood by the public. He is an avid whitewater canoeist and camper.