Tuktoyaktuk – which is literally now in the Artic Ocean – should be a living example to Canadians as the frontline community impacted by climate change. And it serves as a reminder of why our vote matters.
Tuktoyaktuk is, quite literally, in the Arctic Ocean. It is the most northern point that a car can drive to, in the entire world.
The native Inuvialuit living in Tuktoyaktuk had a rich history of harvesting caribou and beluga whales prior to the arrival of American whalers in the 1890s. The Americans brought with them diseases, wiping out the native population. In subsequent years, the Dene people, as well as residents of Herschel Island, settled here. By 1937, the Hudson’s Bay Company had established a trading post. Radar domes were installed beginning in the 1950s as part of the Distant Early Warning Line, to monitor air traffic and detect possible Soviet intrusions during the Cold War. Tuktoyaktuk eventually became a base for the oil and natural gas exploration of the Beaufort Sea. Large industrial buildings remain from the busy period following global fuel shortages or embargoes. This brought many more outsiders into the region.
I safely arrived in Tuktoyaktuk in the evening, and the sun remained shining until 11:30 pm. I asked the innkeeper how the locals thought about climate change in Tuk and she said:
“We live climate change here, every day. We see it all the time around us. There’s no real denial in the community. Everyone acknowledges that it’s happening. We’re living it right here.”
The next day, I walked onto the Arctic Ocean. The glaciers were very far away that I could barely see them, but I got to put my hand in and taste the fresh water. I spent an extra two hours walking on every street to Tuktoayktuk, visiting every building and house. It was like most northern communities where time stands still. I asked a young woman at the Visitor Centre what people do for a living in Tuktoayktuk, and she said that they hunt and fish. The community has a community freezer that is an underground tunnel where they store their catches of caribou, beluga whale, and other hunted animals. But with a declining population of caribou and beluga whale, they’re relying more on welfare to buy food from the store. The food at the store is heavily processed, frozen, fried – and multiple times more expensive than in the cities.
The area has changed so much. I’ve never been to a place like this.
The coastal erosion is so great that several houses are already underwater. Parking lots, backyards, and sheds are already underwater. The road that encircled the town is underwater. Scientists say that Tuktoyaktuk is the fastest-warming place in Canada. The entire community is expected to be underwater in 32 years or sooner. They’ve been advised to purchase land in Reindeer’s Point, a suburb 7km outside of Tuktoyaktuk, to move the entire community there.
Tuktoyaktuk is experiencing the effects of climate change three times faster than the global average.
The ice starts melting in June, which is where residents understand that the winter is ending. All the ice usually melts in August and that’s when they see the Beluga whale. This year, all the glacier ice melted by June 10th and the Beluga whale returned by June 13th.
“We were blown away by how fast the ice melted this year,” said a local elder. She told me, “Arctic Char is now disappearing in the Arctic. The water is too warm for them. I don’t know where they’re going, but they’re not here. Two years ago, we started seeing salmon in the Arctic Ocean. Last year, the salmon started getting caught in our fishing nets in the harbour. This year, we found salmon every single day in the nets. One day, there were over 60 salmon caught in the nets. We should not be seeing salmon up here. We no longer see caribou and birds and animals that used to come here. The land has completely changed.”
I apologized to the teachers at the end. “I usually bring a message of hope and how to prepare for the future. I genuinely don’t know what to say to a community that’s going underwater in 32 years. I’m so sorry.”
One of the teachers said, “People in the south don’t even understand our lives and what’s going on up here. They’re the ones causing all this climate change, they’re the ones polluting, and here we are, needing to move because we’re going underwater. What is this?” Another teacher said:
“I don’t know if they know that we even exist. How could they care about people they don’t even know exist?”
One of the Inuvialuit chiefs was asked in the documentary by the students, “how do you feel as your traditional land is being impacted by climate change?”
“Thank you for asking that question. Most people don’t ask me that question. It’s difficult to see this. My grandparents grew up this way, my ancestors grew up this way, I grew up this way, and my children and grandchildren won’t be able to experience what we had. They won’t see the Arctic Char in the Arctic. They won’t see the caribour and the animals here. They won’t have this kind of life.” Tuktoyaktuk should be a living example to Canadians as the frontline community impacted by climate change.