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Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo Willox Lectures on Canadian Inuit and Climate Change

Photo by Ashlee Cunsolo Willox

Photo by Ashlee Cunsolo Willox

This article was originally published on Sept. 21, 2015.

On Friday, Sept. 18, Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo Willox gave a lecture titled “The Right to Cold: Climate Change and the Inuit” in Richardson Auditorium as part of the eighth annual Weissberg Program fall forum for human rights. Dr. Willox is the Canada Research Chair of Determinants of Healthy Communities and Assistant Professor of Community Health Departments of Nursing & Indigenous Studies at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada. This was her second talk at the college, after speaking on a panel during the spring Weissberg Chair events.

Her research interests include the “intersections of place, culture, health and the environment.” She has also received many accolades throughout her career, including being inducted as one of the inaugural members of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, as well as being chosen as one of Nature Canada’s 75 Women for Nature.

The title of her talk comes from the book The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story About Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole Planet by Canadian Inuit advocate Sheila Watt-Cloutier.

Dr. Willox was invited to join a research team in 2009 to study the impacts of climate change on four main Inuit homelands: Nunavut, Nunavik, Inuvialuit and Nunatsiavut, where she primarily does her work. There are 53 Inuit communities, totaling about 55,000 people, all but one of which are remote and coastal. Because of their location, the populations rely on sea ice and the marine ecosystem. Research was conducted in five communities in Labrador: Nain, Hopedale, Postville, Makkovk and Rigolet, the southernmost Inuit community in the world and where Dr. Willox focused her work. The population sizes range from about 200 to 1,200 people.

Dr. Willox’s research is always community-based and community-led. When she was asked to join the team, she thought “I didn’t belong there,” as a white outsider. The community was welcoming, and engaged in numerous talks about how to avoid repression and put indigenous values and culture first. They came up with a set of guidelines, “which turned out to be a list of how to be a nice person,” she said.

After conducting hundreds of interviews, the researchers were surprised to find that the major weather changes witnessed by community members were closely linked to mental health. The communities are also survivors of a colonial legacy, enduring centuries of forced education and relocation, separation of families, and physical and emotional violence, all contributing to what Willox describes as “cultural erosion” from a “system of multigenerational trauma.” This historical oppression combines with current struggles caused by climate change, exacerbating mental and physical health problems. The suicide rate of Canadian Inuit populations is 11 times that of all of Canada, for instance. Dr. Willox doesn’t want people to think climate change causes suicide or addiction, but to recognize “there are so many complex ways climate change is an indirect stressor.”

Because of these complex factors affecting health, Dr. Willox has advocated for health sovereignty, or “the access to services that are culturally appropriate, environmentally appropriate and what you need at the time.”

The research culminated into a 36-hour documentary film, “Attutauniujuk Nunama/Lament for the Land,” which Dr. Willox screened after making these introductory remarks. No one in the community, including Dr. Willox,  knew how to make a documentary, but Willox used the internet to research steps and purchase a camera that could withstand negative 60 degree temperatures. After collecting footage, over 150 community members edited the film.

For the Inuit, the land is “where they felt most like people,”  Dr. Willox said. “It is completely, inextricably linked to who they are.” In the film, people spoke of a “sense of belonging and attachment” and “freedom” to the land.

“The Nunatsiavut are on the frontlines of the fastest change,” she said. The past decade saw a seventy percent loss in sea ice, and the temperature has increased by two to four degrees. “Things have always changed, but never this fast, never this severe,” she said. Animals such as moose and caribou have moved north, changing the ecosystem, and severe weather has become more common, including stronger winds.

The sea ice normally freezes November through May, but older generations have noticed it freezing much later, sometimes not until mid-January, and only lasting until April. This reduced window leaves people stranded, and makes hunting and gathering wood much more difficult. This puts strain on families, especially the middle aged men who are responsible for most of the hunting, and feel they cannot provide as well. Weather changes can also delay flights, which bring important medical supplies, food and other resources.

Most of the interviews are with middle-aged community members. Youth members declined to participate, feeling it was not their story because they had not witnessed the same changes. Older members declined, feeling uncomfortable with the technology.

Amid these factors, the Inuit communities are resilient, participating in more community-based activities and reaching out to other Inuit communities across the world. Dr. Willox stressed how these climatic changes are interconnected, although the Inuit feel the most drastic effects. “The entire globe is destabilized if the north is destabilized. We rely on the north more than the north relies on us,” she said.

The Inuit communities in Labrador have leveraged social media to share their experiences, sell their crafts and connect with other northern communities. Because of their unique and vulnerable position, many northern communities across the globe want to be recognized as a sovereign nation. They are also organizing as a circumpolar contingent at summits, such as the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21 Paris in November.

In the midst of this historic legacy of oppression, anger is absent from the film. “No one wanted to talk about anger because they didn’t think it was productive for the film. The people thought it was better to talk about their experiences.” The anger is still there, she said, especially in the younger generation. More emotional pieces were also edited out, but Dr. Willox notes that screenings of the film with a large audience often lead to a mass emotional response.

After the success of this film, Dr. Willox notes there has been a “cultural resurgence,” with community-led environmental health projects and research. Some members are working on another documentary about uranium mines and other resource extraction sponsored by the Canadian government. The government continues to be “unfriendly” to the Inuit peoples, which Dr. Willox sees as hypocritical. “There is an ignorance of Inuit and Arctic culture. Yet Canada prides itself on its Arctic image,” she said. This likely reflects a general disconnect between humans and their natural environment. “We’re fooled if we think the environment doesn’t affect us every day. We exist in places where we can pretend it doesn’t affect us.”

Though non-Inuit people may not fully understand the Inuit’s situation, some are still paying attention to climate change in other ways. Polar tours are increasing in popularity, from polar bear spotting to cruises. Some use the frame “see it before it’s gone,” which Willox finds upsetting.

After witnessing the damages being done to these unique communities, Dr. Willox has a personal stake in the issue. “Is research the best route? The situation is so dire right now. I can feed in my research, they can take lead on advocacy,” she said. “We need all the people we can. We need to pressure world governments—and that’s a role anyone can have.”

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