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Destroying the Canadian Arctic: A Global Crisis with Devastating Local Ramifications

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We are currently living through the most dramatic and negative changes in the Polar Arctic in centuries, if not in human history. For the people who reside in the region, and especially for the Inuit whose ancestors have been living there for millennia, these changes pose an almost incomprehensible threat to what remains of their traditional way of life as well as their very health. Environmental degradation is occurring on an immense scale, for which almost all of the causes stem from sources 1000s of kilometres away and far beyond their direct reach to influence. As this chapter will describe, the many sources of pollution along with the emerging effects of global warming is already raising concerns about human health in northern Canada, is harming the local economy, reducing income opportunities, making transportation more dangerous and undermining the reliability of traditional environmental knowledge. The capacity of Inuit people collectively to alter this picture is extremely limited, leaving them reliant once again upon their historic ability to adapt to an extremely difficult environment but now with it warming and contaminated in previously never experienced ways. Their only other alternative is to look to the peoples of the world, as well as new binding and effective international treaties to change human conduct drastically to reduce the effects of transboundary pollutants and climate change.

The first part of this essay is devoted to summarizing the gravity of the existing and projected transformations with due regard paid to the incredible complexity of the impacts upon the Polar Region. One can only begin to consider what might qualify as providing possible solutions if the full panoply of negative circumstances is appreciated. We briefly describe the major environmental threats, including climate change, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), air and water borne contaminants, water pollution, changes in biodiversity, and the presence of radioactive nuclear remnants. The particular impact of these new realities upon the Indigenous peoples of the North, and particularly the Inuit, is identified. The authority of the Inuit and of other northerners to remedy these risks is then considered as part of self-governance. While various governments possess legal jurisdiction concerning aspects of environmental protection, the ability of any state or sub-state government to be effective in removing contamination from other than local point sources is minimal. Thus, this chapter will end with a consideration of the importance of international law and agreements in changing human and corporate behaviour to help cleanse the Arctic and ensure it remains fit for human habitation and able to nurture future generations of Inuit within their homeland.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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