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Racking up air miles and arctic insights

BY TIM LOUGHEED | FEB 10 2008

During a five-week odyssey last spring that took him 26,000 km across Canada’s northern extremities, University of Toronto professor emeritus Franklyn Griffiths asked the aboriginal inhabitants how they liked having a front row seat to the great climate change drama. They told him, but the answers were not always what one might expect from popular media accounts of a reduction in sea ice cover that imperils traditional hunting practices and an entire way of life.

Some of them expressed little concern, insisting to Dr. Griffiths that the Inuit had adapted to climatic variations in the past, and they could do so again. Others rejected the notion of global warming as a crisis, suggesting that calls for immediate action and lifestyle changes were just the latest in a long line of political intrusions by southern Canadian authorities. Nor did many of them have time for worries about Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, reminding him that this term is a European conception applied to waters that simply define their territory.

At the same time, many Inuit did express their fear of dramatic alterations in the weather and landscape, wondering if the ultimate effect could amount to economic and cultural genocide. Dr. Griffiths, a political scientist, shared these diverse responses at a recent talk on Parliament Hill sponsored by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

According to Dr. Griffiths, Inuit society depends on ice for its very identity, and the disappearance of that ice could lead people to question who they are and what they are to do. Eventually, all Canadians could be similarly affected by changes in their own backyards. “If our way of life goes down, most of us down south are going to be asking ourselves the same questions,” he said.

Dr. Griffiths also emphasized the value of Inuit perspectives that have allowed them to thrive in an extreme environment for millennia. “We need more civility, not only to one another, but in the way we live with nature,” he concluded. “The Inuit know something about this and we have something to learn from them.”

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