By Evan Careen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Climate change has many effects, and not just on the landscape, that was evident when listening to a panel of Labradorians talk about the issue Thursday as part of “Focus North: Labrador at the Front Lines of Climate Change,” an online session organized by the Harris Centre of Memorial University.
Ashlee Cunsolo, dean of the school of arctic and subarctic studies at the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, who lead the session, said data the school has collected shows that between December 2020 to March 2021 the temperature in Labrador was 4 C to 6 C above usual, with zero days with a mean temperature of -20 C and 13 days when the temperature was, on average, above zero.
“We know that Labrador is one of the fastest-warming places in the North and in the country, and is warming at three times the rate of the rest of the country,” Cunsolo said.
With the projected rates of temperature increase, Cunsolo said, by 2100, winter in Nain will look like current winters in St. John’s.
Jodie Ashini, a councillor, anthropologist, and Innu cultural guardian from Sheshatshiu, one of the panelists, said she is only 35 and she has seen a lot of changes in her lifetime. As a child, she spent months at a time on the land, she said, and it’s scary to think about her little girl not being able to follow the same Innu traditions that she did.
“It’s very important we be able to pass on these traditions and cultures to our next generations, but it’s not going to be feasible soon,” Ashini said. “We’re not going to be able to pass on those traditions of putting a net out under the ice or these things that are slowly fading away from our culture and our lifestyle. It relies on the snow and ice, and it’s not there anymore.”
Concern about the impact of climate change on the traditional lifestyle of the Inuit and Innu, and the ability to pass it on, was echoed by all the panelists.
Panellist Abigail Poole of St. Lewis, representing Nunatukavut, said that as a young person thinking about having a family one day, she would want to raise her children the way she was raised, and it’s disheartening that it may not be possible.
Poole said change, uncertainty, and loss are what the Indigenous peoples of Labrador are experiencing.
“It’s a loss of cultural traditions. What they would do on an everyday basis is changing, or they’re losing that,” she said.
People don’t know what to do with the changes, she said, it’s a new experience they have to deal with.
Another panelist, Derrick Pottle of Rigolet, is an avid hunter and gatherer and lives a traditional Inuk lifestyle. Pottle said he has seen many changes in the land in his lifetime, and how warm it was this year really struck home for him.
Pottle said he has spoken to people who go on the land in different communities, and everyone finds the changes challenging and concerning, in multiple ways. He said he is worried things have gone too far and can never get back to what the people of Labrador used to know.
“It’s way, way bigger than what we are, but we still have a role to play,” he said. “That’s what scares me, is all of these changes are way past what we are and where we are.”
Pottle said not being able to go out onto the land is affecting people’s mental health, making them feel isolated and lost. He felt that way this past winter, he said.
“I felt like I couldn’t move,” he said. “I couldn’t do the routines I do, I couldn’t go out on the land, I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that.”
Living in communities with no road access, the reality of everyone on Labrador’s north coast, not being able to go out on a snowmobile is very limiting.
Panellist Stan Oliver, an Inuk who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, agreed with Pottle about the isolation and said the ice has been so unpredictable to travel on that people feel stuck in their communities.
Oliver said this year the ice wasn’t safe for many people to go seal hunting, a common activity in Lake Melville and a part of the cultural connections people in the area have.
“We can’t go to the cabins, we can’t hunt, we can’t fish. Fellas like myself spend too many hours in the shed thinking about going fishing and hunting and being on the land. Our faces aren’t red anymore from the spring. We’re way too pale.”
The panelists said the Inuit and Innu have been changing and adapting as best they can, staying closer to home and being more careful on the ice, but it’s scary and new territory.
Evan Careen is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the The Telegram. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.