By Brandon MacLeod and Pam Chookomoolin
Warning shots did nothing to dissuade the half-tonne charging carnivore. Two nights into a hunting trip along the Hudson Bay coast, Sam Hunter found himself face to face with a hostile, hungry polar bear. Gun cocked and one option left to save his own life, scattered rifle cracks split the wind’s steady howl on the open tundra.
“They would get really close and then charge,” Sam recounts the scene. “I carried three guns, all loaded and ready to go, to stay as safe as I could. You have no choice. If they are attacking, they will kill you.”
Polar bears populate the subarctic southwest coast of Hudson Bay – a massive body of saltwater in Canada’s far north – during the summer months and into the fall. Normally, the bears avoid human contact and move out onto sea ice by mid-November to hunt seals as their main food source through the winter. But climate change – marked by record-high global surface temperatures in 2016 and Earth’s four hottest years on record (2014-2017) – is accelerating a reduction in sea ice that is already forming later into winter, forcing polar bears inland in desperate search of food.
The next morning, up with intentions to skin the bear he killed and make use of what he could, Sam came upon remains of the carcass – just blood, bones, and some trace fur. Other polar bears tracked through the area overnight and ate the deceased bear.
A veteran polar bear guide and expert on the land, Sam leaves his home community of Peawanuck, Ontario, Canada, where temperatures and wind chill occasionally drop below -50 degrees Celsius, prepared for the unexpected – years traveling the land and waterways have left him no shortage of dramatic tales and wildlife encounters. However, confronted by at least nine aggressive polar bears in just three days hunting along Hudson Bay’s southern coast as the winter season arrived was not only surprising to Sam but unsettling for family and friends – many of whom also depend on hunting for food.
Fishing, hunting, and trapping, all before his 10th birthday, Sam has been learning to live off the land for more than four decades – interrupted at 10 years old when he was taken from his parents and his birthplace of Hawley Lake (about 66 kilometres southeast of Peawanuck) and forced to attend St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany until he was 14.
Sam has spent decades gathering food for family and guiding hundreds of visitors out on Hudson Bay and throughout Weenusk First Nation traditional territory, which surrounds the community of Peawanuck – watching polar bears, beluga whales, caribou, seals, and seabirds, as well as camping and traveling along rivers, streams and generational trails. These years on the land have provided him with a unique and invaluable perspective of the changing climate, landscape, waterways, and wildlife of northeast Ontario. He says he’s also gained a deeper understanding of the effects the changes are having on his way of life in the north and the potential consequences for future generations.
“I don’t know what the future holds for our people, especially our way of life. Will the people have to change because everything around them is changing so fast? Faster than what a lot of people predicted,” Sam asked. “People will have to adapt somehow.”
While volcanic eruptions, natural changes in Earth’s orbit, and solar activity contribute to climate change, it’s primarily human-caused factors – altering land use and expelling an unprecedented amount of greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution – that are causing rapidly changing climates and life-altering impacts. According to the World Meteorological Organization, in 2014 concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 143% of pre-industrial levels (1750), and of methane and nitrous oxide 254% and 121% respectively.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes, while the primary cause of climate change is “human-made greenhouse gas emissions,” it’s the drastic changes to weather, landscapes, and waterways that have people, especially those in the north most concerned.
“The increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, rising sea-levels, floods, heat waves, droughts, desertification, water shortages, and the spread of tropical and vector-borne diseases are some of the adverse impacts of climate change.” And it’s the people living along “low-lying coastal lands, tundra and Arctic ice … that face the greatest threats from climate change.”
Dr. Andrew Derocher, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, has been studying polar bears and the effects of climate change for over 20 years in the Canadian Arctic, along the Hudson Bay coast, and in Norway. He has documented changing polar bear behaviour and describes the serious threat climate change poses not only to polar bears, but entire ecosystems.
“In conservation biology we make projections over three generations. Some of the best work was done by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. And their projections were about 40 years out we would see two thirds of the world’s [polar] bears disappear. And that’s strictly a habitat loss issue.”
But Derocher stressed, if trends continue, today’s climate issues are just the beginning of more severe effects to come.
“By the time polar bears are really in trouble, we’re not going be worried about polar bears. We’re going to be worried about our own food security. We’re going to be worried about water. We’re going to be worried about massive human displacement on a global scale.”
It’s the consequences of climate change that will continue to make life increasingly dangerous and uncertain and threaten the ways of life for people across the north, in northern communities just like Peawanuck – a place Sam Hunter describes as “pristine, unforgiving, and majestic.”
And it’s these impacts advocates and the IPCC refer to when linking climate change to human rights violations.
Along with coastal populations, people living in northern climates are seeing the most immediate and severe impacts of climate change to their landscapes, ways of living, and means of survival. Often referred to as ‘Arctic amplification’, the term describes the faster and more intense warming in northern regions and the disproportionate impacts of climate change through sea-ice loss, fewer cold days, changing landscapes, and animal behaviour.
Across the Arctic people are sharing stories of rapidly altering lands and lives – connected by concerns for the future and life-threatening circumstances.
Nominee for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, Sheila Watt-Cloutier shares her stories, speaking about the interconnectedness of Earth’s systems and the impacts climate change is having on traditional Inuit and northern ways of living, as well as the human rights implications.
Watt-Cloutier grew up in Nunavik, Quebec living off the land. For much of her adult life she has remained an advocate for the environment, culture, and human rights and over the past two years she has amplified her message, discussing climate change through the lens of her book The Right To Be Cold, including as the keynote speaker for the University of Alberta’s ‘Sustainability Speaker Series’.
There she spoke about life in the north: the rich cultures and long history, counterbalanced by the impacts climate change is having on hunting and travel, as well as the environment.
“This is a human story, that includes the environment, poisoned food, contaminated water, and climate change. Rather than separating climate change, the environment, and sustainability, we have to see and understand they are connected and changing,” explained Watt-Cloutier.
Elaborating on the impacts climate change is having across the circumpolar north, she said, “We’re seeing coastal erosion, beach slumping, permafrost melting. It means ice is not forming as early as it used to in the fall and breaking up earlier in the spring. So, there is less time on the ice to hunt and harvest the food that we bring home to our families.
“It’s also about transportation and mobility, which become issues of safety and security. For us, when that ice forms and the snow falls, those become our highways to travel and get food for our families … We depend on the snow and ice and the cold.”
The interconnectivity of nature is intrinsic and the negative effects of introducing pollutants into the atmosphere are undeniable, says George Hunter. Former chief of Weenusk First Nation, George still resides in Peawanuck with his wife Jean. Many of their children and grandchildren also live in the small, tight-knit community, living primarily off what the land provides them.
“When Mother Earth is healthy, we in turn are blessed by that healthiness of Mother Earth. We in turn are healthy.”
Brother to Sam Hunter, George was also born in Hawley Lake, and for generations his family has lived off the land, whether as a family unit moving with the seasons and the animals, or since the 1950s, leaving their home communities of Winisk, and now Peawanuck to hunt and gather food, water, and medicine. From his time growing up, through his years leading Weenusk First Nation, and now seeing his children and grandchildren subsiding off what the land has to offer, George maintains a great deal of respect and appreciation for nature and its gifts. But he has also witnessed changes to landscapes, animal behaviours, and weather patterns.
“The muskeg where we live used to have a lot of permafrost, now the permafrost is melting. There’s a lot of holes that we’re not aware of these days. They’re new. They were never there 40 years ago.”
A lack of travel and hunting options limit families to less healthy and more expensive options for nutrition – Peawanuck, like many northern remote communities, has just one general store to rely on as an expensive alternative to food provided by the land.
“The seasons are connected to our way of life, to our culture,” George explained.
Omushkego Cree knowledge of natural cycles and changes to climate and weather in what is today known as Northern Ontario is vast and spans millennia. Archaeological findings demonstrating year-round activity near Shamattawa Lake, approximately 80 kilometres south of Peawanuck, have been dated back at least 3,900 years.
Knowledge of the seasons, weather, and the land, as well as the behaviours of its inhabitants continues to be passed down and relied upon not only to survive, but thrive. Elders and Knowledge Keepers in northern regions play a crucial role in connecting and sustaining the past, present, and future of their families and communities and the land. George says he hopes to see it continue that way.
But, while he acknowledges climates evolve over time, he attributes the more recent severe climate changes to human activity – specifically industrial processes, and an overall lack of care for the environment. Unlike massive environmental alterations of the past, such as an ice age, he says the current rapid-changing climate is a result of, not in spite of, humans.
As such, to George it’s no surprise habitats are deteriorating and the well-being of living creatures is being compromised. He points to excessive industrial development, resource extraction, over-consumption, and the resulting pollutants contaminating Earth’s atmospheric, land, and water systems, as the sources of degradation. Subsequently, he says, humans, animals, and plants are forced to adapt, seek out a more stable environment, or perish.
Peawanuck is located 32 kilometres up the Winisk River from the southern coast of Hudson Bay, an area that transitions between barren tundra, thick bush and muskeg, black and white spruce, and the dense growth of Boreal Forest. Peawanuck, meaning ‘flint stone’ in Cree, is known as ‘The Promised Land’ to the descendants of the traditional territory’s first peoples. The majority of residents are members of Weenusk First Nation.
While Omushkego Cree have been living off and tending their traditional land for many millennia, the community of Peawanuck is relatively modern, built in 1986, following a massive flood of the Winisk River on May 16 that same year. The flood completely destroyed the community of Winisk and left two deceased – mother-of-four Margaret Chookomoolin and elder John Crowe. Winisk, along with the nearby military radar sites, were built in the late 1950s as outposts along the Mid-Canada Line. Although the radar sites were shut down in 1965, Winisk provided a brief boom in employment and a permanent community for a number of families, many of whom previously lived year-round on their family’s traditional territory, accessing what they need from the surrounding land and waterways.
Notably, concern of locals extends beyond climate change, as removal of hazardous and toxic materials leftover from the military radar sites near Peawanuck is still only gradually being cleaned up to this day, more than 50 years after shutting down. To residents, these are specific examples of the general lack of concern for the environment at an institutional level, along with unrestrained industrialization globally, resulting in what is now experienced as climate change and habitat degradation.
For years, under the leadership of then-chief George Hunter, many Winisk residents pushed to relocate the community further upriver, to higher ground, after all-too-regular flooding, including a major flood in 1966, resulting from ice-jams on the Winisk River during spring break-up.
Unfortunately, the provincial and federal governments were unwilling to contribute funding. That is, until the flood of 1986. Emergencies were declared, and tireless work from community members, volunteers, and contractors finally resulted the community moving to its present location and being named Peawanuck.
The land surrounding Peawanuck is also referred to as “paradise” by many, including Jennifer Wabano, advocate for the protection of land and water.
She describes the place of her upbringing, “There’s a spot out in the bay I’ve always thought was so beautiful. Surrounded by berry bushes, you’re able to see so far beyond. Seeing the polar bears go by in the distance. And how the sun reflects on the water.
“It’s very special to me. Having grown up on my family’s ancestral lands, I’ve always felt a spiritual connection to the water and the land. I grew up with wild food, fish, and the natural medicines. My grandmother always knew which medicines to pick for any kind of sickness or even cuts and scrapes. That’s what I want to protect. So the people can continue to enjoy these things and to leave clean, fresh water for future generations. We have to think about them too. That’s the creator’s law.”
Wabano, now working and raising her family in Timmins, Ontario, while completing her degree through Algoma University, has dedicated much of her free time to advocating for the protection of waterways and the land in her community’s traditional territory. She is the founder of the Omushkegowuk Women’s Water Council, writing and developing the Peawanuck, Weenusk First Nation Water Declaration. Working with the community, and chief and council, the Water Council would be part of consultations and determining consent before any type of industrial or commercial development on Weenusk First Nation traditional territory could take place.
Wabano recalled, “From my earliest memories, travelling along the rivers during summers and winters, everything seemed normal back then. Getting wood, going hunting with my aunts and grandmother. But it doesn’t seem normal anymore. It wasn’t as risky as it is now.”
Working closely with advocates and activists and seeing the changes to her homeland, climate change, to Wabano, is a human rights issue. In response, she pushes for the inclusion of traditional ecological knowledge held by elders and Indigenous knowledge keepers in both discussions and decisions on climate change mitigation and environmental protection.
“Canada needs to do more about climate change. They need to include Indigenous knowledge keepers and leaders, especially those that live off the land, and who carry the knowledge of the eight seasons, and six seasons in other areas. The ones who have seen the changes in weather and animal behaviour.”
While certainly not ubiquitous, a large number of families living in Canada’s Arctic and northern regions make hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering their primary source of accessing food, water, and certain medicines. Whether for reasons of quality, health, costs, or tradition, this is a way of life many live everyday and are protected in doing so by national and international charters and declarations, as well as treaties signed between descendants of the land’s First Peoples and the Crown of England.
Section 7 in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out the right to life liberty and security of the person for all people within Canada. Article 22 of The Universal Declaration on Human Rights protects the economic, social and cultural rights of each individual. And Article 7-1 and 8-1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples defend the rights of Indigenous people to life, liberty and security, and to not be subjected to forced assimilation or the destruction of their culture.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called for Canada’s full adoption and implementation of The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation. In 2016, the Government of Canada declared its intention to implement the declaration, but debate lingers as to if, when and how this will happen. 
And from Treaty 9 – which includes Weenusk First Nation, among 38 other band signatories – the agreement states, “His Majesty the King hereby agrees with the said Indians that they shall have the right to pursue their usual vocations of hunting, trapping and fishing throughout the tract surrendered as heretofore described…” The Treaty also includes the stipulation which makes it “subject to such regulations as may from time to time be made by the government of the country … and saving and excepting such tracts as may be required or taken up from time to time for settlement, mining, lumbering, trading or other purposes.” However, the validity and good faith of Treaty 9 has frequently been called into question, especially regarding the assertions treaty commissioners deceived First Nations signatories.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier is leading the way when it comes to pushing for awareness and subsequent changes in policies to address the human rights issues associated with the effects of climate change on the north. She has been at the forefront since 2005 when she, along with 62 Inuit hunters and elders, launched the first international legal action on climate change. They alleged unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases from the United States have violated Inuit cultural and environmental human rights. At the time the petition was rejected, but it opened the door to human rights obligations regarding climate change responsibilities.
“The connection to human rights is about our right to be cold, our right to our food source, our right to culture, our right to educate our children, our right right to be safe and secure. All of those rights that are already entrenched in United Nations and international treaties are being minimized, which is why climate change is indeed a human rights issue for us,” said Watt-Cloutier.
Dr. Andrew Derocher explained the paradox of the north, “One of the groups that have done the least to affect climate change on a global perspective, the northern people, they are going to be by far the most affected, by not only seeing the most rapid rate of change and the biggest changes, but also a change to their fundamental food security.”
Derocher pointed out that industry is increasingly moving north. “Gold, uranium mining…diamond mining, oil and gas. There are huge amounts of resources in the North.”
He continued, “So, while the North hasn’t contributed much to global greenhouse gas emissions, if we don’t change how we do things, the North will be an increasing contributor over time, mainly from industrialization, not because local people need to heat their homes, or travel on the land, or take a family member to a medical appointment.”
While Sam Hunter agrees human rights are at stake, he believes solutions to local issues should start locally by providing opportunities for youth to learn about their traditions and culture and the necessity for healthy, accessible food. Along with providing modern education and encouraging progressive thinking, such as building greenhouses to grow food in the North. These opportunities will help foster a new generation of youth with knowledge about traditional ways of living, an appreciation of their culture, and respect for themselves and the land, he explained.
“I think that the culture has been on the rebound. I remember when I was a teenager, people in the community didn’t really bother hunting or fishing, they might do a little bit here and there. But (that way of life) is definitely on the rebound. Some of the young men and women are starting to learn about the land and animals again and becoming interested in the cultural aspects.”
One of those youth learning and embracing the traditions, teachings, and ways of living that have sustained the Omushkego Cree for millennia is 20-year-old Kaitlyn Hunter. Growing up in Peawanuck, Hunter finished Grade 8 and left for high school in Timmins, Ontario. Following graduation, she eventually returned to Peawanuck to work as a youth mentor.
Kaitlyn is eager to continue learning the ways of her parents, grandparents, and the generations that came before her – ways she said include many other aspects and traditions besides just gathering food. But to her, gathering fresh food has so many benefits, it is one of the most valuable skills to learn.
“It’s way healthier and less expensive to go out and get the food yourself. You know where your food is coming from.”
Like Sam Hunter, Kaitlyn is not only vocal about her care and concern for nature, she worries her culture and the ways of her ancestors could be lost if people continue to be pushed from their homes and traditions and ways of life.
“It’s important to learn about how to sustain the environment. By learning from those that came before us, we don’t forget where we came from. You understand their perspective, as they’ve been living that way all their lives, for generations.”
She sees the land and knowledge as gifts. “It’s given to you, sort of passed down, to take care of yourself. But you can’t really take care of it if it’s being ruined by someone else.”
Kaitlyn hopes to continue learning about her culture, traditions, and ways of living, eventually sharing her own experiences and knowledge. “That’s how I feel about the land, you have to respect it, you have to learn from it, and then you have to pass that knowledge on.”
Unquestionably, the responsibility of addressing changing climates has fallen on current and future generations, but that concept remains difficult for some to embrace.
Dr. Derocher often lectures about intergenerational fairness.
He explained, “One of the biggest issues, from my perspective, of a lack of fairness across generations is climate change. The past generations have benefitted hugely from the creation of the problem. Of course, they didn’t initially realize there was a problem. But the science on it is clear now. And once we have that clarity, we should have a clarity of purpose.”
Historically, society has been slow to profoundly change, even in the face of imminent threats. Making things more complicated is the introduction of misinformation about the ‘existence’ of climate change.
For Dr. Laura Gray-Steinhauer, Manager of Emissions Policy for the Alberta Climate Change Office, the most troubling characteristic of those denying the occurrence of climate change is the unwillingness to accept scientific evidence and models demonstrating a changing climate and the impacts of those changes.
“I [hear] the naysayers saying climate change isn’t happening. And I understand people get stuck in that context and it’s really hard to be pulled out of.”
Gray-Steinhauer has been involved in climate change research at the University of Alberta and within the forest industry for over a decade, looking at forest management practices, and how they need to be modified because of the impact climate change is having forest systems. Her work primarily focuses on areas in western and northern Canada.
Part of the challenge in explaining climate change is that explanations are often muddled by politics and misinformation, which is why Gray-Steinhauer prefers to understand and explain climate change through her work and observations as a researcher. However, further complicating the issue is the language used, including the term ‘global warming’ which she says misleads the public.
“I don’t use that term. Because climate change is not that simple, it’s not one-directional.”
She described how her research uses scientific modelling to look at the past, predict into the future, and provide evidence of changing climates.
“A model is a mathematical representation of a relationship.” For example, Gray and her colleagues will identify a tree species and from its location, climate conditions, and the other locations the species is found on the landscape they can develop a range in which the species in question will survive and thrive – a range described as an envelope.
They then overlay that envelope onto the current climatic conditions and onto predicted conditions.
What they found is “that envelope is going to shift as climate shifts. And what we’re able to find is that mathematical representation, or envelope, shifts the same way it is actually shifting on the ground.”
Overall, she said, plants and landscapes are shifting north, as climates shift north. But, she noted all species and landscapes will be affected by climate change differently.
“In Alberta we’re seeing what’s called the grassland expansion. So those climates associated with southeast Alberta are shifting north and bringing those really dry environments with them … And drought is what is causing dieback and dead aspen.”
Like Gray-Steinhauer, many scientists are seeing their hypotheses and models demonstrating or projecting climate change revealed as accurate. And while promising, as a means of planning for and dealing with climate change, the results of these models and predictions are nothing less than unsettling, confirming what many living in the north already knew: climate change is occurring and will continue to severely and negatively impact not only northern regions but Earth as a whole, if mitigating measures are not taken both locally and globally.
She asked, “What side of the risk do you want to land on? We know there are negative consequences if we do nothing.”
Coastal communities in the north are imminently threatened. The habitat of polar bears is disappearing fast. And while people could move inland, polar bears could move north, Dr. Derocher points out “at some point you can’t go any further.”
He elaborated, “I think the people that can’t adapt are going to the be the ones without a place to live. People that will be forced to pickup wholesale and relocate. The town of Tuktoyaktuk is falling into the ocean. Many communities in Alaska won’t exist because of the ocean erosion caused by a combination of less sea ice, causing bigger and longer storms, as well as sea-level rise. When we talk about Inuit communities, they’re almost all coastal.”
However, Derocher added, “In talking to northern hunters, they say they have always adapted to the changes in the north.”
While many individuals are aware of the current and potential threats climate change brings, and are making changes in their own lives to contribute to the efforts to mitigate climate change, it is the major producers of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, as well as policy makers that have much of the power to enact real effective large scale solutions to mitigate climate change.
In 2016, the David Suzuki Foundation submitted a recommendation to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to review Canada’s human rights performance regarding its failure to meet international human rights obligations, linked to reduced environmental regulations and oversight on climate change initiatives.
“This [United Nations] international body agrees with Canadians that Canada must pursue alternative and renewable energy production, and that climate change obligations are also human rights obligations,” said Ian Bruce, director of science and policy with the David Suzuki Foundation.
While the pressure is increasingly on Canada, a country with massive tracts of land considered northern climate, to take major steps towards mitigating climate change, there is a growing call from the first peoples of the land, especially those living in the north, to be included in the discussion and decision-making process.
Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day said, “(A)ny long term initiative on human rights and climate change must not only include Indigenous participation but include active Indigenous leadership for any strategy to remain relevant and successful.”
Day added, “We must be front and centre on climate change initiatives, from the Great Lakes to the Boreal Forests. In a province [Ontario] where 700,000 people live on 87 percent of the land mass, it makes common sense that First Nations be allowed to finally fulfill our treaty rights, and preserve to protect our lands and waters for future generations.”
Kaitlyn Hunter paused in thought.
“It’s not anger. Not exactly disappointment. But we now have to make our life choices around the changes happening to the land and water because of [climate change]. We have to sacrifice some things and learn to cope with it – and we don’t really have a say in it.
“If you see the changes that are happening now, just imagine 20 years from now, or in 50 years. If things don’t change it’s just going to get worse. And we’ll have no choice but to adapt to it.”
But, while her feelings are mixed, Kaitlyn said overall she is optimistic about the future.
“I do have hope. If you don’t have hope now, you might as well stop everything … It’s a part of my culture, and taking care of nature means a lot to me. Hopefully things do change for the best, not just for our community but for everyone. Because climate change will affect everyone at some point.”
About the Authors
Brandon MacLeod is a freelance journalist and photographer from Cold Lake, Alberta. He is also a poet and previously taught journalism with JHR’s Indigenous Reporters Program in Peawanuck and North Spirit Lake, Ontario – where he now works with primary students. His love and appreciation for nature run deep, spending much of his time outdoors. Brandon was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and is part of the Métis Nation of Greater Victoria.
Pam Chookomoolin is a mother of two from Peawanuck, Ontario. After completing Journalists for Human Rights’ Indigenous Reporters Program her writing and photos have been published in various newspapers, magazines and online media. She works for Weenusk First Nation as a Diabetes Prevention Worker, volunteers and promotes physical activity in her community and is a member of the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group.
 IPCC AR5 Glossary https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_Glossary.pdf
 Peawanuck, Weenusk First Nation Water Declaration 2015
 Peawanuck, Weenusk First Nation Water Declaration