The Inuit are ‘silaup aalaruqpalianigata tusaqtittijiit - witnesses and messengers of climate change’ (page 1), and ‘sikuvut nunguliqtuq’ (our ice is vanishing) (page 19) brings profound changes to their lives in terms of their natural environment and opening of the Arctic to the greater interaction with the outside world. Were it not for the Inuktitut terms in this earlier sentence, the statement about rapid Arctic change resulting from interacting forces of climate change and globalisation would not catch much attention of a reader even moderately familiar with the most recent literature on the region. What distinguishes, however, to some extent Our ice is vanishing. . . from other titles is the attempt of its author to put questions of climate change, Arctic sovereignty, and economic development into the deeper context of human history of the Arctic, in particular Nunavut and Greenland, and Inuit life.
The book is organized into ten chapters, followed by three declarations provided for in the appendices: A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic, A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Resource Development Principles in Inuit Nunaat and United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in relation to the undertaken theme of sovereignty. Whereas the first chapter, Sikuvut: Our ice, sets the stage for the volume and introduces the reader to the author and her personal motivation in writing the book, the following ones develop to large degree chronologically, from the origins and history of the Inuit in chapter 2 (Iglulik: The place where there is a house), through the history of European and Inuit exploration of the Arctic in chapters 3 and 4 (The Northwest Passage and Inuit odysseys) to discussion of complex relationship between Canadian and Inuit sovereignty in chapter 5 (Canada's Arctic dominion). In chapter 6 the book continues with a recollection (Human flagpoles) of one of the darkest episodes in recent Arctic history, namely the relocations of Inuit families and the removal of children to residential schools (which was brought into limelight again in 2015 when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded its 7-year work calling for redressing the legacy of residential schools and advancing the process of Canadian reconciliation) and looks at creation of Nunavut in chapter 7 (Nunavut: Our land). Three last chapters in the volume (Silaup aulaninga: Climate change; Is the Arctic safe for polar bears?; and Tusaqtittijiit: messengers) come back to the theme of climate change and seek to provide to it both indigenous and non-indigenous perspectives.
Shelley Wright is Canadian and a professor of Aboriginal Studies at Langara College. Her own experience in the Arctic began in 2001, when after a long career in teaching law in Australia, Singapore and New Zealand she moved back to Canada and accepted the offer of becoming the northern director in the Akitsiraq Law School being established in Iqaluit, Nunavut. The school has been an experiment in higher education for indigenous students and designed to provide a full bachelor of law program for a small group of Inuit undergraduates in the territory of Nunavut. It was in the position of its director that the author learnt about what, as she writes, ‘is completely foreign to most of my fellow Canadian citizens’ (page 21). Wright recalls her father who, as a young radio officer, travelled briefly in the Arctic in times when parts of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line were built in Frobisher Bay, Thule in Greenland and in the Resolute Bay, among others. In contrast to him, who remained detached and largely unaware of oftentimes disastrous conditions of life of Inuit in the second half of the twentieth century, Wright's stay and experience of living in Nunavut made her acquainted with and sensitive to many of contemporary issues troubling northern communities. Overall, the book in many parts reads like her tribute to the Inuit people − to their wisdom, perseverance and resilience shown throughout the history of their survival in the harsh natural environment as well as many times graver in consequences encounters with European settlers and interactions with governance structures of Canada.
To this end the author uses a variety of sources including traditional, spiritual and scientific; historical and current; visual, oral and written materials. She draws as well from her personal experience as well as from the stories and anecdotes learnt directly from both Inuit and non-Inuit northerners. She moves between the two worlds - the North and the South - writing about the dominating perception of the Arctic pristine wilderness among ‘those of use who live almost exclusively in cities’ (page 7) and for whom ‘Nature is foreign’ (page 9) and seeking to feed it with far more complex, confronting and challenging realities of life in the Arctic. It is the goal that Wright sets for herself with this volume: ‘attempt to open a door to the Arctic in the hope of providing some insight to the lives of Inuit, the impact of climate change, and the demands that Canada has made and is still making on both the people and the environment of the North’ (page 21−22).
Whereas the author succeeds in this endeavor in the earlier, more historical chapters in the book − and many times does it with a beautiful and very engaging language − the later sections, in particular those dedicated to climate change, to this reviewer may be to some extent missing this point. In her account of silaup aulaninga (climate change) the author attempts to explain the phenomenon of climate change and bases this part on numerous scientific sources. She also goes back thousands years to offer a reader a much longer perspective of currently observed changes and combines it with insights about Inuit knowledge of climate change as well as harmful effects of global warming on indigenous populations of the north and other parts of the planet. The major reservation that this reviewer has relates, however, to the representation of science in this volume. While the author recalls extensively sources like Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and takes the challenge of getting the facts right behind the oftentimes misleading, or even entirely faulty, coverage of climate change in the media, simultaneously she writes about ‘meteorologists, who are not generally experts in anything beyond daily weather forecasting’ (page 226) and misses references to the facts and arguments presented in the section, e.g. ‘where smog over Beijing contributes to smog over Los Angeles’ (page 229) or ‘an amazingly precise body of knowledge about previous changes to global climate’ (page 200).
Furthermore, in the introductory chapter she juxtaposes science with traditional wisdom when writing: ‘We have forgotten the language of Mother Earth and the beautiful terrifying magic that is part of her and our reality. Now we call it science and think we can control it’ (page 12). In this reviewer's view such opinions may not be particularly helpful in making people more aware of the threatening reality of climate change and in efforts to bridge indigenous knowledge and scientific research to jointly offer responses to the consequences of human-induced climate change. Finally, they may not be especially useful in appeasing extremely politicised wrangles over climate change, where science is often misused as a proxy for what are primarily debates over fundamental values.
Nevertheless, even if some readers do not find themselves entirely at ease with the way Wright writes about the science, this point certainly should not overshadow the overall value of the book. Our ice is vanishing can be highly commended to the broad audience not well familiar with the realities and inherent complexities of life mostly in the Canadian Arctic, both historical and the ones of today. Wright takes her readers for a long and often fascinating journey through the centuries of life in the North. She neither hides her admiration for the resilience and perseverance of the Inuit people nor passion for making and defending their case. Seeing the generally low level of understanding of the North in the South of Canada (cf. Gordon Foundation 2015), such voices are certainly very much needed and Wright's volume represents a great addition to the growing body of literature on those matters.