Past, Present, and Future North

Reviewed by Margery Fee

These books survey a site exemplifying climate change and concerns about sovereignty, extinctions, and resource extraction. That the Northwest Passage might become an international shipping route and that oil, gas, and minerals might become accessible for development has increased pressure on the land and all who live there.

Struzik is an award-winning journalist, explorer, writer, and photographer, and a fellow of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy. He starts with a forest fire that burned for 222 days in 1950 on the British Columbia-Yukon border, comparing it to more recent fires in 2004, 2007, and 2014. In a drastic turn, the tundra itself burned in 2007, releasing the carbon sequestered there for millions of years. He notes other shifts driven by a warming climate: orcas coming north to kill narwhals; grizzly bears mating with polar bears; and oil exploration companies coming north to the territories of Dene, Athabaskan, and Inuit peoples. He discusses much else, including storms, the freshwater flows and winds that maintain the Arctic ecosystem, the ice, polar bears, caribou, birds, and finally development. Only recently, these frozen lands were seen as worthless—in 1949, the west coast of Hudson Bay was proposed as a nuclear test site. The Exxon Valdez oil spill on the Alaska coast in 1989 is one of Struzik’s touchstones. His main point is that pressure for oil and other development overlooks the fact that spills on ice cannot be cleaned up. In a region with no deep-sea port and a wholly inadequate number of outdated icebreakers, such projects as the $300 million all-season road from Inuvik (2011, pop. 3484) to Tuktoyaktuk (2011, pop. 854) risk advancing resource extraction without similarly expensive infrastructure to respond to disasters that risk the environment, human lives, and livelihoods. He concludes that an Arctic Treaty made with the support of scientific evidence is the best way to mitigate change that we cannot stop but that we should try to predict and manage in the best possible way. Although he thanks the “people who live in the Arctic,” he does not engage much with how they might be involved in working out such a treaty. Emilie Cameron’s book provides some of that missing focus.

Cameron (Geography, Carleton University) writes a fascinating interdisciplinary account focalized through Samuel Hearne’s 1771 overland expedition in search of copper for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Hearne’s “iconic” story, published twenty-four years later, about a massacre of Inuit by his Dene guides, has been used to consolidate Qablunaaq (white) hegemony, Cameron argues. She shows how stories, whether true or not, can have important and continuing social impacts. Hearne’s account has been questioned, as have the representations of the human skeletal remains supposedly discovered at Bloody Falls by a later expedition in 1819-22. Hearne’s story features his self-representation as “impotent” to stop the savage killings and includes a Gothic account of an Inuit girl speared to death, clutching his legs. Cameron connects this story not only to Inuit accounts, but also to the ways in which Inuit peoples have responded to southerners’ attempts to memorialize this event at a site that has long been an important fishing ground. In the 1950s, during an attempt to erect a cairn there, ostensibly to draw tourists to this still-inaccessible location, the Inuit reaction was to push back, forming new solidarity. She also shows how Hearne’s search for copper relates to later economic ventures. His representation of northern peoples as incomprehensibly savage persists in a new era of “helpful” colonialism where the Inuit are still represented as unable to conduct their own affairs. From a literary perspective, Cameron’s book is most interesting for its ethical consideration of how stories—both traditional and contemporary—can best be read by those who have grown up within the mainstream Western epistemology and discourses that naturalize white and scientific authority. She suggests to Struzik and Canadians in general that we need “to unlearn our certainty, our narcissism, and our attachments to being good, and to acknowledge that our learning is specific to our experiences and relationships.” Any Arctic treaty needs to emerge out of remade and respectful relationships with the Inuit, the Dene, and other northern peoples whose experiential and traditional knowledge were integral to maintaining the land’s sustainability long before Hearne discovered a single lump of copper near Kugluk.

This review “Past, Present, and Future North” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 159-60.

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