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Story Publication logo October 15, 2016

Canada: A Disappearing Home in a Warming World


Brian Castner paddled the 1125 mile Mackenzie River in this canoe to report on climate change. Image by Brian Castner. Canada, 2016.

What climate change looks like in the Canadian Arctic, from a canoe on the Mackenzie River.

Wilfred Jackson at home
Wilfred Jackson at home. Image by Brian Castner. Canada, 2016.

When I met Wilfred Jackson—an elder of the Dene First Nation in Fort Good Hope, a small indigenous village in the remote interior of the Northwest Territories—he had just killed a moose. Even at the age of 76, Wilfred shuffles so fast around his home, a modest clapboard heap bowed by the melting permafrost, that you barely notice his limp, the toll from decades of trapping, hunting, and fishing. He has dark skin, an avian nose, and a distinguished shock of gray hair that sticks straight up.

Wilfred has lived in and around Fort Good Hope for his entire life. The town of barely 500 people sits on a bluff above the flood-prone Mackenzie River, known to the Dene as the Deh Cho, or "Big River," overlooking a valley so vast it seems untamable. The Arctic Circle is only a few miles to the north; to the south, the Ramparts, a series of sheer limestone cliffs. To the east and west stretch endless boonies of black spruce and mosquito-clogged muskeg, the land of Wilfred Jackson and his ancestors. This is a place defined by the virtual absence of man: The Northwest Territories is nearly as big as Alaska, but only 40,000 people live there, and Edmonton, the closest city of any size, lies 1,000 miles away.

I had come north to canoe the Mackenzie River, the second-longest in North America, and meet some of the indigenous nations most vulnerable to climate change. This inaccessible corner of the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, but Wilfred and many of his kin still look to the land for sustenance. "Our culture is the land. Take that away, we go away," as one elder told me.

Wilfred's middle-aged daughter Rayuka showed me her family's smoke house, a plywood shed with a grated roof. Inside, the smoke from the small fire was pleasant, like the steam in a sauna. It kept the bugs away and cured the moose meat. Heavy loins and shanks hung draped over a grill, the deep red back straps stretched out like a spider web. "He got a young bull," she told me of the nearly thousand-pound beast that her father had killed and she had expertly filleted. "My father, he's an old bush man," she said. "You should ask him some stories."

But Wilfred wasn't in the mood to share any romantic hunting yarns. Instead, he wanted to talk about his fading world. "Almost all the old-timers are dead," he said. As his friends die off, he wondered who and what will replace them. He has lived long enough to see powerboats and skidoos supplant canoes and snowshoes. This sort of globalization—the influx of modern conveniences and ubiquitous pop-culture—has invaded every aspect of Dene life, but at a cost. He fears the old ways are dying with the old timers.

Even as the world seeps into the Northwest Territories, no cruise ships with tourist dollars are coming to save Fort Good Hope. Two hundred fifty miles from the coast, in the impenetrable boreal forest that dominates northern Canada, the rural poor are still just that. Globalization is more cultural threat than economic opportunity, and climate change is only the latest danger foisted on them by outsiders. Through it all, some, like Wilfred, struggle to soldier on.

Fort Good Hope was founded by Montreal fur traders two centuries ago. Before the predatory treaties and alcohol abuse of the 20th century decimated the First Nations people, the trade was mutually beneficial. The Hudson's Bay Company—one of the world's first truly globalized companies, controlling an area of land equal to the lower 48 of the United States—got beaver furs for fashionable felt hats to sell in Paris, while the Dene got cooking pots and sewing needles, guns, and ammunition. Capitalism taught the Dene to hunt and trap not just what they needed, but what they could sell, and for a time they thrived.

Today, the Hudson's Bay Company trading post is gone, replaced by an unpopular grocery store. The snow, essential for laying traplines, hasn't disappeared. But because of climate change, it arrives later each year. Wilfred only saw only four inches last December; in average years there would have been 30. "I like to do all my trapping before Christmas," he said, "but I can't anymore." The lakes freeze, but with little snow, it's hard to run the skidoo. The Mackenzie isn't gone, but because of warmer temperatures, the fish get lazy and don't chase his lures.

Wilfred lamented that almost all the old fur trappers are gone. Even worse, few young people are learning to live off the land. Two hundred miles downriver, in Tsiigehtchic, they still preserve grayling, pickerel, and trout, by smoking it—making dryfish the old-fashioned way. A woman comes to Fort Good Hope to sell it, for up to $100 a fish. "People go crazy for it," Rayuka said with amazement. I could tell it bothered Wilfred. Not only were the young people of his town refusing to take up this lucrative business, they preferred to buy dryfish rather than smoke it themselves.

At Wilfred's bare-bones hunting and fishing camps, spread over hundreds of square miles, there's a time and place for everything: geese in the spring, fish in the summer, and caribou in the fall. Climate, not calamity, has kept Fort Good Hope small. Unlike the Cherokee and Navajo and other great tribes in the south, the indigenous nations of the far north were never populous. The land sees to that. It has always been a harsh life, and the Dene talk about the land with less affection than respect, as any bounty is hard won.

Last winter, Wilfred snared over 100 marten, highly prized by coat makers in Russia and China. He sold the pelts for $100 each, good money for a month's work, but work available only when the marten's fur is long and luxurious. The cash was a windfall. Wilfred knew it and treated it as such. "When you get rich, you get sick," he said. "You worry, when every dollar goes down. I have money, but I just pay bills. I never keep it, it all goes away. I shoot a ptarmigan"—he made the motion of pulling a trigger—"I shoot a rabbit. It's fresh, fresh. That's what I want. Fresh."

Like many of the indigenous of the Northwest Territories, the Jacksons are devout Catholics; Oblate French missionaries quickly followed in the steps of the fur traders when the post was first settled. On Sunday the family attends Catholic mass at the wooden church located on the south end of town near the public dock. It dates back to the 1880s, and is covered, floor to ceiling, vestibule to sanctuary, by a continuous stream of painted images: roses and cherubs, storks and lilies, the Virgin Mary at the Ramparts as Our Lady of the Rapids.

Before mass, Wilfred's wife, Lucy, led a saying of the rosary, one decade in English, the next in the local dialect. We arrived a few minutes early, and I immediately spotted the priest, a Nigerian immigrant named Father Innocent. He first settled in Staten Island, New York, a decade ago, and then moved north a few years after. "There is such great need here," he said. "Only nine priests for the whole Northwest Territories." The Oblate missionaries left long ago, and even the nuns packed up for good a few seasons back.

Father Innocent delivered the mass in English, but the readings were done twice, once in each language. During the homily, Lucy translated, sentence by sentence. Father Innocent's sermon was about the importance of hospitality. "Can anybody give me a ride?" he asked at the end of mass.

Every day, the Canadian newspapers are full of stories about the crisis among indigenous men and women in the north: A suicide rate five times the national average, 25 percent unemployment among men on reservations, an alcoholism epidemic, cultural decline and isolation. For nine months a year, no road connects Fort Good Hope to the outside world. A motorboat trip to Norman Wells, the next closest town, requires $400 in gas. At the airport, tickets to Yellowknife, the territorial capital, run over $2,000. For those so marooned, hopelessness is an unintended consequence of globalization. They can see global culture on satellite television, but cannot touch it, except to purchase its veneer on Amazon—yoga pants and smart phones, and straight-brimmed New Era baseball caps with the gold foil sticker.

The tourists are gone, too. There is no summer highway full of RVs, like in the Yukon or Alaska; there are no cruise ships sailing down the Mackenzie. In years past, the few tourists that made it up this far flew in. In those days, Wilfred worked as a guide, taking American business executives and former professional football and basketball players on sport-fishing adventures. He doesn't remember their names, only that it was funny that their feet stuck off the end of the bed.

But Wilfred hasn't had a client in almost a decade, so he let his expensive guide license lapse six years ago. "Do you remember when those jets flew into those big towers?" he asked, as if I might not remember 9/11. "After that, no one came anymore. I don't know why."

In place of tourists, contractors have come to build a new Canadian north. The Mackenzie Valley Fiber Optic Link—a project to bring a high-speed internet connection to local communities, or to lay the groundwork for a future gas and oil pipeline, or to assist in Arctic security against a resurgent Russia, depending on whose story you believe—is behind schedule. Ledcor, the project's prime contractor, is sending in more construction crews. "They've been drilling under the river for two years," Wilfred said, referring to a smaller tributary of the Mackenzie. He expects them to return for a third.

This is good for Wilfred. He and Rayuka run a hostel to help make ends meet. Wilfred calls it a B&B, but it's more like a mattress with a kitchen off to the side. To expand the operation, he has purchased the town's shuttered retirement home, and plans to transform it into a dormitory for transient Ledcor workers. Wilfred's adult son is a carpenter. They have plans for the new place: six rooms, bathrooms en-suite, and a kitchen at the end of the hall. The utilities are sound, so the work shouldn't be too expensive.

When Wilfred drives around town on his four-wheeler to check on his construction project, he wears overlarge tortoiseshell women's sunglasses to keep the bugs from flying into his eyes. "It just needs to be jacked up," he said. "New foundation, stop the lean. My son will do it."

The day before Wilfred and I met, he was at his hostel watching television late at night—his wide-screen stays on all day and night, pinned to a satellite channel that alternates between CNN and CBC—when he got a call for help. Lucy had taken several young women into the hills on the far side of the river to pick blueberries (July is blueberry season), but somehow the group got separated from one another. Out in the bush, it is easy to get lost. Every spruce and rock and mud hole looks the same. The women grew fearful, panicked, and took a wrong turn. In the middle of the bright night, the town organized a search.

But Wilfred wasn't particularly concerned. "My wife knows the mountain. I wasn't worried. They could just follow the creeks down to the river," he said. Eventually, he took his boat out and trolled up and down the Mackenzie until they appeared on shore, retrieving the whole group at three o'clock in the morning. "Now we tell them, better go pick your blueberries at the store!" he said.

Wilfred told me this story while watching the news: coverage of the Republican National Convention and the shooting of six police officers in Baton Rouge. "I never used to care about news," he said. "I was in the bush. But now I want to know what's happening in my world." Prompted by the headlines, Rayuka asked me to explain Donald Trump, and why Americans carry guns, if we live in cities and not out on the land.

"It would be scary to live down south," she said.


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