At Granta, Canadian Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier recounts her community’s ancestral way of life: one based on hunting and gathering traditions that convey a deep respect for the animals and land that offer sustenance, and one that has been all but destroyed by government paternalism and climate change. She argues that the Arctic’s health is a barometer of the planet’s health and that the earth can still heal, provided we prioritize it over economic growth.

With the signs of spring all around me, and my dreams of soon being able to get out on the land again, in season to go berry picking with fellow Inuit women, it’s perhaps not surprising that my thoughts have turned to the place of nature in Inuit life. In our language we have no word for ‘nature’, despite our deep affinity with the land, which teaches us how to live in harmony with the natural world. The division the Western world likes to make between ‘man and nature’ is both foreign and dangerous in the traditional Inuit view. In Western thinking, humans are set apart from nature; nature is something to strive against, to conquer, to tame, to exploit or, more benignly, to use for ‘recreation’. By contrast, Inuit place themselves within, not apart from, nature.

From the start, the government’s policy to move us ‘off the land’ was misguided and paternalistic. The idea was to make the ‘administration’ of Canada’s Eskimos (as we were then called) easier. We were seen as a problem needing to be fixed. This would be mended by gathering us into settlements, building houses for us and ‘educating’ our children in English with a ‘Dick and Jane’ curriculum, an education that had nothing to do with what we knew to be the real world. We would partake of the government’s assistance programmes such as family allowances (which sometimes could be withheld if we didn’t send our children to school) and, when needed, social assistance payments and subsidized housing. Along with the provision of health services, these seemingly positive enticements were difficult to resist. Nowadays we recognize these offerings as coercive, though strangely packaged in well-meaning wrappings.

With the move, things happened very quickly. At first, we expected that this new world in which we suddenly found ourselves would be as wise as our own. But it wasn’t. It turned out that our new world was deeply dependent on external political and economic concepts and forces utterly at odds with our ways of being. In particular its structures seemed to have nothing to do with the natural world. Almost immediately, we started to give away our power. For a while we thought that if we were patient – as the Inuit hunters necessarily are – that patience would pay off. But we soon lost that sense of control over our lives, especially over the upbringing of our children. They were brought into the classrooms of southern institutional schooling, a concept totally foreign to us, where they were given an ‘education’ that had nothing to do with the knowledge and skills we needed for life on the land. All our traditional character-building teachings went out the window, and our social values began to erode. When we surrender our personal autonomy, we also give away our sense of self-worth, we lose the ability to define ourselves and to navigate our own lives.

Our Arctic home is a barometer of the planet’s health: if we cannot save the Arctic, can we really hope to save the forests, the rivers and the farmlands of other regions?

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