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OnCampus Weekly.. Oct. 17/03

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Policy study navigates issues facing Canada's North

Story by Dennis Urquhart
Photos by Roberts Wiliamson

DURING HIS LONG CAREER studying Inuit culture, anthropologist Robert Williamson witnessed the massive development and changes that the Distance Early Warning Line brought to the Canadian Arctic.

Constructed rapidly in the 1950s, the DEW-Line was a chain of radar stations that scanned the sky for potential Soviet bombers taking a circumpolar shortcut to the U.S.

sealers“The DEW-Line brought substantial changes for the Inuit, and not just for those in the immediate path of that radar line,” says Williamson, a research associate with the U of C-based Arctic Institute of North America (AINA). “The nature of my research with the Inuit also changed. It became more problem oriented.”
Half a century later, another dramatic change is blowing across the high Arctic – global warming.

“ The Arctic is really the canary in the coal mine in terms of climate change,” says Karla Jessen Williamson, AINA’s executive director. Warmer temperatures, retreating sea ice and melting permafrost over vast areas confirm to both respected scientists – and the Inuit elders – that the Canadian Arctic is already changing, she says.

And perhaps within a few decades, the melting sea ice will result in a bustling new international shipping lane. Sailing across the Northwest Passage would trim more than 7,000 kilometers off the existing Asia-Europe trade route via the Panama Canal.

TB patientsThe Government of Canada realizes that the indicators and consequences of climate change in the Arctic need to be better understood and anticipated. That’s why it recently allotted $25.7 million for a highly coordinated research effort called ArcticNet.

ArcticNet is a Network of Centres of Excellence of Canada (NCE). The NCE program brings together university, private sector and public sector researchers to work on projects vital to Canadians.

The U of C was instrumental in establishing ArcticNet, especially by fostering the social sciences aspects of the project, says Jessen Williamson. A diverse team U of C researchers is among the more than 145 scientists working on ArcticNet, which includes several complimentary, multidisciplinary studies.

For example, while geography professor John Yackel and his graduate students are on an icebreaker in the Arctic studying changes on the Arctic sea ice, several other U of C researchers are collaborating on a policy study called From DEW-Line to Sea Lane.

williamson and quqasikRob Huebert, a political science professor and associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, is the study’s principal investigator.
Other U of C researchers participating in the study include: Alan Smart (anthropology), Peter Dawson (archaeology), Cooper Langford (chemistry) and AINA’s Karla Jessen Williamson and Robert Williamson, who is chair of the project’s core planning group.

Essentially, the study will provide a multidisciplinary review of the changes and lessons learned since the DEW-Line. The study will also anticipate the policy needs, logistics, threats, and opportunities that will arrive with an international shipping lane.

“ Not only did the DEW-Line effect international military and security policy, it drastically transformed the Canadian North right down to the type of housing that was available to the introduction of a monetary economy,” says Huebert. “We are now being asked to look at what is happening from a societal, political and strategic perspective of an increasingly open Northwest Passage.”

Huebert will be investigating the complex security and sovereignty issues.
While Canada claims the Northwest Passage as its own, the U.S. and European Union view it as international waters. Given the opposing views, international maritime agreements may be the bottom line, not Canadian legislation.

Canada has never said it doesn’t want international shipping in the Arctic. However, Canada has stated that it would only support shipping under Canadian regulations on matters such as ship construction and safety.

“ If the Northwest Passage is deemed international waters, Canada will have to do more in terms of providing policing, regulatory and environmental surveillance, and possibly environmental clean-up. Yet, at the same time, we won’t have as great of a say in setting the rules,” he says. “We’re headed for an awkward situation.”
Williamson and Jessen Williamson will be studying past and potential cultural and macro-organizational changes to northern Canadians.

“ When I was first in the North before the DEW-Line, we had one ship a year and there was no aviation in the region. People moved by dog sled from one hunting area to another through the seasons and across large geographic areas,” says Williamson, who has conducted research far and wide across the circumpolar Arctic before and after the arrival of the DEW-Line.

The traditional Inuit lifestyle began changing with the arrival of a steady stream of whalers, fur traders, missionaries, the RCMP, government and small settlements.

The arrival of DEW-Line further “galvanized” traditional Inuit life. First came the bulldozers and landing strips, followed by more southern people, consumer goods and countless influences.

“ This was all part of a process of cultural change which I called ‘exteriorization,’ in so far as the Inuit’s lives were being increasingly controlled by forces beyond themselves,” he says.

Williamson describes changes to the Inuit families and communities as “sad and serious.” For example, DEW-Line jobs took Inuit men away from their families and communal, nomadic lifestyle. As well, tuberculosis, substance addiction and suicide became serious problems (although these issues are receiving better attention today from the Nunavut and N.W.T. governments, he says).

With a looming Arctic shipping lane, governments, researchers and the communities in the far North must now work closely together, says Jessen Williamson.

In addition to the DEW-Line to Sea Lane study, AINA is working to establish an independent, multidisciplinary body of experts, called an Arctic Dynamics Predictive Panel. This panel would include experts with traditional knowledge of the Arctic as well as a wide variety of scholars – such as international law experts, economists and ecologists. This proposed panel would meet regularly, publish reports and meet with government leaders of the circumpolar nations.

“ I have been talking to the scholarly world and have encountered many people who are very interested in this idea,” adds Williamson. “I have been encouraged by some of the most outstanding minds in the country.”

AINA could serve as the panel’s organizational base, he says.

“ We need an instrument that will be able to predict social, economic, environmental and climatic change. And in order to do this, we need the predictive panel and to learn to talk with each other across our disciplines.”