For Your Information

The Arctic -- An Overview

Iqaluit, Nunavut.

The Arctic is one of the treasures of the planet earth, a region of great beauty, pristine wilderness, and often unforgiving climate. If the dividing line for its Southern boundary is set at the 60th parallel (which would include the Arctic and parts of the sub-Arctic), it encompasses millions of kilometres of ice, snow, tundra, glacier, ocean, mountain, forest, muskeg, polar desert, and perma-frost. About 40 per cent of Canada's territory lies within the Arctic region as does much of the other Arctic countries. Despite the harsh climate, there is a wide range of animal life, including caribou, reindeer, walrus, whales, polar bears, wolves, great flocks of birds, and other species.

Despite the impression of it as an ancient, primordial region, the current Arctic environment is the world's youngest in geological time. Seventy million years ago the region was virtually ice-free and was blanketed with ferns, cypress trees, and other flora, and populated with animals associated with sub-tropical climates.

The population of the Arctic today is about four million people of which approximately 10 per cent are Indigenous (numbers can vary widely depending upon where Arctic boundaries are drawn). In Canada, however, Indigenous people represent about half the Arctic population, and in Greenland, the majority. These Indigenous and non-Indigenous people live in eight different countries, including the U.S. (Alaska), Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Northern Quebec and Labrador), Greenland and Faroe Islands (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Over half of the 4 million live in Russia which has the largest city north of the Arctic Circle (Murmansk).

Indigenous peoples are believed to have inhabited Siberia in Russia as far back as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. In Canada, estimates for penetration of the Arctic Circle region range between 12,000 to 14,000 BCE, with the settlements of Inuit peoples estimated to be 2500 BCE or as early as 6500 BCE. Through ingenuity, hard work and intelligence, these peoples were able to build and sustain their nations and rich cultures in the harsh conditions of the Arctic, often with very limited materials.

A partial list of Indigenous Arctic groupings today includes Inuit (Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Russia), Gwich'in (Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alaska), Athabaskan (Canada, Alaska), Sami (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia), Aleutian (Alaska, Russia), Innu (Canada) and Cree (Canada). Russia alone has over 40 Indigenous peoples. In all these regions, Indigenous populations were decimated by colonial exploitation, cultural aggression, introduced diseases, and other scourges. But in the face of it all, through their determined efforts, they have defended their rights, land and livelihoods, as well as opposed militarization of the region.

There are wide divergences across the vast region of the Arctic in terms of population, governance, cultures, languages, and climate, as well as extent of urbanization, industrialization and militarization. For example, northern Canada and Greenland are sparsely populated, while Alaska and Russia are significantly larger. The lowest temperature ever recorded on earth (minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit) was in Siberia. Yet the climate in Reykjavik, Iceland, influenced by ocean currents, is relatively moderate with the temperature varying only a few degrees either above or below zero year round. Despite the differences and distances, the peoples of the Arctic have links that go back many years and see themselves as having not only common territory but often common cause with each other.

The Arctic region is rich in natural resources including an estimated 22 per cent of the world's oil and gas reserves; deposits of uranium, bauxite, iron ore, copper, nickel, cobalt, phosphates and numerous other metals and minerals; fresh water (10 per cent of the world's fresh water is tied up in the Greenland ice sheet); hydro power; and extensive fish and sea animal stock. Industries include mining, oil and gas drilling, hunting and gathering, fishing, trapping, animal husbandry (reindeer), tourism and Indigenous art and sculpture.

Despite its pristine nature, the Arctic is experiencing dramatic effects from pollution and global warming. Industrial development, along with increased military activities, are increasing pollution in the land and waters. In addition, airborne pollutants from other regions of the earth are accumulating.

As temperatures rise (much faster than almost anywhere else on earth), the melting of sea ice and glaciers is having a huge impact on the land, wildlife and peoples of the region, as well as sea levels worldwide. Along with other issues, the problem is compounded by the permafrost thawing and releasing huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas.

In coming years, it is expected that Canada's Northwest Passage and Russia's Northeast Passage will become less ice-bound and more navigable, opening up these routes for trans-oceanic shipping, as well as oil and gas drilling and fishing. As a result, competition between the big powers and corporate cartels is ramping up for access and control through both commercial and military means.

It is true that new and challenging problems are emerging. But is also true that the peoples of the Arctic, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, including those in Canada, are resilient and will continue fighting to defend their rights, lands and way of life.

In the following songs (translated from Inuktitut 100 years ago), the wonderful Inuit oral poet and singer Uvavnuk captured so well the resilient spirit and outlook of her people amidst the awe-inspiring forces of nature:

The Great Sea

The great sea
Has sent me adrift.
It moves me
As the weed in a great river
Earth and the great weather
Move me
Have carried me away
And move my inward parts with joy.

The one great thing

And I think over again
My small adventures
When from a shore wind I drifted out
In my kayak
And I thought I was in danger.
My fears,
Those small ones
That I thought so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.
And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing.

To live and see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns,
And the light that fills the world.

This article was published in

Volume 49 Number 12 - April 6, 2019

Article Link:
For Your Information: The Arctic -- An Overview


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