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Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


The Arctic: northern journeys under summer light



Gerald SchmitzCIRCLING THE MIDNIGHT SUN: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic by James Raffan
(Toronto, HarperCollins, 2014, 456 pages)

“Everything begins with a voyage,” writes Alberto Manguel in Curiosity, his latest peregrination through a literary landscape. From boyhood I’ve been captivated by travel adventures, particularly the exploits of polar explorers. Having visited various places in the high Arctic, and preparing for an almost 8,000-kilometre TransMongolian/Siberian train trek crossing northern Russia this month, James Raffan’s Circling the Midnight Sun stoked my curiosity.

Actually the closest I got to the Arctic Circle — latitude 66°33’N where the sun never goes below the horizon on the longest day — was at journey’s end in St. Petersburg. Raffan, an Arctic enthusiast whose Scottish immigrant parents chose the Canadian north over southern destinations, undertook a far more ambitious globe-spanning enterprise. Over three years from June 2010 to October 2013 he travelled 17,662 kilometres following the Arctic Circle through the eight high-latitude countries, and with the intent of focusing attention on the four million people who live in the Arctic “speaking dozens of languages and representing almost as many indigenous ethnicities.”

In putting a visible human face on the Arctic, Raffan laments that northern peoples have been at the bottom of social indices, with their voices “least heard and little understood by those who make decisions for the rest of us, who are benefiting increasingly from resources the Arctic has offered and continues to offer at an accelerated pace as the northern ice cap melts.” For northerners global warming is only one among more immediately pressing concerns addressing basic social needs, education and cultural survival — indeed survival itself given the shockingly high suicide rates among the young.

Raffan begins his circumpolar odyssey in Iceland which is technically below the Arctic Circle except for its northern island of Grimsey. Iceland has no Aboriginal population and was the last Arctic country to be settled though it boasts the oldest written text. As we know from famous Norse sagas, its adventurers reached the shores of North America five centuries before Columbus “discovered” the Americas. Typical of each country section, Raffan’s accounts of his encounters — from ordinary folks to having tea with the president — sparkle with fascinating facts and colourful observations. The country’s spectacular financial collapse was followed by an influx of Chinese money and interest. One sees China becoming a more active presence in the Arctic generally as climate change opens up navigable waters to northern sea routes.

In Norway, North Sea oil provides 25 per cent of GDP yet the country is also an environmental leader whose first female prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, chaired the 1983 World Commission on Environment and Development. Raffan notes the influence of eco-philosopher Arne Naess in promoting principles of “deep ecology” as a transformational way of life. He profiles an activist with “Nature and Youth” who goes up against the giant Statoil in a campaign to preserve codfish habitat from the pressures of future petroleum exploration.

In Sweden, Raffan investigates the struggles of the indigenous Sami population for more co-management and collaborative self-rule in the area known as “Laponia.” Historically the Sami “had been systematically marginalized in all manner of negotiations.” But he finds that a new generation is taking advantage of digital communications technologies and channels, making international connections in to get their story out and forge bonds of solidarity.

This is happening at the same time as the Scandinavian Sami are undergoing huge social and cultural stresses having an impact on their nomadic reindeer-herding traditions. Similar to Canada’s Inuit, many have taken other jobs and now live in towns. In Finland, Raffan worries about the effects of that modernizing assimilation. Sami culture has to mean more than what he finds visiting a “Santa Claus village” he compares to a strip mall offering kitschy products for sale to tourists. It reminds him of Coca-Cola’s advertising images of Santa Claus and cute polar bears. Too many still picture the Arctic as a place that leaves out the realities of the people who live there.

Given the vastness and population size of the Russian north, Raffan devotes nearly half the book to its transitional challenges. He begins in the far northwest where the serene pristine beauty of Norway’s Finmark region are “replaced almost immediately by nasty concrete-block houses, smokestacks, military checkpoints, and razor wire running atop fences that stretched out into a treeless post-apocalyptic landscape.” The toxic legacy of the former Soviet Union has left its scars as symbolized by the rusting nuclear submarines in the ice-free harbour of Murmansk, its population halved from a Cold War peak of 500,000. And here as elsewhere in the Arctic, the scale of social and cultural changes outweighs worries over a changing climate, though the latter contribute to the former.

Some political developments have been positive. There are Sami parliaments. The 41 indigenous groups, numbering 270,000 people inhabiting Russia’s northern territories, are represented by the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) which has “permanent participant” status on the inter-state Arctic Council of which Canada is also a founding member. RAIPON connections proved valuable to Raffan as he proceeded eastward crossing nine time zones: to the Siberian heart of the Russian oil patch (home to the Khanty and the Mansi); to Yakutsk in the Sakha Republic; to the Chukotka peninsula in the far east, home to the Chukchi, and where Russia’s richest gold and silver Kupol mine is Canadian-owned.

Raffan’s people-focused narrative offers an engaging survey of everything from shamanistic mythologies and fading cultures and languages, to socio-economic concerns, to the effects of melting permafrost. The shadow of the past looms large when he follows part of the infamous 2,000-kilometre Kolma “Road of Bones” built by prisoners of the Gulag (at least one million of whom died there). The Soviet Union’s demise led to huge demographic shifts — an outflow of some 160,000 Russian military and industrial personnel. There was also a collapse of the reindeer population. In the midst of wrenching changes, most important to the native peoples Raffan spoke with was gaining a measure of “fate control” over their lives. They wanted to overcome historical losses — that included removal of children to residential schools — in order to avoid cultural oblivion.

Raffan then moves on to Alaska where he revisits the telling story of the coastal village of Shishmaref which briefly gained worldwide attention as a climate-change casualty. In fact, it has neither been moved to higher ground nor “swallowed by the sea.” While media interest has moved on, there isn’t money to relocate, reindeer have disappeared, and locals are consumed with the bigger unsolved problems of an epidemic of teen suicides and how to maintain Inupiaq identity. Further east Raffan looks at the controversies over expanding North Slope oil and gas development, and talks with the “Gwich’in apostle” Evon Peter about preserving the natural and human environment, including through education for cultural survival.

The next-to-last part of the book traverses the Canadian Arctic from the Yukon to Nunavut. In the wake of the seminal 1977 Berger Report — which proposed a 10-year moratorium on pipeline development in the Mackenzie Valley — there have been 14 land claims agreements with Arctic first peoples. Native corporations have been created and become involved in resource development activities. Nunavut, 80 per cent Inuit, became a territory with its own government in 1999. Yet large federal subsidies can’t hide a sobering reality: “On just about every measure of success and social satisfaction — education, general health, life expectancy, substance abuse, employment, income, and housing — Nunavut was still the bottom of the heap in Canada.”

Yes, as confirmed by Arctic Council climate impact assessments, Raffan writes about the incontrovertible evidence of a warming Arctic. At the same time, including through his involvement with programs like “Students on Ice,” he encourages readers to care at least as much about the other challenges facing Arctic peoples.

In Greenland, the world’s largest island, Raffan is heartened by the strides that its native population has made in wresting significant autonomy from Denmark and establishing a form of self-government that provides for control over resource development and revenues.

The book ends back in Iceland with Raffan at an October 2013 Arctic Circle conference, convened by President Grímsson, where he finds some governments and big-business interests eager for “cold rush” opportunities from climate change, happy to welcome Chinese and other outside investments. Fortunately others speak up for the rights of those who make the Arctic their permanent home.

Raffan concludes his epic travelogue with a stirring call for educating ourselves “to empower and support northerners” in their journeys toward “sustainable self-determination.” Because, as he says: “Our future depends on it. In a world where climate change affects every living soul, we are all northerners.”

This column is dedicated to my mother who has been hospitalized with serious illness since my last days in Russia and whose spirit of curiosity about the world has been an abiding inspiration.