At the Arctic gates, a faltering world

“For all we inflict on him, the Earth will punish us”: David Daley, a sled dog breeder, lives on the edge of the Canadian Arctic in a world he finds increasingly difficult to recognize.

We are in Churchill, a small isolated town on the edge of Hudson Bay, where global warming is three times faster than anywhere else in the world and where sea ice is gradually disappearing.

Like his ancestors of the Métis people, one of Canada’s three aboriginal groups, this 59-year-old grandfather lives in communion with nature surrounded by his 46 dogs, where the tundra ends and the boreal forest begins.

Hudson Bay (AFP - Valentin RAKOVSKY)
Hudson Bay (AFP – Valentin RAKOVSKY)

Each year, he fears the increasingly late arrival of snow. “My dogs are waiting for winter, like all of us,” he says. “This culture is dying.”

In both summer and winter, David Daley crosses this region known for its northern lights, where rocks, mosses, tall grasses and black spruce forests reign. He always hunted there and saw the flora and fauna change up close.

“When I was a kid I hunted, fished and trapped here and there were almost no moose, now they are everywhere,” describes the long-haired man who offers knowledge activities to indigenous tourists. “It’s the same for the pointed-tailed grouse and the mink…”

In this region where the tundra ends and the boreal forest begins, Canadian hunter David Daley (D) has seen the flora and fauna change year after year.  August 10, 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
In this region where the tundra ends and the boreal forest begins, Canadian hunter David Daley (D) has seen the flora and fauna change year after year. August 10, 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

An observation that echoes scientific studies: global warming endangers Arctic species, in particular by opening the door to other southern animals. Here, both animals and vegetation migrate north.

For David Daley, humans “have no choice”, they must “adapt” as animals are forced to do.

– The bear in the city –

The adaptation involves notably a coexistence to be reinvented with the emblematic animal of the region: the polar bear.

Global warming is reducing Hudson Bay's freezing time and forcing polar bears to stay on land longer than before during the summer.  4 August 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
Global warming is reducing Hudson Bay’s freezing time and forcing polar bears to stay on land longer than before during the summer. 4 August 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

During the Cold War, the location, which housed a now deserted American-Canadian military installation, had to be ready to repel a possible Soviet attack from the North Pole. Today, its inhabitants fear above all the predatory apex of the Arctic.

Global warming is reducing Hudson Bay’s freezing time and forcing the region’s polar bears to stay on land longer than before during the summer. The months of coexistence with the man are longer and the carnivore, weaker, gets closer and closer to the city.

Adventuring into Churchill requires certain precautions: rifle, repellent and never walking alone after dark or with poor visibility.

The adaptation of humans to climate change in Churchill involves notably a coexistence to be reinvented with the polar bear, which is increasingly closer to the city.  August 10, 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
The adaptation of humans to climate change in Churchill involves notably a coexistence to be reinvented with the polar bear, which is increasingly closer to the city. August 10, 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

Here, each inhabitant has a story with a bear. “I don’t remember as a kid feeling in danger during the summer. Today it’s different, my kids can’t play on the rocks along the coast like I used to,” says Danielle Daley, David’s daughter, 33. years old.

The slender-figured young woman recounts her fear of seeing a bear running around her home in July, followed a few meters away by the Manitoba Wildlife Conservation Officers’ patrol vehicle with howling sirens.

Canadian Ian Van Nest, wildlife protection officer, on patrol in Churchill.  August 7, 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
Canadian Ian Van Nest, wildlife protection officer, on patrol in Churchill. August 7, 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

It’s even more complicated in the fall, when the bears starve after months of fasting on land, without a seal in sight. For Halloween night, October 31, a special device is installed, says Ian Van Nest, wildlife protection officer.

Rifle slung over his shoulder and walkie-talkie on his belt, the austere 30-year-old multiplies his patrols with his peers that day. Even the helicopters are spotting the hovering bears and allowing the kids to collect candy.

“We can use explosive devices, this produces a bang and a flash that drives the bear away,” he explains.

The city has new radars that can detect bears up to two kilometers from the first houses, even at night, even in fog.

Around Churchill, the polar bear population, though declining since the 1980s, is estimated at 800 individuals… as many as the townspeople.

– “Opportunities” –

“You have to look for the positives” in climate-related changes, said Churchill Mayor Michael Spence. August 10, 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

Not everyone has a negative view of these climate-related changes.

“You have to look for the positives in all of this,” said Churchill Mayor Michael Spence, a member of the Cree people.

The evolution of tourism and the development of the port, thanks to the increase in temperature, “are also opportunities for economic growth for the local population”, assesses the councilor who grew up here.

The bear's growing presence now draws a few thousand tourists each year to this remote corner of Manitoba.  August 4, 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
The bear’s growing presence now draws a few thousand tourists each year to this remote corner of Manitoba. 4 August 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

The bear’s growing presence now draws a few thousand tourists each year to this remote corner of Manitoba inaccessible by car.

And melting sea ice allows ships to access the city’s harbor, the only deep-water port in the Canadian Arctic, longer than ever before.

The mayor dreams of making it a natural outlet in the north of the country to export cereals grown in the center and, eventually, minerals, which could be extracted in the great Canadian north, mainly thanks to the thaw.

Much of Canada’s mining potential is located in the far north territories (diamonds, gold, tungsten, uranium, rare earth elements, etc.)

But these prospects are hampered by another consequence of global warming: the thawing of the ground, which moves the landscape and, therefore, the tracks, making it difficult to transport the raw material to the port.

Since the 2017 flood, the Port of Churchill, the only deep-water port in the Canadian Arctic, has been idle.  August 4, 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
Since the 2017 flood, the Port of Churchill, the only deep-water port in the Canadian Arctic, has been idle. August 4, 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

In 2017, flooding caused by the thaw damaged the railway line and rail transport was interrupted for more than 18 months. Since then, the port has been stopped. Behind the giant silos, old cars are rusting in the wild grass.

– Poverty –

In Churchill, between the clean season and the giant graffiti of polar bears, many houses are in ruins, hastily patched up. Sometimes they are simple prefabs placed in cinder blocks, looking unsuitable for winter temperatures that often reach -40° Celsius.

In Churchill, poverty is very present, many houses are in ruins and many vehicles are abandoned.  (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
In Churchill, poverty is very present, many houses are in ruins and many vehicles are abandoned. (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

On the streets of this city, known in the early days of European colonization for the fur trade, many vehicles, snowmobiles, quadricycles, vans, are abandoned, sometimes half-boned.

In this locality, which has about 60% of aborigines (Inuit, Cree, Dene, Métis), poverty is very present. The descendants of the country’s first peoples (5% of Canadians, 18% of Manitobans) live in communities often marked by unemployment, precarious housing, discrimination…

Here, 64% of children live below the poverty line. A situation that for some relegates the issue of the environment to the background.

Hunter David Daley dreams of a beginning: “We must, as indigenous people, lead the way in reconciliation with our mother Earth.”

Churchill's Meeting of Indigenous Peoples.  4 August 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
Churchill’s Meeting of Indigenous Peoples. 4 August 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

The UN climate experts (IPCC) already said in their March report that people’s intimate knowledge of nature must be taken into account in the fight against climate change.

Especially since the ancestral lands of these populations are home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

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