“Our stories are centred on the land because our identities are intrinsically connected to the land and our languages. Our sovereignty, our nationhood, our past and our future are imbedded in our traditional practices, from eel harvesting in Mi’kmaq territory to cutting Łuk in Gwich’in territory, to salmon as a culinary marker of ceremony in Secwepemcúlecw territory.” —Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Celebrating Indigenous History

Indigenous History Month serves as a reminder of Canada’s colonial past and its enduring effects, including systemic racism, inequality and discrimination against First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. These historical injustices exacerbate existing health disparities suffered by Indigenous communities and render them more susceptible to the challenges posed by the climate crisis.

Indigenous histories remain eclipsed by the narrative of European imperialism, but by committing to learning from and listening to Indigenous peoples, we allow and encourage new stories to come into existence.

Since time immemorial, the Indigenous peoples of Canada have served as gatekeepers for the Earth and of the earth. They bear the torch of countless years of collective knowledge passed down to them from their ancestors. First Nations, Inuit and Métis grow closer to the land with each passing season, and with it, a fear that climate change could sever their connection for good.

A World Out of Balance

One of Canada’s sacred gatekeepers, Jonas Sangris, a respected Elder of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, observes: “Mother Earth is really suffering. It’s hard for the Earth to breathe. The land is thawing and drying out. In the future, the Earth will become drier and drier, which will start more fires, but there will be no rain to put out the fires because there will be no moisture left in the air from the lack of water. This is what the Elders say.”

François Paulette, another revered Elder, asserts, “Reconciliation is meaningless unless we are reconciling with Mother Earth and Indigenous people together. This is done by undoing and restoring the damage that has been done to Mother Earth. Man can’t continue to delude themselves of what harm they are doing to the future of their children.” Paulette passionately proclaims: “The way that most people live is harming Indigenous cultures, and people need to start embracing a life that is balanced with nature.”

Canada British Columbia landscape sunrise over Haida Gwaii water

Sunrise over Haida Gwaii, British Columbia © Eddy Savage

Because nature is free, it is often taken for granted and overexploited. Forests are cleared at industrial levels, oceans are overfished, and wetlands are converted for profit without consideration of the reverberating effects this will have. Consequently, nature is being lost faster than it can regenerate and be restored. World Wildlife Fund’s 2022 edition of the Living Planet Report reveals that our planet’s resources are being overused by at least 75%, the equivalent of living off 1.75 Earths.

The Regional Chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, Terry Teegee, describes the state of our planet as a “world out of balance.” As a professional forester, Teegee has witnessed first-hand how unsustainable forestry practices and disregard for Indigenous knowledge intensify climate change.

Indigenous-led conservationist Eli Enns expresses: “Economy is a word that is misused and abused. For Indigenous philosophies, it is about maintaining healthy economic relations with the land. We seek to cultivate abundance in the land so future generations inherit abundance.”

Tree growing from a house corner post and roof beam, Tanu, Haida Gwaii

A tree growing from an abandoned house in Tanu, Haida Gwaii © Eddy Savage

Indigenous peoples manage roughly 40% of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact ecosystems worldwide. Deforestation rates tend to be lower on Indigenous peoples’ lands than in surrounding forests (including protected areas).

Further, 91% of Indigenous and local community lands have zero to low levels of human modification. In Canada, vertebrate biodiversity in Indigenous territories equals or surpasses that found within federally protected areas.

The Last Ice Area

Nearly 55% of Canada’s land mass is Arctic. Canada’s Arctic is home to approximately 150,000 inhabitants, of which more than half are Indigenous. Snow, ice and darkness blanket the Arctic for much of the year, making farming agriculture a nearly impossible task. In northern Canada, where store-bought items can be expensive and unreliable, access to wild foods provides healthy alternatives and self-reliance for local people. Subsistence hunting promotes the stewardship of natural resources and restores traditional practices displaced by colonization.

Traditional cutting and drying fish in Alaska. After scoring and seasoning, the fish are air dried on racks and then smoked.

Traditional cutting and drying of fish

Fishing, for example, not only embodies legal traditions but enables the monitoring of waterways and facilitates knowledge and language transfer. The disappearance of fish due to habitat destruction and climate change means a loss of food and a loss of cultural identity. Elders across British Columbia have reported a mounting scarcity of salmon (an 83% decline in their lifetimes). Warming waters force fish to change their ranges, causing southern Arctic species, such as orcas, to expand their hunting grounds further north and compete with Inuit communities for resources.

Changes in sea ice, precipitation, snow cover, temperatures and tundra productivity affect the availability of other traditional foods, such as whales, walrus, seabirds, seals, caribou and berries. In some areas, unstable sea ice has made traveling traditional routes too dangerous for hunters on dogsleds. Diminishing ice thickness and extent, along with changes in the timing of ice melt, put ice-dependent animals such as narwhals, polar bears, walrus and ringed and harp seals at risk. By 2100, polar bears could face starvation and reproductive failure even in the far north of Canada.

orca whales killer whales mother and calf swimming in ocean in canada aerial photo

A pair of mother and calf orca (killer) whales

With little or no sea ice to buffer shorelines, storm surges are extending their reach several miles inland, flooding communities, destroying wetlands and accelerating the thawing of permafrost. Along with damage to property and infrastructure, this causes the irreversible loss of livelihoods and cultural heritage.

The decline of sea ice also brings renewed interest in using the Arctic as a waterway for regional and trans-Arctic marine operations. Increased shipping traffic accelerates the rate of black carbon emissions from burning heavy fuel oil. Oil spills, discharge from wastewater, vessel strikes and underwater noise pollution have devastating consequences for the region’s sensitive ecosystems and Arctic species, especially whales.

The latest scientific projections agree that summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean will be largely gone within a generation. The exception is a region in the High Arctic of Canada and Greenland, projected to be the last stronghold of summer sea ice in the face of a warming world. This globally significant area was designated the Last Ice Area by World Wildlife Fund Canada, but it’s also known as Similijuaq, meaning “place of the big ice,” and Tuvaijuittuq, meaning “the ice never melts” in Inuktitut.

two polar bears touching noses in churchill manitoba canada

Churchill, Manitoba © Lianne Thompson

Indigenous Ingenuity

In March 2020, the Assembly of First Nations hosted the first National Climate Gathering. More than 300 First Nations experts, leaders, youth, women and knowledge keepers gathered in Whitehorse, Yukon, to discuss the climate crisis and amplify First Nations-led solutions. This radical act of self-determination demonstrated that despite the disproportionate risks, First Nations possess a deep and holistic understanding of the root causes of climate change and are the best equipped to mitigate its effects.

The Gathering concluded with the following statement: “The magnitude of the Climate Crisis will require a transformational shift in the approach that Canada and the world take to address climate impacts…It is time that the interrelationships between the three “Cs”—colonialism, capitalism and carbon—are exposed and that First Nations take their rightful places as leaders of climate action and climate solutions.”

Three Káínaa women—whose names are recorded as Double Strike, Heavy Face and Takes a Gun—stand beside a pair of dogs harnessed to traditional travois. In the days before horses, this was the principal means of moving goods across the drylands. Photographed in 1910 © Provincial Archives of Alberta

Three Káínaa (First Nations) women—whose names are recorded as Double Strike, Heavy Face and Takes a Gun—stand beside a pair of dogs harnessed to traditional travois. In the days before horses, this was the principal means of moving goods across the drylands. Photographed in 1910 © Provincial Archives of Alberta

The Métis emerged as a distinct Indigenous people and nation in the Northwest during the late 18th century at the advent of the French fur trade. Their centuries-long relationship with the buffalo economy and management of prairie wildlife has cultivated an intimate understanding of how environmental changes manifest across their homeland.

Marina Best, a Métis conservation expert, asserts that Indigenous perspectives are essential because they have bridged the worlds between traditional knowledge and Western science for decades. “I think that Métis interpret and react to the impacts of climate change in creative ways, drawing on their Métis knowledge and other technologies, of course, to find solutions which may help the larger society cope with these impending changes from climate change.”

Best is not the only proponent of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Elders in British Columbia advocate for Etuaptmumk, or “two-eyed seeing”—that is, using one eye to see the world through TEK (traditional ecological knowledge) and the other through Western tech (mainstream scientific knowledge).

Taylor Goodon, a Métis university student from the Turtle Mountains in Southern Manitoba, shares: “I’m thankful to be able to grow up in a family that’s still connected to their culture…I think it’s essential for Métis youth to not only be heard but at the forefront of this issue…I wish that in academia, more attention was brought to what it means to truly be on the land and what it means to be Indigenous to the land. And the connection between the two, I think, has really strengthened my understanding of climate change and makes me want to fight for it even more.”

A photograph of a book illustration of an Inuit village, Oopungnewing, near Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island in the mid-19th century © Harper and Brothers, 1865 (Copright expired)

WWF-Canada agrees that Indigenous-led conservation is the most effective and equitable way to safeguard habitat, reverse wildlife loss and reduce climate change. They advocate for the creation of more Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and Inuit Protected and Managed Areas where Indigenous governments and community organizations have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems.

In 2019, the Government of Canada, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, and the Government of Nunavut announced the completion of the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area. The same year, the Qikitani Inuit Association negotiated the creation of Tuvaijuittuq, one of the world’s largest marine protected areas.

Inuit in Canada and Greenland are now looking at the future management of Pikialasorsuaq (the North Water polynya), a vital natural resource in the Last Ice Area. The North Water polynya is critical to the livelihoods of Inuit communities and the well-being of many birds and animals, as it is an area of water that remains ice-free in the winter due to wind and water currents.

Churchill residents Dave Daley and Katie De Muelles proudly wearing their traditional Metis clothing

Churchill residents Dave Daley and Katie De Muelles proudly wearing their traditional Métis clothing © Daniel Raiti

How to Support Indigenous Communities in Canada

Natural Habitat Adventures celebrates the rich history, heritage, resilience and diversity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis every time we embark on one of our adventures up North. Whether it’s kayaking with belugas or spotting polar bears in Churchill, tracking spirit bears in British Columbia, hiking across glacial meadows in the Canadian Rockies or sailing along the mossy shores of Haida Gwaii, we are indebted to the Indigenous stewards who graciously share their ancestral lands and waters with us.

As one of the first companies to operate polar bear adventures in Canada more than 30 years ago, Nat Hab has become intimately acquainted with the Arctic region and its vibrant community of First Nations, Métis, Inuit, Dene, Chipewyan and Cree peoples. Our itineraries center on the stories of revered Elders, and our travelers meet with surviving members of the Sayisi Dene Nation. They also learn about intrepid women like 19th-century Inuit explorer Tookoolito, who guided American explorer Charles Francis Hall throughout the Arctic for 10 years.

In addition to contributing to WWF’s Arctic programs, Nat Hab partners with town leaders to support residents and Indigenous-led businesses to secure a more sustainable future for the Arctic.

Dave Daley and his Wapusk Adventures' dog sledding team in Churchill

Dave Daley and his Wapusk Adventures’ dog sledding team in Churchill © Daniel Raiti

Culturally sensitive and sustainable tourism significantly enriches the Indigenous economy in Canada, but it’s not the only means of supporting communities. Get inspired by these initiatives:

memorial poles, or mortuary poles travelers at UNESCO World Heritage site, SGang Gwaay, Haida Gwaii.

Nat Hab travelers walk beside memorial poles, or mortuary poles at the UNESCO World Heritage site, SGang Gwaay in Haida Gwaii © Eddy Savage