‘We survived off our resources for millennia’: Paul Okalik, WWF-Canada’s lead Arctic specialist

During last month’s COP15 biodiversity summit, WWF-Canada’s lead Arctic specialist, Paul Okalik, moderated an Arctic marine conservation panel with guest speakers hailing from Alaska to Nunavut. Before returning home to Iqaluit, Paul spoke to us about some of his region’s most pressing issues.

Inuit man standing behind a podium with a WWF panda logo on it
WWF-Canada’s lead Arctic specialist Paul Okalik moderating a marine conservation panel during COP15 in Montreal © Justin Kielly

First off, why do these sorts of events matter?

It’s very important to educate the rest of the population about what we’re facing, and what we’d like to see for our future because we’re not going away. We want to make the best of our world and the challenges that come our way, so we need to find a way to tackle them. We matter and our future needs support.

What do southerners need to know?

Our circumstances are quite different from down south. Just to get food on the table is a real challenge and the impacts that we feel are much more blunt than you would see down here where you can overcome some challenges with infrastructure.

Where we live, we’re very isolated so any nutritious food that we get is what’s out there for us — and if it’s gone, then our options are very limited. It needs to be stressed further to the broader audience that we need to find a way to protect our food source and allow us to grow and support our economies.

Baffinland blockade solidarity protest in Taloyoak, NU in February 2021
Baffinland blockade solidarity protest in Taloyoak, NU in February 2021 © Spence Bay HTA

A lot of people say mines stimulate the economy.

There are benefits, of course — temporary jobs that come and go, transferable skills like electrician and mechanic that can be useful in the long run for the broader community.

But at the same time, the rest of the jobs won’t be there for the community when that ore’s gone. When it’s tapped out, then the community’s left with the aftereffects of the activity, the damage that’s caused.

If you destroy the caribou habitat, how are the animals going to feed? To grow? That’s something that needs to be protected for our own future and for that of the caribou. We need to continue to stress that if they’re going to do mining, it should be in areas that are less impactful for our own communities.

I think people don’t realize how important local “country food” is when you’re above the tree line.

We survived off our resources for millennia. It’s something that has fed us, and nursed us, because the freshest food is the most nutritious food, regardless of where you are. The Arctic has various species, thankfully. In the early fall, it’s char that we depend upon, and seal, and a bit of Caribou if we can get it. But in the summer months, it’s our muktuk, or whale blubber. Our food is very seasonal, so we need to protect each species to make sure it sustains us and creates that cycle of life around the Arctic.

Caribou herd in winter
Barren-ground caribou © Françoise Gervais / WWF-Canada

There’s a commitment to protect 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030 — so how do you ensure that the right places become part of those percentages?

Yeah, that’s why I stay away from numbers. It’s the areas that are more important. We need put them somewhere where they’ll be more meaningful for the animals, and to Inuit that depend on those species.

What needs to change — and it’s slowly changing — is to give the Indigenous population space to create those precious spots so that they’re protected for future generations.

How long does it take for something like a COP15 negotiation to filter down to communities?

It’s something that hopefully will be speedier than mining projects get approved. It would be nice to see that shift to Indigenous-led projects being approved quickly like that, so that areas are protected more for their value for the Indigenous population than their monetary value for some external companies. That thinking needs to change to make sure that the Indigenous-led projects are valued the same way.

Are you hopeful?

I hope that the international community will continue to make progress. But in light of what we’re going through today, it’s a challenge — for all of us — and we need to find a way to move forward and address them as people in this world.

This article originally appeared in our monthly newsletter, Fieldnotes. Click here to subscribe to future issues.