© Trevor Donald

Plans are just the start: Sub-Arctic communities need a whole-of-society approach to carry them out

25 October 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The Climate Crisis: There's No Going Back. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Nearly three years ago, the Town of Churchill, a municipality in northern Manitoba, Canada, lost its only land connection to southern Canada when record flooding washed out portions of the 400 kilometre railway track leading to Hudson Bay. Infrastructure damaging events like this are becoming more frequent and intense. As TREVOR DONALD explains, communities in northern Canada cannot be expected to live with the continued impacts of thawing permafrost. And they need more than just adaptation plans: they need an integrated approach to implement them so events like this don’t happen in the future.

IN NORTHERN CANADIAN communities, extreme weather events are forcing people to find innovative ways to adapt to the climate crisis and boost their resilience in the face of multiple simultaneous challenges. Churchill and many similar communities are trying to do this while pushing Canada to address the lingering disparities that stem from the legacy of residential schools, forced relocations and the side-lining of Indigenous traditional knowledge.

Churchill’s adaptation story to date is the product of a collaborative initiative by the Government of Canada and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to help Canadian communities adapt. In 2020, the town created a climate change But with plan in hand, what’s next?

THE NEED FOR COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

To address issues like those faced by Churchill, Canada is now working on a national adaptation strategy. However, if the government is to meaningfully address the impacts of climate change in the North, it must go further and engage with communities like Churchill. In fact, it must go beyond Churchill and involve a wide range of communities over the large geographic expanse of Canada’s North. This sentiment is backed by an International Institute for Sustainable Development report that recommends countries go well beyond consultations to invest in capacities for engagement and, once capacity is strengthened, codesigning processes and solutions.

In July 2021, the Government of Canada released a national infrastructure assessment. Informed by public engagement with more than 300 organizations and individuals, the report highlights recommendations that will guide the design of Canada’s first national infrastructure assessment.

This is a step in the right direction, but the report—and the national narrative around infrastructure—remains South-oriented, and this needs to change if we hope to address northern realities. As permafrost thaws, the ground becomes unstable, jeopardizing the structures that are built on top of it. But the national infrastructure assessment doesn’t even mention permafrost.

Meanwhile, a recent IISD report found that Canada’s “infrastructure deficit” is anywhere from CAD$150 billion to CAD$1 trillion, with the gap for Indigenous infrastructure ranging from CAD$25 billion to CAD$30 billion. Quality infrastructure in the North
matters, especially given the numerous land-claims agreements and treaty lands in the area and the ever-increasing accessibility of natural resources and shipping routes.

LEADERSHIP AND VISION REQUIRED NOW

The Arctic Council Strategic Plan might be a template from which Canada can develop its northern strategy. The Council’s strategic vision is that by 2030, “all Arctic people will have pathways for sustainable social and economic development while respecting the environment.” Simply trying to fill an ever-widening infrastructure gap and relying on past climate forecasts to make decisions about the design, construction and maintenance of existing and new infrastructure doesn’t work. What’s needed is an integrated, whole-of-society approach. This would bring together all levels of government, First Nations and Inuit organizations, and the private sector to address climate changes in the North.

Fortunately, after Churchill’s railway disaster, the town was able to build back better. But as disasters like this one stack up as the climate crisis accelerates, the repeated shocks will stretch scarce resources thin, force people to consider leaving for larger urban centres in the South, shrink the tax base and make it increasingly hard for municipalities to fund basic services, let alone build back.

We must start recognizing that communities like Churchill are on the frontlines of climate change and support them accordingly. We cannot expect them to just live with the continued risks and impacts of climate change and thawing permafrost while adaptation plans sit on the shelf. These communities require bolder solutions to mitigate more frequent and intense weather disasters and build more resilient communities.

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TREVOR DONALD was the climate change adaptation coordinator with the Town of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. He is now the climate change action coordinator with the Township of Georgian Bluffs in Ontario, Canada.