Observing the effects of climate change in Eeyou Istchee

June 20, 2011

Warmer, wetter winters; thinner ice breaking earlier in the spring; new species of birds and animals appearing in Eeyou Istchee: these are among the observations shared by 135 Cree hunters and trappers who took part in two series of workshops on climate change held in 2009 and 2010. They also provide a glimpse into what people can expect in coming years, according to Climate Change in Eeyou Istchee: Identification of Impacts and Adaptation Measures for the Cree Hunters, Trappers and Communities, the report based on these meetings and released this spring.

“We had been hearing a bit about climate change before 2009,” says Thomas Coon, Vice-President of the Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA) in Mistissini. “We knew the Inuit were concerned about it, and were starting to make their own observations on ice conditions in arctic, the behaviour of sea mammals, and so forth, and that got us seriously thinking.” A rise in accidents on ice, mainly in springtime, particularly prompted concern. “We thought maybe the people on the land, Cree hunters and trappers, might have some observations about climate change, so we decided we should ask them some questions.”

Hence the two rounds of workshops, hosted in Waskaganish, Mistissini and Whapmagoostui by the CTA, the Cree Regional Authority, and James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment, and, from 2010, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. “We received a lot of very interesting observations from the Cree community, and especially the elders,” says Coon. Among the 954 observations shared by workshop participants: shifts in dominant wind direction, increased polar bear sightings on the Bay, new trees in Whapmagoostui and Mistissini, and declining populations of lynx, beaver and marten. All of these could have an impact on life in Eeyou Istchee, potentially changing the way the Cree live on the land.

Out of these observations and the discussions that followed, workshop participants developed three recommendations. First, create local climate change committees, including representatives of local public safety and environment departments, to be responsible for identifying community priorities for addressing with the effects of climate change, connecting with other groups carrying out similar work, and following up to ensure that responses to climate change are implemented, among other things.

Then, establish monitoring programs to track and understand the changes taking place in Eeyou Istchee. This would involve such things as collecting data on ice and weather conditions, watching for changes in wildlife activity, and monitoring the main ice routes. The CTA’s Geoportal for Eeyou Istchee could be an important tool here; it now includes a climate change section [http://www.creegeoportal.ca/geoportal/index_climate_change.php] where people can report and input their own observations.

Finally, launch security and safety awareness programs to inform people of the changes – often dangerous – caused by a warming climate. “Awareness programming is very important because in the last five years Mistissini alone has had three serious accidents on the ice, all involving experienced hunters,” says Coon. “So we have to advertise that people must be very careful and exercise extra caution, especially in late spring. We need to find a way of sharing with people what we are finding out.”

Another point Coon stresses is that Cree youth must be central participants in these plans. “The youth are the future, so their part in this is very important,” says Coon. “We plan to work with the Youth Councils in different communities to get our young people involved in the next stage. This is a priority.”

Now that the report is out, the CTA and other participants are awaiting responses, not only from the three communities involved but also from the other six communities in Eeyou Istchee and from aboriginal communities across the country. “Other groups are working on these issues as well,” says Coon. Inuit and other first nations communities have been making their own observations and developing their own reports, and the Fur Institute of Canada, a national group that includes both native and non-native trappers, is also considering carrying out studies. “We will be sharing our findings with these groups, and hoping in turn they will share theirs with us,” he says. “Many first nations people are working on climate change, and we can have some very interesting exchanges where we can learn from and help one another.”

The job is only beginning, of course. The next task is to implement the recommendations. “We want effective monitoring of local climate change in Eeyou Istchee. We want to establish a safety program so we can advertise to whole Cree community, making them aware of the issues. And we want to involve the other six communities who were not part of this original study,” says Coon. “These are very important issues, so we have to make everyone a part of this effort.”

related links:
CTA's Geoportal for Eeyou Istchee
CBC North Eyou Dipajimoon: Report shows impact of climate change on Crees