Trump and new Senate allies threaten Canadian Indigenous communities near Alaska border

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The results of this week's midterm elections pose a direct threat to Indigenous communities in Canada's Northwest Territories. And Norman Snowshoe of Fort McPherson dreads what could be coming.

On the eve of the U.S. midterm elections earlier this week, Norman Snowshoe of Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, a Gwich'in community north of the Arctic Circle, posted the following on Facebook:

"I'm Canadian. Why am I so interested in U.S. politics? Oh yeah, the fate of Porcupine Caribou lies in the hands of the biggest idiot to ever hit the planet!!"

Fort McPherson lies on the east bank of the lower Peel River, just east of the N.W.T.-Yukon border. At an equivalent degree of latitude in eastern Canada it would be on tree-less tundra. In McPherson, however, you look out to dense forests of spruce, pine, willow and birch.

There are two stores in the town of fewer than a 1,000 people, where you can buy high-priced canned and packaged goods and freezer-burnt fruit and vegetables. Eating "out of the store," as the locals call it, will not keep a person in good health.

That's why the local diet consists, in large measure, of what they call country foods: wild cranberries, whitefish and caribou meat, both fresh and dried.

Caribou hunting is a key local activity, and the Gwich'in consume the whole animal, including the head, from which they make a soup.

A day after Norman Snowshoe made that Facebook post, he woke up to learn that U.S. President Donald Trump and many of his newly elected allies – notably, Kevin Cramer, who just defeated Democrat Heidi Heitkamp for a Senate seat in North Dakota – now have the Porcupine caribou firmly in their crosshairs.

Cramer was the author of Trump's energy policy. Like his president, he does not accept the scientific evidence on climate change and supports a massive increase in drilling for oil and gas. That increase would include drilling on Alaska's environmentally fragile north slope, which is the calving ground for all of the 200,000 Porcupine caribou.

The health and vitality of Indigenous communities at stake

There used to be great herds of bison in North America, numbering in the millions, but they are all gone now. Elk were once common in both eastern North America and the west, but have been entirely extirpated in the east and significantly reduced in the west.

Today, the caribou is the only wild, herding animal that continues to provide sustenance to thousands of people, and the Porcupine herd is the healthiest of the great caribou herds of northern Canada and Alaska. The Porcupine caribou have not – yet – experienced the decline of other herds, such as the George River of northern Quebec and Labrador, which once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but now has fewer than 10,000 animals.

The Porcupine herd has a complex, migratory lifecycle.

Each year it moves thousands of kilometres between northwestern Canada and northeastern Alaska. The animals face the challenges of extreme cold, torrential rivers, and a multiplicity of predators, including wolves, grizzly bears and, the most deadly, the huge swarms of mosquitoes that plague the Arctic summer.

The caribou have their babies in a safe, nearly 20-million-acre area of tundra, along the north coast of Alaska. That area has been protected from all development since the early 1960s. It is designated the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and abuts similarly protected Canadian national parks Ivvavik and Vuntut.

There are no roads, nor any oil and gas or other extractive activities in that entire region. Despite intense political and economic pressure to open the resource-rich area to the oil and gas industry, the U.S. Congress and successive presidents have, until now, demurred. In Canada, even Conservatives shy away from suggesting that we allow industrial activity that could destroy a huge caribou herd on which a number of communities depend. 

Caribou are extremely sensitive to human presence and will go to great lengths to avoid roads and other infrastructure, especially while they are calving.

Scientists worry that climate change already poses a threat to the Porcupine herd, via rising sea waters on the north Alaska coast. The major intrusion of seismic blasting, bush roads, heavy equipment, exploration and drilling camps, offshore rigs and everything else associated with the oil and gas industry would, they say, constitute a devastating blow to the herd.

Without the Porcupine caribou, the dozen or so Gwich'in and other Indigenous communities in N.W.T., Yukon and northeastern Alaska would probably suffer from malnutrition.

Communities that are still strong and proudly self-sufficient, balancing land-based, traditional harvesting activities with wage employment, would likely fall apart and suffer the fates of social disintegration that afflict too many Indigenous communities throughout North America.

Trump will be emboldened by new hardliners in the Senate

President George W. Bush, much beholden to oil and gas interests, very much wanted to open up ANWR to oil and gas activities, but hesitated, and could not get Congress to back him. Bush was constrained by the fact that he fancied himself a conservationist and a compassionate conservative, and claimed to have at least some concern for racial minorities and Indigenous peoples.

Trump experiences no such constraints.

He knows what he knows and does not give a whit about what he does not know.  He happily tells anyone who will listen how much he loves coal, and you can bet he loves oil and gas – especially American oil and gas – every bit as much.

In the wake of the midterms, Norman Snowshoe should worry that in the U.S. Senate those who share Trump's uncompromising, damn-the-torpedoes view have significantly strengthened their hand. The Republicans added to their majority in the U.S. upper house, and most of their new members are, like North Dakota's Cramer, Trump-style hard liners, especially when it comes to the environment and climate change.

And while Snowshoe might be inclined to take some solace from the result in the U.S. House of Representatives, it could be cold comfort.

The Democrats managed only by the skin of their teeth to take over the House, but they are neither united nor particularly focused on the environment. They won their narrow victory by concentrating on kitchen-table issues such as health care, hardly ever mentioning climate change.

Norman Snowshoe and other Canadians whose lives could be radically and negatively affected by Trump's policies will have to work hard to make at least some Americans aware of their life-and-death fears. They will need all the friends they can find, both here in Canada and south of the border.

Photo: Norman Snowshoe/Facebook

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