Canada's northernmost community seeks PM's help to weather climate change

After high tides last summer crashed over snowmobiles and carried fuel tanks out to sea, the mayor of Grise Fiord, Nunavut wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit to see for himself their infrastructure needs.

The 2017 federal budget includes $83.8 million for northern infrastructure to manage effects of climate change

Unusually high waves hit Grise Fiord, Nunavut, last summer, damaging the community's shoreline, part of a road and the community freezer. (submitted by Bernard Ungalaaq Maktar)

The mayor of Canada's northernmost community is looking to top officials for help adapting the hamlet to climate change.

After high tides last summer crashed over snowmobiles and carried fuel tanks out to sea, Meeka Kiguktak wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit Grise Fiord, Nunavut to see for himself their infrastructure needs.

She approached MP Hunter Tootoo's office in Nunavut with this request at a meeting of Baffin mayors last week in Iqaluit.

Tootoo's parliamentary assistant Henry Wright, said the MP is planning on visiting every community in his constituency over the next year, and would like to bring the prime minister, but nothing has been scheduled for Grise Fiord at this point.

Traditional knowledge on climate change in federal budget

The federal budget tabled on Wednesday, includes $83.8 million over five years beginning in 2018 to integrate traditional knowledge into understanding climate change.
The tide was close to the shacks and storage houses on the shore, so residents scrambled to get their boats. (submitted by Bernard Ungalaaq Maktar)

The budget proposal commits to improving Indigenous communities' resilience to climate change with northern infrastructure investment, especially in communities at risk of flooding.

Kiguktak says she's seen "rapid change" with tides rising every year. For the first time, the hamlet's water supply — which runs off from a glacier — was brown. 

"Aujuittuq, that's the name of our community, meaning the glacier or the ice cap never thaws, but it's thawed," she said, noting that the glacier is no longer visible from town, where she used to be able to see it on top of the mountain.

Kiguktak has been a resident of Grise Fiord since her family moved from Pangnirtung in 1966 when she was two years old.

The community was founded in the 1950s when the Government of Canada relocated Inuit from Northern Quebec and Pond Inlet to the high Arctic.

"We've been put up there for Canadian sovereignty and it seems like every time we ask for money from any source, like if we wanted an arena or swimming pool. 'No it's too small, the community is too small' they always say."

Too small to be a priority?

The hamlet has a population of 130.

They're looking for a breakwater to protect their boats from the tides, an excavator to build up the gravel under their hunting shacks on the beach, and a water treatment plant to tap into the river for drinkable water.

Kris Mullaly a spokesperson for the Nunavut's Community and Government Services department said each hamlet receives block community funding, so the excavator would be up to the community to purchase. 

But he confirmed that both the breakwater and the water treatment plant are on the community's short list of requests to the department.

"It's important to recognize that we do our best for each community, there is a perception that the smaller communities might get ignored, but that certainly is not true," he said.

Community and Government Services puts together a business case with costs and a timeline, but it's ultimately up to cabinet to decide Nunavut's priorities.

In Grise Fiord, Mullaly said a new learning centre is being built, a solid waste plant is being designed, and a hamlet office with a recreation centre attached was completed three years ago.

So while the water treatment plant is now on the hamlet's shortlist, it isn't yet a department priority.

Right now the community relies on the shrinking glacier to fill up water tanks, which Kiguktak calls "old" and "moldy". 

However, Mullaly confirmed that though the colour was off, the water in the community is tested weekly and is safe to drink. 

Northern infrastructure from the top 

Kiguktak says she's seeking out the prime minister for the hamlet's infrastructure needs because past experience with Government of Nunavut officials has made her wary. 
Meeka Kiguktak has been the hamlet's mayor for eight years. (Michael Salomonie/CBC)

She said there have been suggestions that the residents be moved to a community further south, where setting up infrastructure would be cheaper.

"The residents of Grise Fiord don't want to move out of town. We do want to stay. It's our home."

Mullaly says he doesn't think that is a current consideration.

"People have made homes in places, and they know the hunting grounds, and they have a way of life that's connected to a community."

And Mullaly supports Kiguktak's plan to invite the prime minister, especially after seeing the new money in the federal budget.

"There are a lot of benefits when elected officials in the Canadian government do visit our territory and see the realities of what we are dealing with," he said. "We are robust and resilient, but we do need a lot of work done here."