“There isn’t a lot of change happening around this town. A lot of people care but there isn’t a lot happening.”
Pretty Ngo, a Yellowknife student, stands with around 20 fellow protesters at an early-September gathering outside the city’s post office. Organizers have called it a national mobilization for emergency climate action. Ngo isn’t sure many adults are that mobilized or see the emergency at hand.
How does she hope to change that?
“That’s a hard question. I don’t know if I have an answer. A lot of burnout is happening because a lot of it is the same people doing the same thing, over and over, and we aren’t seeing a lot of change.”
In just over a day’s time, Canadians will have a clearer sense of who is likely to lead the country’s response to climate change for the next several years.
Young activists in the Northwest Territories, a part of the planet facing the fastest pace of change, are watching closely.
“We still have a little time to act, as long as we reduce our emissions and keep our global temperature rise as low as we can,” said Cassie Rogers, a student who helped to organize the protest Ngo attended.
“We thought today would be a good day to make a movement in town that we can post on social media, get passers-by to notice, and really show the community is involved in fixing climate change and we want our politicians to be super-involved as well,” Rogers told Cabin Radio.
“We want to push it as a major issue in our upcoming election. We are running out of time.”
Canadians head to the polls just over a month after a major report by United Nations-backed scientists concluded time has already expired on at least some significant impacts of human-caused climate change.
A global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees is now all but guaranteed in the fairly near future, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its first large-scale assessment of climate change science since 2013.
But in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, the figures are different.
The IPCC’s new report suggests NWT winters could easily be 6C warmer, on average, by 2050 than they are now.
That is a gigantic shift. It could have the impact of pushing Yellowknife’s mean temperature for a calendar year above 0C, which has not yet happened since the city was established. (In the 1950s, Yellowknife’s mean temperature was ordinarily between -5C and -6C. Most years are now more like -4C. From 2015 to 2017, the mean was around -2.5C.)
“The report validated what we are living right now,” said Shane Thompson, the NWT’s environment minister, in an interview earlier this month.
“This not just disasters,” he said, referring to unprecedented flooding in his own Dehcho region this spring, “but food security as well. Our history, and our heritage. It is live and we’re seeing it.”
Party leaders set out visions
The Dehcho, a collection of communities spread across the comparatively warm southwestern corner of the territory, is already experiencing particularly pronounced consequences of climate change.
In May, the Mackenzie River flooded two Dehcho communities – Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River. Seven hundred people in Fort Simpson had to temporarily leave their homes. Virtually everyone in the far smaller Jean Marie River had to leave, and many residents will spend the winter living in a temporary trailer camp while their homes are repaired or replaced. The NWT government is having to spend millions of dollars cleaning up.
“The Dehcho is one of the regions globally that has been experiencing the most dramatic warming, and also all the attendant impact of this warming,” said Miguel Sioui, a member of the Huron-Wendat Nation and an assistant professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“Permafrost thaw is probably the most significant of these impacts … that has many significant impacts on Dene livelihoods, on culture, and everything from language to cultural activities, livelihood activities, and the regional economy.”
Sioui said new species of fish are appearing in the Dehcho, throwing off Indigenous knowledge about local species and changing the balance of the ecosystem.
The shift in climate is having “an impact on every dimension of life,” he said.
“As someone who does research with Indigenous peoples in Canada, in regions such as the Dehcho where the warming is quite dramatic and quite extreme,” said Sioui, the IPCC’s report is “quite bleak.”
So what are Canada’s main parties proposing to meaningfully address that?
At last week’s English-language televised debate, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole acknowledged his party had to “restore trust on this issue to show we can get emissions down and get the economy working again.”
Writing to NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane, O’Toole promised a “personal low-carbon savings account” instead of the Liberal carbon tax. He said Conservatives would encourage more mining, oil, and gas development “while holding projects to “world-leading environmental standards.”
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau told the TV audience O’Toole “can’t even convince his party that climate change is real,” a reference to the Conservatives’ March policy convention, at which delegates rejected adding a policy line stating “climate change is real” and the party is “willing to act.”
Michael McLeod, the Liberals’ NWT candidate, points to his party’s commitment to a net-zero Canada by 2050 and its role in the creation of Indigenous protected areas.
The Green Party says now is the time to “seize the moment to create a green economy,” backing initiatives like the Green New Deal – which pledges to create a million jobs in industries that focus on addressing climate change, a target critics claim is unrealistic.
But it was the New Democratic Party’s Jagmeet Singh who, in the TV debate, said the words most likely to have seized Minister Thompson’s attention.
“We need to invest in provinces and territories,” said Singh, “to make sure they have the resources necessary.”
“We’re very much interested in what the parties are doing,” Thompson said in advance of the leaders’ debate. “At the end of the day, we will work with whatever government is elected.”
No resources in the NWT?
For Thompson, the colour of the government in power doesn’t really matter as long as Ottawa funds the NWT’s climate change mitigation plans.
Alone, the minister argues, the territory is incapable of doing much.
“We are in an urgent situation,” he said. “The big thing is that for us to do more, we need more investment from the federal government.
“We’re confident in the work that we’re able to do but again, like I said, we need more investment from the federal government.”
Eleven times in a 10-minute interview, Thompson reiterated that the NWT required more money from Ottawa to address climate change.
“We don’t have the resources ourselves,” he said.
That extends to finding the money to help residents when disasters like May’s floods hit.
“We’re looking at our budgets and seeing how we’re able to manage these things. So we’re already budgeting for it, we’re already starting the process of how we can prepare,” said Thompson. Much of the money spent addressing the floods flowed through the NWT government but came, ultimately, from the federal government’s own disaster assistance fund.
“You know, at the end of the day, we may still have to go to the federal government,” Thompson said.
Can the NWT really not do more on its own?
At the moment, the territory has three documents that primarily shape its climate change response. They are a strategic framework, an action plan, and an energy strategy.
The strategic framework sets the overall tone for the NWT’s response. It promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the territory to a level 30-percent below 2005’s figure by 2030, to build resilience, and to increase the territory’s understanding of climate change’s impacts in the North.
The GNWT then translated those overarching goals into an initial action plan running from 2019 to 2023. The plan has more than 100 items, ranging from the broad – “seek funding to fill community infrastructure gaps” – to the specific, like incorporating extreme weather warnings into the NWT’s public alert system.
The energy strategy, which appeared alongside the strategic framework in 2018, promises to reduce emissions from diesel in small NWT communities and gradually lower transport emissions, among other objectives.
Meanwhile, the NWT has a carbon tax with a design unique to the territory but implemented only once the Liberal government made the territory’s then-ministers feel as though they had no choice. The minister who introduced the NWT’s carbon tax legislation, Robert C McLeod, said in doing so that he didn’t like it very much and hoped it would be repealed.
None of the documents are products of Premier Caroline Cochrane’s government. All of them were finalized by the preceding government but remain in use and have yet to receive a major update.
A bottom-up approach
Asked if he believed the NWT’s existing climate change plans needed to change, in light of the IPCC’s updated outlook, Thompson said: “I would say no. The report was very clear. But there wasn’t really anything that jumped out at us, it just reconfirmed what we already knew.”
Rogers, the student organizer of the climate protest, said she supported Thompson’s view of the NWT government’s approach.
“I’m confident that we’re taking the right steps,” she said.
“I don’t think we’re 100-percent there yet but we are headed in the right direction and we, as northerners, can lead the southern provinces to a greener future as well.”
But Sioui, the Wilfrid Laurier researcher, believes the next federal government and existing NWT government could learn from Indigenous peoples’ relationships with the land – a shift in thinking that doesn’t necessarily require more funding.
Most governments, he said, continue to look at land through the lens of a rights-based relationship: the belief that land can be owned, controlled, and sold. A responsibility-based relationship, by contrast, means caring for the land, sea, and the creatures within, respecting and nurturing the land as a living entity.
Sioui is working on a podcast called All Ages, All Voices – or Azhǫ Gots’ęndeh, Dánét’ée Goghae Azhǫ in Dene Zhatie – that explores the impact of climate change in the Dehcho. Each episode does so by hearing directly from members of Dehcho Dene First Nations.
“You don’t find solutions to problems by employing the same way of thinking that causes these problems,” he said.
“It can’t just be a top-down approach where you have the UN intergovernmental bodies, or the Canadian government, developing solutions in isolation from Indigenous knowledge, contact, and communication.
“It really has to be a bottom-up approach, in my view, or we have to find a way to work together.”
Minister Thompson said his territorial government is taking some steps to more readily include Indigenous people in the NWT’s climate change response.
Thompson said the GNWT had set up a climate change council “basically made up of Indigenous people and Indigenous governments.” He said that was an example of the territory building capacity to address climate change in a more meaningful manner as the council’s role grows. (How many times the council has met to date was not clear.)
Still, Pretty Ngo – holding a placard outside Yellowknife’s post office – found it hard to connect those changes behind the scenes with actual action.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” she said of her inability to vote on Monday, as she is too young.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize how much young people care about the future and are worried about it.
“I’m really scared that I won’t have an Earth to live on very soon, and I won’t have a future. A lot of older people need to see that.”
No matter the projected victor come the end of Monday, the NWT is projected to experience some of the most extreme changes the globe will endure in the years to come.
“We are planning for the worst but hoping for the best,” Thompson concluded, pledging the territory will find ways to look after residents if more, and more severe, floods and wildfires hit.
“But we’re also knowing that we may have to reach out to the federal government.”
Catriona Koenig contributed reporting.