It is easy to get lost in the big picture of climate change. We are always being bombarded by news telling us about the effects of climate change halfway around the world and sometimes we forget about the changes happening in our own backyards. As such, the Cree are not exempt from the global issue of climate change. A lot of what we are seeing happen now, all the extreme weather, is connected to the fact that the global climate is changing. As a result, the Cree Nation must work to adapt to these changes.
A recent report by the Climate Change Project, titled “Climate Change in Eeyou Istchee: Identification of Impacts and Adaptation Measures for the Cree Hunters, Trappers and Communities”, notes that there will be “an average increase in warming of 3.5 – 6.5 degrees by 2050”. With the increase in temperature more notable in the winter means more rainfall and thinner ice with earlier break-ups. Trails will need to be redrawn because of the shifting weather conditions. What was once safe is now becoming more and more treacherous. The usage of helicopters to travel will increase causing strains on budgets.
In 2009, the Climate Change Project began as an initiative to help understand how the climate change was affecting Eeyou Istchee from a Cree point-of-view. By working with the locals, the project set out to document all of the changes that were directly affecting the Native communities between 2009 and 2011. With that accomplished, the project would begin to raise awareness amongst the locals to better prepare the James Bay Cree to the changing environment.
The project was a joint two-year initiative of the Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA), the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment (JBACE) and the Cree Regional Authority (CRA) along with the participation of three Cree communities – Mistissini, Waskaganish and Whapmagoostui. Local tallymen and members of the CTA also took part in the project providing firsthand knowledge of the changes.
The Climate Change Project conducted two workshops in 2009 and 2010 with the participation of 135 residents who reported about a thousand observations on the effects of climate change. Special Projects Coordinator Rick Cuciurean stated, “To plan ahead, we have to get people to [actively] survey. If they find new plants or animals, anyone can send in the observations to the Cree Geoportal.” (www.creegeoportal.ca)
Many of the observations painted an image of a changing way of life. For starters, people used to be able to forecast the weather just by looking at the sky, but now this has become unpredictable. The softer snow and the thinner ice make it harder to travel to the traplines and maintain the hunting camps. More and more locals are resorting to building airstrips near their camps because travelling by skidoo has become too dangerous. This rising use of helicopters puts an increased strain on the local CTA as it has to heavily subsidize the usage in order to continue this practice.
Another aspect of climate change is how animals have also been affected. The wildlife has already started adapting to these changes with a noted difference in behaviour as well as the taste of the meat shifting. What’s more, new animal species – such as the cougar, coyote and turkey vulture – have begun making inroads in the Eeyou Istchee from the south.
With all of these collected observations, the researchers began drawing up recommendations based on the community’s needs. In total, they came up with four proposals. The first suggestion is to establish climate-change committees to serve the region in order to give the locals the ability to discuss and confront each challenge.
The next step is to implement a community-based system for observing the environment and to help document the changes happening around the communities. The Cree Geoportal is an important tool that was created for the purpose of community monitoring.
The establishment of ice monitoring and safety programs were raised during the workshops. The decrease in ice thickness and shorter seasons means that travelling overland is getting dangerous. These programs will be working with the Cree School Board to make sure the youth are aware of these changing travel conditions.
The last recommendation is about the next generation and how to get young people involved in climate monitoring and research programs. In order for this to happen, the project suggests creating internships, scholarships and employment opportunities in the field.
The choice we have to make now is if we want our grandchildren to look back and say we were the generation that stood up to protect their future or we just pushed the problems off onto them. The project has applied for more funding in order to continue its research into 2012. The issue of climate change is a huge one but hopefully one we can overcome.