High above the Arctic Circle, in the archipelago of rugged islands that form an extending finger of land toward the North Pole, is a place as beautiful as it is complex. This vast, unrelenting landscape is home to remarkable biodiversity and, as importantly, a vibrant society that is resilient, proud and strong. Yet historical wrongs and an uncertain future make Canada’s north a perfect metaphor for the country as a whole: 150 years of nationhood is not a reason for many to celebrate and, if we’re to make the next 150 better for all Canadians, the collective road ahead will be a hard one.
Joining together with a small group of passionate leaders from across our nation, I was fortunate to set sail along the northern coast of Baffin Island for one leg of the remarkable Canada C3 expedition. In striving to mark the country’s sesquicentennial, C3 has been journeying from coast to coast to coast, inviting diverse groups to join the voyage at different junctures to see Canada through the eyes of their neighbours and to explore the themes of Canada 150: Diversity and inclusion, youth engagement, the environment and reconciliation.
The fact that the federal government attempted to add an element of reflection to a moment of revelry is noble, but as we all know, real impact is rarely measured by words and more often by action. For that reason, a group of visionaries, supported by the government, endeavoured to translate the Canada 150 theme words into something more tangible – a curated space for hard conversations that can attempt to identify new ways forward.
My inclusion in this conversation – one being stitched together over 150 days – is the result of my two-decade effort to help save Canada’s white Kermode or spirit bear. Like many of my fellow shipmates, it came with the responsibility of sharing my story in the hopes that the lessons I’ve learned through success – and, more importantly, failure – could spark dialogue and possibly even ideas for how we can be a better country.
In landing in Qikiqtarjuaq and boarding the iconic Canada C3 vessel, the excitement of being in this remarkable landscape never quite took hold, as I knew that if we were to truly honour our role on board the ship, our time at sea would be incredibly challenging. Though I may have been a naïve 13-year-old when I dove into the deep end of the campaign to save the spirit bear, I’ve long since lost my innocence as to how seemingly concurrent challenges often counter act one another, surfacing hard truths and offering nothing more than bumpy roads as solace.
And just as well planned sea routes through the region’s notorious ice had to be adapted in the face of changing currents, the conversation aboard the boat quickly departed from the broad, aspirational goals of the expedition and focused in on the anger, the hurt and the fear that stems from the colonialization of the north.
The stories we heard of displacement and disrespect (putting it far too mildly) for the people and the culture of the north echo the same stories I heard during my time working on the west coast, in the land of the spirit bear. Depressingly, they are stories that can be heard in just about every Indigenous community across the country.
Though historical wrongs cast a dark shadow on Canada’s past, I think too many Canadians fail to grasp that they also haunt our future. As I learned through the spirit bear campaign, reconciliation – or lack thereof – reverberates into every facet of society and be it the economy or the environment, any issue facing our nation will largely remain unresolved until meaningful reconciliation is achieved.
The bumpy road
Take conserving biodiversity in Canada as an example of the tough road ahead. As western society has slowly eroded our global natural inheritance, the last hope of protecting true wilderness – along with its carbon sinks and intricate, fragile life cycles that sustain us all – is now increasingly falling on the shoulders of Indigenous communities. Their isolated traditional territories, in some extreme cases, must be protected in full to conserve the gene pools of species that are being lost elsewhere. Yet these same territories, if developed, offer the potential to create countless jobs and economic stability for communities long denied their share of the prosperity pie. How can this land not be protected for the sake of saving humanity as a whole? How can society, having denied sharing the spoils of resource development with Indigenous communities for so long, now ask that First Nations forgo their chance at economic success just because we failed to do our part? The very question flies in the face of reconciliation.
With Canada’s courts increasingly awarding decision-making power over land management decisions to Indigenous communities, an impossible question now becomes compounded by real or perceived agendas. Is funding one community’s court case really about advancing social justice or more about creating strategic gains – setting court precedent that, on a large scale, will create more cost effective wins than loses for one side of an argument over another? Real or imagined, in this context, it’s hard not to look cynically at even the purest of intentions and that creates not only a political Molotov cocktail, but erodes any foundation of trust with which to advance reconciliation.
It’s against this backdrop that the spirit bear campaign played itself out. The first five years created clear moral rights and wrongs, but as the conversation shifted away from generalities and toward the specifics of what saving the bear actually meant, the issue devolved into the kind of divisiveness you get when high stakes agendas meet complex politics.
Now it’s true, we were able to save the spirit bear, but our story should be a warning, not a road map for conservation or reconciliation. Some say that the final agreement that realized our goal was the by-product of Canada’s great strength: Compromise. I disagree. We succeeded, in many ways, in spite of ourselves. The stakeholders involved in this issue didn’t end the campaign united, even if, for the most part, each got what they wanted. We succeeded because saving the bear was so obvious to so many that enough time was granted for circumstances – in this case, market economics – to change. If the bear hadn’t become worth its weight in gold, we would still be deadlocked in an impossible stalemate between reconciliation, the environment and the economy.
All of this is to say that too many Canadians, in my opinion, view compromise as the catchall solution that will save us from the problems we face as a collective. We forget that at its heart, compromise is about everyone giving up something, everyone sharing a loss. When juxtaposed with issues like reconciliation and the environment, the idea of giving up or losing something is simply not a workable end.
Somehow, someway we need to innovate rather than compromise, creating the time and space to foster asymmetrical solutions that take into account the micro without sacrificing the macro. And that’s far easier said than done. But it can’t be an excuse to do nothing; it can’t be an excuse to avoid the messy or the uncomfortable. Even if true reconciliation isn’t possible within my lifetime, it will never be solved if we don’t start somewhere. Indeed, uncomfortable conversations were the hallmark of my time aboard the C3 journey – that, and deep listening to the perspectives held by fellow Canadians we spend far too little time speaking with in our increasingly curated bubbles of protection. To say this created a united front amongst the participants would be a lie. It was unbearably hard. But so too are the issues that face Canada and its peoples.
I’d also love to say that by the time our boat arrived in Mittimatalik that our leg of the C3 journey found a foothold for our first step toward a newer, better Canada. We didn’t. And to see a diverse group of Canadians – each passionate to share the burden of creating a better country, each coming together with the best of intentions – leave without identifying a common place for working together is a little disheartening and a lot of a reality check for the road that awaits us.
A journey for us all
Ultimately, the C3 journey is a Canadian journey and, at some point, we must all be part of it. The tough questions being asked and the even harder conversations taking place on a boat circumnavigating the world’s longest shoreline are ones that must spread beyond a few curious Canadians and become the norm in our schools, on our newscasts and at our dinner tables. After all, we should be one people working to safeguard our one home. We’re all in this together.
Fostering this shared ownership of the problems faced by a few and of the problems faced by us all will be the true challenge for my generation. And I don’t pretend to have the answer. I am, however, forever grateful to C3 for their willingness to create the space to have the conversation, for without someone having the will, the solution will never be found.