Will Greaves: Security Challenges of Climate Change for Northern Indigenous Communities & Resolving Boundary Issues in the Arctic

An Interview with Will Greaves

“We need to be able to respond in a focused, long-term way to the challenges climate change presents, both from an adaptation and mitigation side, while tending to other matters in the world. That’s what significant states are required to do. Canada likes to think of itself as a significant state. We need to step up our resourcing and step up our commitments to be able to do all the things that Canadians expect of their government, and which our government purports to want to do on our behalf.” 

Security Challenges of Climate Change for Northern Indigenous Communities & Resolving Boundary Issues in the Arctic

For this instalment of the Expert Series, the CDA Institute spoke with Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Victoria and NAADSN Network Co-Lead, Dr. Will Greaves about the unique security challenges climate change poses to both Northern Indigenous communities and the Arctic itself. Greaves addresses environmental changes occurring in the Arctic as a result of climate change, the impact of the changing environment on Indigenous cultural knowledge, challenges posed to northern communities, the need to better integrate Inuit voices into agenda setting and decision-making regarding security and defence matters, as well as how Canada can proactively address boundary issues in the Arctic. Greaves’ research on Arctic Indigenous peoples, security, and climate change has included both textual/documentary analysis and primary fieldwork consisting of interviews and participant-observation with Indigenous leaders and organizations in Canada and Norway.


What are some of the unique or specific impacts of climate change on the Arctic and northern Indigenous communities? 

There are four impacts of climate change that are specific to the Arctic region. The first of them is physical changes to unique Arctic ecosystems. There are physical features of the Arctic environment that are particularly susceptible to climate change, which is more visible and more transformative in the region than it would be elsewhere. Examples include the loss of sea ice, the melting of glaciers, and the thawing of permafrost—all three of which are fundamental to the ecological systems around them. Second, and related to the ecosystem changes themselves, is loss of animal habitat, as well as changes or disruptions towards migratory routes. This directly affects access to traditional food sources, which impacts the health and nutrition of northerners, particularly indigenous northerners, who still rely on what are often called country foods for a large part of their nutritional intake. Caribou, seals, and fish species have been significantly disrupted because of environmental changes.

Third, changes to the land also compound existing challenges related to limited and critical failures of existing infrastructure in many communities. The already very high cost of housing has been made more expensive due to the need to make new housing resilient in the face of climate impacts coming, and the fact that it needs to be built on thawing permafrost, which is inherently unstable. Climate change multiplies the cost of construction itself. That’s besides the fact that a lot of northern communities are located in disadvantageous places. That is to say that those communities were sited where they are, not necessarily because of the desires of the people who live there, but because of other motivations of the Government of Canada or the Canadian Armed Forces. Communities often exist on floodplains and other climate vulnerable regions, which creates structural problems. We also see the issue of the availability of freshwater supplies, which can be compromised by these environmental changes. In places like Iqaluit, we have seen how thawing permafrost and changes to the ground can crack old fuel tanks or pipelines, leading to the contamination of freshwater supplies for the entire municipality.

These issues obviously overlap and intersect with each other in various ways. The loss of access to high quality country foods through hunting and fishing increases the reliance of people on expensive and often highly processed storebought foods, which thus contributes to chronic disease and poor health among many Northerners. There’s this terrible inertia, where climate impacts exacerbate a lot of existing challenges.

Fourth, environmental changes in the Arctic are also cultural changes that contribute to significant social challenges and dislocation for northern communities. This includes the effects on transportation and mobility due to loss of sea ice, thawing permafrost, and unpredictable winter roads. These factors make communities more isolated, restricts travel, and access to opportunities. Individuals who do go out on the land for hunting, fishing, and travelling are putting themselves at higher risk. Accidents are increasingly common, and people die as a result. Beyond being personal tragedies, the deaths of experienced members of northern communities means a loss of knowledge and cultural information. Taken collectively these changes mean that the body of traditional Indigenous knowledge that’s been developed over many centuries is less useful and applicable than it once was, because it no longer accurately reflects some aspects of the natural environment. This in turn contributes to the loss of Indigenous cultural knowledge and exacerbates many of the harms of the colonial period.

Inuit have considerable knowledge pertaining to security that may be applicable in a range of different areas. Policy makers often don’t understand this knowledge and cannot tap into it for security purposes. How can this gap be bridged, and how can we foster the capacity to better incorporate Inuit voices into decision making and agenda setting regarding Canada’s defence and security?  

The short answer is that Indigenous communities need to be at the table when these decisions are made. This is something that has obviously not been the historical norm, but we have seen significant progress in recent years, notably, for example, the establishment of the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee, which links representatives of the major Inuit organizations with representatives of the Crown, of the federal government. There are aspects of security related to community safety and to emergency response, which can benefit from leaning on the knowledge and experience of the Canadian Rangers, for example, who exist in many northern communities. Active and experienced community members provide a really valuable suite of services and create opportunities to maintain and uphold traditional and land-based knowledge.

I think one of the key things that needs to be prioritized is ensuring that federal government policies in the areas of security and defence don’t cause or exacerbate harms for Inuit and other Indigenous peoples. This has too often been the case in the past, but I think it should be intolerable in our current era, and within the context of truth and reconciliation. The truth requires honest acknowledgement of the past harms that have been committed on Inuit and other Indigenous peoples in the name of the security and defence of Canada. Reconciliation requires that the full participation of Inuit and other Indigenous peoples is facilitated and embraced to ensure that these harms aren’t committed again.

When it comes to security and defence policy making, ‘better’ is possible, and we’ve seen important progress. Notably, earlier this year, we saw much more balanced and inclusive approaches to defence policymaking. An announcement in June indicated that upgrades to the North Warning System would prioritize contracts with Inuit-owned businesses. That’s a way of ensuring that the activities that the Government of Canada is engaging in, in the interest of its own territorial defence in northern Canada, is also doing double duty in terms of funnelling economic activity and economic benefits to the communities that are most directly impacted by this project.

Can you touch on how various northern Indigenous communities conceive of security in the Arctic? To what extent do the interests and policies of the federal government potentially conflict with the security and interests of local communities in the region?

I don’t think there’s a single northern or Indigenous conception of what security means. We should be cautious around naturalizing both of those categories as though they had a kind of natural consensus, which may or may not stand in opposition to the Canadian state. As with any complex societies across northern Canada, we see a lot of variation in political opinion and political leanings.

That said, I think we can also look at the empirical record over the last number of decades to see how organizations that represent Inuit in a formal political sense have expressed their conceptions of security. When we look at that body of different entities, groups, and decision makers, what we see is a pretty clear distinction from what are conventionally understood as state-centric or military-centric accounts of security since the 1980s, at least, but with some precedents going back to the 1970s. What we’ve seen is a consistent framing of security for Inuit focusing, not on conventional military defence of the Canadian state, but stressing the security and well-being of their communities and the systems that their communities rely upon. In the 1980s, what we saw was the beginning of a discourse that said that security for Indigenous peoples looks different than security for the state, and requires different kinds of interventions, precisely because it’s the military defence of the state that was causing all these insecurities for Indigenous peoples. This is something which was fairly marginal until after the Cold War ended.

In the 1990s, when the military threats to North America and the Canadian Arctic had receded significantly, there was room to highlight these other issues. The increasing sophistication of Inuit political organization and increasing collaboration between Inuit across borders strengthened their legitimacy and capacity to speak about security at a very high level of government and international cooperation. An argument that I’ve made a number of times is that Inuit in Canada have been so called securitizing actors. Like other actors in our society, they have attempted to get government to respond to a particular conception of what security means for them.

Inuit securitizing moves stress the importance of the Arctic environment, protecting the environment against degradation, protecting Inuit traditional knowledge, cultural practices, and protecting Inuit autonomy and self-determination. I don’t think Inuit attempts to construct a different meaning of security have really succeeded in the sense of having the Government of Canada accept them and implement them into policy. They’ve been securitizing actors, but I don’t think we can be as positive about the success of those efforts at securitization, simply because Canadian policy over the last thirty years would look very different if they had succeeded. They’ve attempted to engage in that kind of securitizing discourse, but with a pretty uneven record of success, because of the broader reluctance of the Canadian government and other institutions in Canada to reorient their understandings of what security means.

In the current Arctic security context, what opportunities exist for Canada to exercise leadership and enhance its national interest – particularly regarding boundary issues? What would a proactive policy look like when it comes to addressing boundary issues?

We’re in a really uncertain time, politically. Arctic cooperation has been one of the major casualties of Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine. We’re unfortunately in a context now where there is no functioning pan-Arctic political infrastructure. The Arctic Council is effectively on ice until there is some resolution to the war in Ukraine. Which means that, functionally, we have an Arctic that’s partitioned roughly into two halves—the seven Western capitalist democratic Arctic states in North America and Europe, and the Russian Federation. However we might feel about their aggressive and illegal behaviours elsewhere in the world, Russia is legitimately and appropriately an Arctic state and power. Half of the Arctic is Russia’s territory by right under international law. That creates a very challenging context for Arctic cooperation for the foreseeable future.

I think the silver lining is that there’s a real incentive to get our own house in order amongst those Arctic seven, because with respect to Arctic boundary disputes, most of them exist amongst the Arctic allies. They don’t implicate Russia. Canada is particularly notorious in this sense, having had long standing border disputes with our Greenlandic Danish neighbours over the Hans Island, and in the Beaufort Sea region, and the western North American Arctic with the United States. Earlier this year, Canada and Denmark resolved the island dispute—this diplomatic irritant that produced at least the perception of tensions between very closely aligned states. My hope would be that this provides some impetus to engage in a negotiated bilateral process with the United States regarding the Beaufort region, where we have a disputed maritime boundary, due to differing interpretations of a nearly-200-year-old treaty—signed by neither the United States nor Canada. Incidentally, it’s a treaty that was signed between the Russian Empire and the British Empire. We’re living with a colonial and imperial legacy that still characterises a lot of issues in the Arctic.

Canada and Denmark peacefully negotiating a resolution to the Hans Island dispute is a step towards being able to negotiate the more complex and divisive disagreement with the United States. If we managed to do that, or perhaps, even if we don’t manage to do that, the other issue that Canada would be very well served to address, which isn’t strictly a boundary issue, is the hotly contested nature of the Northwest Passage, of which Canada has a legal disagreement with almost every other country in the world. Canada asserts the Northwest Passage is Canadian internal waters, which means not that Canada wants to prohibit other vessels from travelling through those waters, but that Canada wants to be able to exercise a very high level of control over which vessels are able to traverse through the High Arctic Archipelago. The problem is that nobody agrees with our argument and no other countries support Canada’s legal position here.

There’s a real opportunity to try and expand the regime that Canada already has in place with the United States, which has existed since 1988—the Northwest Passage Agreement, which is effectively an agreement stipulating that Canada and the United States agree to disagree on the underlying legal question here. However, we need to cooperate. What is an acceptable workaround that we can propose that all parties can live with, and that stipulates a framework whereby the United States agrees that it will always ask for Canadian permission before any of its vessels enter the Northwest Passage, and sees a guarantee from Canada that it will always honour such a request. Such an agreement needs to allow for American vessels to travel the Northwest Passage in a way that the Canadian government doesn’t interpret as threatening to our own legal claims. It’s an ambitious goal, but I think there’s an opportunity to try to multilateralize that Northwest Passage agreement amongst the other Arctic seven states.

If Canada was able to do that and get close NATO allies to sign on to that framework it would provide a very robust legal basis for the peaceful cooperative use of the Northwest Passage in a way that preserves Canada’s claims, while allowing a transparent regime for other state’s vessels to access the region. Such a policy would contain huge opportunities to engage the Indigenous communities and the representatives of the Inuit governments in the region, because ultimately, when we’re talking about the Northwest Passage, those are waters that go through Nunavut and through the Northwest Territories. It would be appropriate for both of those territorial governments to be involved in those negotiations.

The sobering reality is that, while our attention has rightly been focused on Russia and Ukraine, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the world hasn’t stopped because of that war. These other challenges, notably climate change, continued to advance. The shifting of our focus has implications for our future security. I think that we really need to develop more capacity to walk and chew gum at the same time because at the same time that we’re participating in this international coalition to defend Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and trying to contain Russian aggression, climate change is happening. It is upon us. We need to be able to respond in a focused, long-term way to the challenges climate change presents, both from an adaptation and mitigation side, while tending to other matters in the world. That’s what significant states are required to do. Canada likes to think of itself as a significant state. We need to step up our resourcing and step up our commitments to be able to do all the things that Canadians expect of their government, and which our government purports to want to do on our behalf.



Will Greaves

Share the article :

Do you want to respond to this piece?

Submit and article. Find out how, here:


In order to personalize your user experience, CDA Institute uses strictly necessary cookies and similar technologies to operate this site. See details here.