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Ratcheting garbage to a federal affair?

NASIVVIK By Zebedee Nungak

Windspeaker Columnist; Archives 2004

Nasivvik is an Inuktitut word that means vantage point. It can be a height of land, a hummock of ice, or any place of elevation that affords observers a clear view of their surroundings to make good observations.

Among the catalogue of present-day problems that confront the Arctic, garbage has bullied itself onto the list as one of the monumental ones.

Inuit all over are now living in surroundings marked by great quantities of garbage. This applies not only in the towns, but also "out on the land." Modern garbage is everywhere and is made of long-lasting, almost indestructible space-age material, which neither weather nor time can degrade.

Traditionally, Inuit society was garbage-less. All our stuff was either edible by dogs, or naturally degradable. The closest things to garbage that archeologists can dig out at ancient sites are animal bones and implements made of bone, stone or wood.

Now, our garbage is as "civilized" as anybody else's. We are now part of the super consumer throw-away society, where everything is made to be discarded after use. Archeologists of the future will have quite a selection of weird riff-raff to dig out! Present-day dumps in the Arctic are great sources of useful material. Many people call their dump, "Canadian Tire," or the name of some other hardware store where just about anything needed can be found.

Some enterprising individuals have even put together working machines by cannibalizing the carcasses of four-wheel ATVs or snowmobiles found at the dump. It's not unusual these days on hunting trips to see garbage bags, bits of Styrofoam and all manner of flotsam floating in the sea.

There are cans, wrappers and shopping bags to be found in prime hunting and fishing areas. With garbage now a central part of life, it's amazing to observe how tiny people's consciousness is about garbage. In fact, it's directly proportional, in reverse, to the mountains of it that exist. The bigger the problem garbage becomes, the smaller the concern and care about it people have.

In contemplating the problem of garbage in the Arctic, one possible solution presents itself as worthy of consideration: Why not have a federal anti-garbage law imposed for all of Canada's Arctic regions? Why not make garbage a federal affair? The federal government has funded clean-up operations of abandoned military sites, mineral exploration camps and the like. It has the legislative power to make things happen.

Garbage is largely a municipal matter, and this may be the problem. Arctic municipalities mostly do one great clean-up of the town's surroundings in the spring, then tolerate litter galore for the remainder of the year. Pleadings by municipal authorities for garbage to be put in its place somehow don't inspire people to give zero-tolerance for garbage lying about. Perhaps an upgrade of the jurisdiction over Arctic garbage from local to federal can straighten this out.

We know how hard-hitting federal laws can be. The Firearms Act allows no mercy for those living a hunting life style. The Species at Risk Act's feminine acronym, SARA, cannot soften the impact of restrictions it might impose on the hunting of certain species of wildlife. We've seen federal laws enforced with brute force upon M'ikmaq fishers at Burnt Church, N.B. Imagine having such federal ram-power arrayed against the evil of loose garbage!

This problem plagues four governmental jurisdictions across the top third of Canada's land mass. Garbage at abandoned bases and exploration camps may be high profile, but is only part of the problem. Unglamorous low tech, home-grown garbage is now a major source of pollution, and exists in all locations where human beings go.

Federal intervention could do some real good here! We, the people, could insist on its activation! For once, we might request that the federal government pass a statute, applicable to us. It can be called the Garbage on The Tundra Act, or GOTTA, designed to get serious about curbing the prevalence of garbage all across the Arctic.

Under GOTTA, being careless about garbage can be rated a crime, and not just a bad habit. Offenders could be hit with fines hefty enough to more than just mere nuisances. Jail time can also be included as one of the possible penalties. In this scenario, federal enforcement capability would have to be drastically boosted. The federal government has no "on-the-ground" Burnt Church-type enforcement muscle, ready to roll into action, in vast stretches of its Arctic territories.

But here is the point that brings this whole matter full circle: It shouldn't have to take the spectre of a federal garbage force to upgrade our own awareness about this problem. We people in the Arctic have to work on ratcheting our garbage consciousness many notches upward! Perhaps the best and brightest Arctic-oriented minds can tackle this subject at a future Inuit studies conference and seek some innovative solutions. The title of this gathering can be: Arctic Garbage Technologies: Ways and Means to Keep the Environment Pristine.

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