Vuntut Gwitch’in Chief Norma Kassi leaned across the table in Old Crow and looked me straight in the eye. “We are seeing extreme climate change here. Our land is burning. Our rivers are rising. And the caribou didn’t come this year.”
I had prefaced the meeting with the First Nation leader and four other council members in the high Arctic Yukon community by saying that at One Change we always try to accommodate the primary concerns of the people in communities we engage, and adapt our language accordingly. I’d listed “saving money,” “cutting energy use,” and “environment” as examples. In that order.
In an instant, I was reminded why I’d started One Change five years ago. What Chief Kassi was firmly but politely saying was, “It’s about the planet, stupid.”
Old Crow is a fly-in community of 400 on the Porcupine River, a two-hour flight north of Whitehorse, Yukon. It is the oldest consistently-inhabited community in North America, first established over 10,000 years ago when there was a land bridge across the Bering Strait.
For generations, the Vuntut Gwitch’in people have relied upon predictable patterns of weather and migration to sustain themselves and their resilient culture. It’s only in the last 60 years that electricity has been part of the community. “We kids used to jump up and flick the switch on and off when the teacher left the room,” said Gladys Netro, Executive Director of the community. “The electric light was so exciting!” I noticed a while later in the community store that basic CFL bulbs cost $26 each.
Now a bank of diesel generators out by the landing strip keep the lights on. Diesel has to be flown in to keep a town full of incandescent bulbs burning (the only bulbs people can afford). There’s a great deal of concern about pollution from diesel, but also a strong undercurrent of resentment about the lack of self sufficiency that comes with relying on this technology. And efficiency comes at a premium. Because all construction materials have to be flown in, a small three-room house can cost $250,000. Chief Kassi says the number one thing that could benefit the community is better insulation.
“We used to go to the woods to get logs to build our homes, and make clay putty to fill in the cracks. We used to stuff moss between the poles … and we were quite comfortable,” she added.
“What we need now is action and one-to-one education, particularly with the younger generation. We need to go into people’s homes and show them how to improve them. Our number one priority is to take care of the environment — to keep the land where the caribou walk and the water the fish swim in clean. Everything ties together in a circle. If there’s a community that can adapt to climate change and show others how to be self sufficient, it’s Old Crow.”
Stuart Hickox is in Yukon with other One Change staff as part of an energy efficiency listening tour sponsored by Yukon Energy and Yukon Electrical Company Limited. Findings from meetings with community leaders and people at community events will inform the development of a Yukon-wide energy conservation plan.