I’ve been drawn to the Canadian North since childhood. When I was eight, I saw the movie Never Cry Wolf, based on Farley Mowat’s memoir about researching wolves and caribou decline in the Canadian Arctic. The ice, the space, the sky—I’d never imagined the world could look like a snow globe had broken out of its glass and swallowed half a hemisphere.
The term, “the Canadian North,” is disputed territory. By one definition, it’s synonymous with the triumvirate of Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, whose southern borders more or less run along the 60th parallel. This trio accounts for less than one percent of the nation’s population but two-fifths of its land area. However, Statistics Canada, a government agency, classifies not just these territories but the upper portions of most provinces as northern Canada. Their boundary skirts the Greater Toronto Area and lifts its hem just above the tip of Vancouver Island, where I live. Yet we also speak of the Far North or Canadian Arctic, whose scraps of land thrash in the crushing cold above the Arctic Circle.
In the 1960s, Canadian geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin coined the word “nordicity,” which delineated the North by latitude but also according to social and geographic determinants like summer heat, annual cold, types of ice, precipitation, population, and economic activity. Of course, global warming is putting pressure on at least the first four. In a few decades, it’s possible that even parts of the Canadian Arctic may not be northern by these criteria.
As that happens, our maps will crease and fold. Maps, like photographs, aren’t innocent mirrors of reality. They’re Bermuda triangles, trapping individual and national fantasies in their legends. For example, having been born in the United States, I’m used to maps that differ from the ones I see in Canada in one small but pivotal point: the North Pole. The maps produced by Elections Canada and the country’s Armed Forces, among other publishers, claim ownership of it. Two lines stretch out from the country’s land mass to meet in a triangle at the top of the world. When the North Pole’s starred, Canada is eternally celebrating Christmas. The problem? A country’s territory cannot extend more than 200 nautical miles past its land borders, and the North Pole lies beyond this limit, floating, invisible, in international waters.
We map our desires, what we wish were true, and sometimes our fears as well. Soon after moving to California for grad school, I spotted a map on the wall of an Oakland café that predicted the state’s fate, with a large chunk—including the spot on which I then stood—severed and submerged by a massive earthquake, the fabled “Big One.” That doomsday map terrified me, but now, our maps are shifting, more slowly, but surely, due to the tectonic forces of climate change.
The effects are likely to be psychological as well as practical. Social scientists and policy makers use vulnerability mapping to predict which communities will be most hurt by events like natural disasters and pandemics. But morphing maps themselves may make us feel vulnerable. Satellites image a smaller ice sheet hugging the North Pole each year, maritime charts may soon carve out new shipping lanes, and cities like Bangkok, Mumbai, and Miami may be eroded or erased by 2050. We panicked when gyms, restaurants, and schools closed in March 2020, and our world shrank to our homes. How will we react when our coastlines contract within the rising waters?
Cartography may become an environmental cause for depression and anxiety.
We dream in at least three dimensions. So we enshrine the world not only in maps, but in globes, Earth’s fantasia spun into colored balls and bounced off the edge of the known.
In David Attenborough: A Life on This Planet, the natural historian speaks of how the first shots of Earth from Apollo 8 proved that “we are ultimately bound by and reliant upon the finite natural world about us.” They reoriented our literal worldview, letting us see ourselves from the outside. This out-of-body experience circumscribed our borders and belied our manifest destiny.
But people have long tried to hold Earth and the heavens within one glance. Celestial models date back to antiquity. One of the most oft-repeated lies is that everyone believed Earth flat until the Renaissance, but in fact, Aristotle helped the Greeks understand it as spherical over two millennia ago. This knowledge resulted in globes that gazed skyward, with astrological symbols dancing the ecliptic across them. The oldest extant terrestrial globe rounded our haven in 1492, courtesy of German Martin Behaim. Behaim’s creation may have influenced Columbus’ decision to set sail after the two met in Lisbon, which would mean globes have a loose connection to the genocide of North America’s Indigenous peoples.
Globes were originally status markers, fetish objects for the wealthy often fashioned by monks. By the 1670s, pocket globes made it possible for rich men to hold the whole world in their hands. Louis XIV prized larger, more opulent orbs made of wood, fabric, and plaster. He didn’t want the symbolism lost on anyone: He held dominion over everything above and below. Today, two of his globes hang from the ceiling in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, steampunk reminders of the Sun King’s hubris. They also trap in time seventeenth-century perceptions of the “other,” with their illustrations of Brazilian “cannibals” and African tribesmen. Racism the axis around which the planet reliably turns, misinformation the continental drift.
Where we’re born on this planet affects our health. The field of health geography explores the implications of our geographical placement on our well-being. What matters is not just where we live and the built environments there, but how those places change over time. Another health determinant is how we get from one place to another. Epidemiologists must consider the geographical isolation of a people, as it may increase maladies like mental health disorders and nutritional deficiencies.
Few communities on Earth are more isolated than the twenty-five within the Canadian territory of Nunavut. All are “fly-out” communities, accessible by air, and in some cases water, but not roads. Canada’s largest territory or province, Nunavut has the second-lowest population, next to Yukon. It used to be the most sparsely populated, but its booming birth rate—the highest in Canada—has changed that fact over the past several years. Still, Iqaluit, its largest city, is inhabited by under 8,000 souls. Eighty-five percent of the Nunavummiut, the territory’s people, are Inuit. Until 1999, Nunavut belonged to Northwest Territories, but Indigenous activists pushed for its creation and the self-governance that followed.
Tourists travel vast distances to enjoy the northern lights from Nunavut, but terrors dance behind their green ghouls. In fall 2019, I taught five Inuit students from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories in an online course for Royal Roads University. Their tutor warned me that because of the prevalence of suicide in those places, they might miss course work to attend funerals and mourn. I was speechless.
The reasons for such a high suicide rate in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are manifold. In general, depression and suicide are more pervasive in Canadian Indigenous communities than settler ones, especially those that lack continuity with their culture, including few speakers of the native language. But Nunavut—which means “our land” in Inuktitut—surpasses all others, with a suicide rate ten times that of the rest of Canada and among the world’s highest. Part of the despair can be blamed on inequities in healthcare and economic opportunity, and these issues are compounded by isolation and climate change. Suicide contagion appears to be more common in remote settlements, so that one death by suicide may lead to several in quick succession. Meanwhile, rising sea levels, melting ice, and all of the concatenated impacts of rapid climate change have made it impossible for most Inuit to subsist through hunting, gathering, and fishing as they traditionally did. This situation, coupled with the formidable expense of groceries that must be flown in, is a recipe for rampant food insecurity and hopelessness.
Geography aside, this catastrophe would not have happened without colonialism and its legacy of transgenerational trauma. Residential schools, which the Canadian government and churches operated for over 150 years, until the last one closed in 1996, forced Indigenous children to “assimilate” into the dominant culture. Around 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were snatched from their homes, families, and native languages, and then subjected to all kinds of abuse. Documents record 3,200 deaths, but Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which amassed testimonies and documents about these schools and released a report about them in 2015, believed the actual number to be much higher. They were right to suspect more deaths. In May 2021, the bodies of 215 children were found using ground-penetrating radar at the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, followed by 751 unmarked graves a month later at a former school in Saskatchewan.
A parallel menace were the healthcare facilities—“Indian hospitals”—run by the federal government from the 1930s to the 1980s. Canada’s Indian Act mandated that Indigenous people so marked by their registration with the federal government could be involuntarily hospitalized to prevent infectious diseases like TB. Because there were no hospitals in what is now Nunavut then (today there is a 35-bed facility in Iqaluit), treatment for a major illness, real or imagined by the government, entailed a harrowing dislocation from one’s family and community. Arctic peoples were sent to hospitals in Ottawa or Edmonton, two thousand miles away; while the government covered their transportation to the hospital, patients had to pay for the journey home. Families were not informed when someone died. Many bodies were lost in the Canadian South. Even if patients survived and managed to make their way back, they sometimes suffered medical experimentation before then.
As cold as the Canadian North is, it’s got nothing on the South.
The stars blink out. Celestial navigation’s impossible. Where do we go from here, and how do we get there?
I’ve always loved opening a book and finding a map on the inside cover or opening pages. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a literary map lets me know how that landscape peaks and plateaus, streams and pools. It informs me where I start within it, if not where I’ll end up. Now, we need to mark a faint X on the world’s map, telling ourselves, We are here now, but we’ll be moved soon.
Like it or not, we must think beyond land masses and ice caps in constructing our new globe. We dwell on a planet as fragile as one made of papier-mȃché, gutted by absences and new passageways. A topography of disappearance as well as presence.
Some of these disappearances create lucrative opportunities. There is a reason why Canada’s maps refuse to relinquish the North Pole: the ocean surrounding it is warming. Glacial ice is vanishing. The longed-for Northwest Passage—which would let boats flow over the Earth’s most fearsome meridian, straight across the Arctic from Asia to North America—is becoming more possible, more passable, with each year. Scientists predict it may be economically viable by 2050, or sooner. As the Ever Given revealed the risk of relying on the Panama and Suez Canals for the bulk of our shipping traffic, the battle for the North Pole will likely heat up too. While supply chains cinch the globe, the Arctic Archipelago shards the future, a shattered body of contested waters studded by isles of greed.
Will the North Pole’s rite of passage disrupt our sleep? For me, it’s both fantasy and nightmare to think of a direct conduit between two lands that belong to this world and my dreams, Asia and the Canadian North. I lived for years in Japan and now make my home in Canada. Yet I feel a chill as we set the world’s tipping point on fire.
“On Wednesday the thirty-first of March, there are warnings of gales in Trafalgar, Rockall, Malin, Aberdeen, and Southeast Iceland . . .” Even some of the land-bound have been romanced by the BBC’s shipping forecast, broadcast in low-tide tones for over 150 years. Seamus Heaney was among its admirers. I heard him speak at Berkeley in 1999, and for twenty years, a phrase from that evening bobbed in the night waters of my memory—“the forgotten regions of the sea,” followed by a flotilla of words bearing the richness of our English language. Recently, I learned he had read the seventh poem in his Glanmore Sonnets, also called “The Shipping Forecast,” in which he lullabies the North Sea: “Sirens of the tundra,/Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise/Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize/And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.”
I wonder about the sounds of our Arctic shipping forecast. Once the ice sheets melt, will those regions of the sea assume new names? In our broadcasts, we’ll call after their ghosts, their unruly children now splashing in the ocean. No: drowning. There will be new ports of call, too, as the poles slide closer to us, slipping knots that long held.
Metaphors skid on thin ice. Still, it’s hard not to read the Earth as a many-storied house, the Arctic its clerestory. Huge windows thrown open to the stars, tears of women who won’t stop crying through long nocturnes. I yearn to climb up to its attic room and see far. To poll the coming years, sift through their shredded maps.
In “O Canada,” the “True North strong and free” line alludes to Tennyson’s poem, “To the Queen,” written for Queen Victoria and closing out Idylls of the King: “From sunset and sunrise of all thy realm,/And that true North, whereof we lately heard/A strain to shame us.”
We have a new shame: a new true North.
Some are trying to right the ship. The Arctic Council—a partnership between Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—was formed in 1996 and works with Indigenous peoples from the region to promote ecological and human well-being. This sea change threatens both. In the future, the opening of an Arctic shipping lane to the East coast of Canada and the United States will likely transmute coastal communities in Nunavut. It might help them economically even while it further corrodes traditions and culture. Maps will be altered, but people will remain polarized by their geographical and historical placement.
The tundra seems endless. Yet maps remind us that we’re searching throughout this life. Wilderness claims years past as well as present space, and we have to cut our way through both tangles to get anywhere.
Riding aft, bearing north, we’re passing through our roughest straits.