Eight years later…
The one advantage of having to work with an interpreter was that it prevented anyone from talking too much. You had to pause after every sentence to let the interpreter repeat it in Inuktitut. So saying anything took twice as long. More, really, because Mark tended to say things he considered important at least two times, because the translation was often garbled, and he wanted to make sure he was understood. He knew this to be true because when Mick, the interpreter at this meeting, translated something another speaker had said into English for him, it was often incomprehensible the first time round. And Mick was a fairly good interpreter: Mark had worked with some who were much worse. Good interpreters were hard to find in the smaller communities, and they were much in demand. They made good money, too, and they always wanted it in cash. Right away.
Mark did sometimes wonder if Mick “spiced up” his translations a bit. Maybe added a little of his own opinions to them. He was a smart man, and it was obvious that he supported the hunters in their long battle of attrition with the Fisheries Department. It wasn’t overt, and Mark had no way of confirming it. Despite the best of intentions and weeks of intensive courses, his Inuktitut was rudimentary and he understood barely anything of what was said. But some of the Board members on the Hunters and Trappers Association could speak English fairly well, and Mark could see their smirks when Mick made a particularly eloquent translation. Still, he seemed to be getting the message across, both ways, and this meeting was certainly going better than most. Certainly better than back in the bad old days, even less than a year ago.
But it was so slow, and Mark had trouble keeping up his attentiveness. Everyone had to have his (for there were no women at the table) turn to speak, and the Chairman never stepped in to lead or direct the discussion. The HTA had one part-time employee, a young man named John who held the title of Secretary, who, as far as Mark could tell, had done virtually no preparations for the meeting. There was no agenda, and John didn’t seem to be taking any notes. In fact he didn’t seem to be paying any attention at all. The smoke didn’t help, either: everyone smoked constantly, and the alleged dangers of second-hand smoke to the only one who didn’t (Mark) did not seem to raise any alarm. The late evening light streaming through the filthy window illuminated the cloud hanging over the table, barely moving in the still air.
It was easy to be critical of how the HTA was organized, but Mark had come to understand that this way of doing things was largely foreign to most of its members. More than half the men in this room had been born and raised out on the land, in one of the camps scattered around Cumberland Sound. They had moved to town only a few decades ago, lured in by the promise of housing, schools, churches, stores and an easier way to live. They were the last of their generation, and they carried a knowledge of the land and the environment the depth of which would likely never again be equalled.
But their ways had been different, and did not involve meeting in smoke-filled rooms to discuss narwhal numbers with a young qallunaat (white) biologist. The HTA’s themselves were a creature of the government: a conduit between the departments responsible for managing wildlife and the hunters and fishers who relied on it for their lives. A convenience, really. For the government. And Mark knew that his age and race were both problematic. Respect was earned through age and experience, and Mark had neither. Sure, he had his years of university, his fieldwork in the High Arctic, his doctoral dissertation, but that meant little or nothing to the people in this room. He could never have their intimate, direct understanding of their environment, and could only hope that he could complement their knowledge with what he could offer.
Still, the meeting was going well, or at least as well as could be expected. At least they were making some progress, not butting heads as a matter of course. That was an improvement. It had taken so much time and effort to get to this point. Mark had lost count of the number of meetings he had been to in the three communities over the last six years. The early meetings had been the worst: the lack of trust had been palpable. Who was this young, white kid, barely out of school, to tell them how many whales they should hunt? Hadn’t they lived here since time immemorial? Some had been to the south, and knew well that the land there was tamed, farmed and abused. Well, there was no farming here. And so on.
Mark realized now that they had seen him as arrogant. A scrawny kid from the south, explaining to them how many narwhals were left, how past hunting had reduced their number far below that which could support the present level of hunting. And how he knew all this, based on a few short surveys that could never have covered the broad expanse of Cumberland Sound. A few days spent flying around in a plane, against their lifetimes of experience out on the land. How could he possibly know better than them?
Mark could understand all that now, could see things from their point of view, but when he had first started the job with the Fisheries Department, he had been fresh out of school. Sure, he had done his fieldwork in the Arctic, and he thought, naively it turned out, that this gave him some credibility. But all the courses he had taken, the essays written, the tutorials and discussions: none of that had prepared him for what he found here. His education had taught him that managing any hunt or fishery was a relatively simple matter of ensuring that the numbers taken did not exceed what the population could produce. That required some knowledge of the size of the population which, when combined with rates of reproduction, mortality and past harvests, could predict the numbers that could be taken safely. He still believed that: anything less seemed like dangerous guesswork based on anecdote.
So Mark had been surprised, shocked really, when he realized that the hunters simply didn’t believe in what he told them. The concepts of sampling, of animal distributions in time and space, and how populations could be estimated by counting a tiny proportion of the number that were actually there: these seemed nearly impossible to transmit across the cultural and linguistic divide. Sure, most of the hunters had little education. They could read and write, but the concepts of science were alien to them. But that wasn’t the only or the even the real problem. Mark had simply not been trained for this job. He was a biologist, a scientist, not a communicator. Biologists were trained to deal with animals, not people. He had no experience with meetings, with the give and take of negotiations. With immersing himself in another’s point of view and really understanding their motivations. He had thought his truths were self-evident and final, and that everyone would see them. He was wrong.
There was history here, too: biologists had made mistakes in the past. Big, important ones. Overstated their certainty about what they thought they knew. There was the famous case of the large caribou herd in the central Arctic that had seemingly all but disappeared, leading to quotas, hunting restrictions and real hardship in the affected villages. Then the caribou had reappeared a few years later, apparently little the worse for having been exterminated. The facts behind the story were complex. Yes, mistakes had been made, but biologists tended to err on the side of caution, to be conservative in their estimates. After all, to do otherwise could put entire populations at risk. Still, the compounding of many small assumptions and decisions had led to the imposition of hunting restrictions and animosities that had rebounded through the ensuing decades. Over 20 years after the events in question, the story, much evolved with the telling, still came up at nearly every meeting.
Mark could see the parallels with the situation here in Aivillik. He knew well how uncertain their findings really were. It wasn’t that the uncertainty, the range in possible numbers, wasn’t stated in the reports: it was. But that part tended to be glossed over. People cared about the estimates, not the confidence intervals and possible biases. In reality, only a small part of Cumberland Sound, the small fiord at the head of the Sound where narwhals congregated in the brief Arctic summer, had been surveyed repeatedly. It was simply assumed that most, if not all narwhals were there. And there was an unequivocal decline in the numbers seen over the years, from several thousands in the early surveys back in the 1970’s, down to a few hundred today. Still, hunters were more than happy to point out the many occasions when they had seen narwhals outside of the survey area. Maybe the distribution had changed. Animals moved around, they weren’t machines. Maybe they had just gone somewhere else. And so on.
Add to this that they really had little idea of where the narwhals went at other times of the year. It had long been thought that the three South Baffin communities, including Iqaluit where Mark now lived, hunted the same group of narwhals that spent the summer at the head of Cumberland Sound. There was some evidence for this: the other two communities did not see narwhals in the summer, taking them as they passed by in the spring and fall, when they seemed to be heading to or from the Sound. This had led to the imposition of restrictions on the other two communities as well as Aivillik. After all, it was reasoned, it was not fair for just Aivillik to carry the burden. But Mark had to admit that it was entirely possible that there were two or more groups of narwhals in the area. Genetic analysis, which had held so much promise for identifying tribes of animals that travelled and bred together, had proven largely useless for narwhals and many other species. There simply wasn’t enough difference in genetics between areas to say whether or not they were from the same group. Of course it didn’t help that all the samples came from the areas close to the hunting communities, with none from the vast areas in between. Still, the magic bullet of genetics had proven a disappointment.
Maybe, back in the time just a few decades ago when the Inuit had lived in camps spread out along the coast, the people would have had more knowledge of the movements of animals on a larger scale. Now, concentrated in the communities, their observations lacked resolution. A better tool was needed.
The most promising way of finding out about the ways of narwhals was probably the use of satellite tags, battery powered transmitters attached to the animal’s back that sent a signal up to a satellite, giving data on location and sometimes diving habits and other information too. The technology had made huge advances in battery life and miniaturization over the past few years, and had been applied to many other whales. But it had proven very challenging for narwhals, which were difficult to capture and lacked a dorsal fin, the usual point of attachment for the tag. Still, there had been some successful deployments in other areas, and Mark had some hope that the method could be made to work here. But it faced opposition from many hunters, who objected to the capture and handling of animals. Saw it as disrespectful. Worried that the tag would injure and sicken the animal. They had been discussing the possibility for years, but Mark knew they were not yet ready to try it. They might never be.
No, they wouldn’t be tagging narwhals any time soon. But, to Mark’s surprise, they had reached an agreement to carry out a joint survey. This had happened at a meeting in mid-winter, when they had been discussing the Fisheries Department’s proposal to carry out yet another aerial survey in the summer. Mark had been less than enthusiastic about the idea: while he accepted the unavoidable conclusion from the survey series that numbers were declining, it was more than obvious to him that the communities did not, and that something else would have to be done if they were ever to make progress on the issue. Of course, there had always been consultation before previous surveys were done: usually a pre-survey meeting to present the already-designed survey to the HTA. And the HTA had usually appointed one of their members to act as an observer on the survey. Months later, after the data were collated and analyzed, the results would be presented at another meeting. But it was always the same: No confidence, no trust.
Mark understood well why things had been done this way. While it might seem simple in concept, designing and flying a survey was a complex business. Done wrong, you could end up with useless data. And it was horrendously expensive too: flying just one survey ate up a substantial portion of the annual research budget. Meetings, consultations, hiring local observers just added more expense. Even so, it was eminently clear that things had to change: what they had been doing simply wasn’t working.
Mark remembered well how the idea had come up. He had finished presenting the results of the previous summer’s aerial survey, which showed that the decline had continued, and the number estimated was the lowest ever observed. Predictably, the same issues came up: the whales were afraid of the plane, and dove before they could be seen; there were lots of whales outside of the survey area; the white observers missed many sightings; the surveys themselves were frightening the whales away, leading to the decline. All of these issues could be countered, but it seemed pointless. There simply wasn’t buy-in to the survey, and the results were not believed. And without that confidence, it was just impossible to get agreement to reduce the harvest. Of course they could force the issue: reduce the quotas and start arresting people, but it was an impossible and fruitless task with so few people on the ground willing to take such action. Clearly, new thinking was needed.
In desperation, Mark had proposed that they plan a survey together, one that would give results that the HTA could accept. He hadn’t really expected his proposal to be accepted, and had been surprised, and somewhat worried when it was. Could he sell the idea to his boss? Could he get the funding?
One thing was clear from the start: no airplanes. No aerial survey. The HTA wanted to do a land-based survey in the inner Sound, observing from the high hills surrounding the inlet. This was not a new idea, and it had been done decades ago before the aerial surveys were started. But Mark was skeptical, certain that such methods could never be as reliable and complete as an aerial count. Still, he had to accept it: after all, it was he who had proposed that they plan the survey together.
In the end Mark had been able to make the case to his boss that this was the only way forward. After all, the HTA had agreed to accept the results of such a survey, no matter what they might show. He had argued that, even if the data were of little use, the cooperation and buy-in from the community would make the thing worthwhile. There really was no other way forward: all the quotas and restrictions they could bring in were useless if they couldn’t be enforced. And co-management was the new way of working, and would be implemented in the Land Claim in any event as soon as that was settled. This would give them a chance to build bridges, to find a way to work together towards a common goal. After all, he argued, the hunters had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, if the whales became scarce. In the end the Department had agreed, and he had gotten the funding he needed.
Mark returned his full attention to the meeting as he realized that the Chairman, Josee, was making what sounded like closing remarks. Rare praise for the Department for working cooperatively with the hunters. Thanks to Mark for making it happened. As far as Mark could recall, this latter was a first.
He thanked the HTA in turn, and said that he now had enough information to develop a formal plan and budget for the survey and would return it to them for comment within four weeks. The rush was on now: it was already May and the survey would be carried out in July. There was no time to lose.
At last the meeting adjourned and Mark packed up his notes and stumbled out onto the dusty gravel street, feasting his lungs on the clean, crisp Arctic air. It was just below freezing, and the sun was still above the northwest hills, seemingly right at eye level, even though it was after 10 pm. Preternaturally bright: there was something about this late evening light that was jarring for Mark. A quality of the light. It was invigorating, insomnia-inducing, clarifying in a way that Mark had never experienced in the south. He thought he would never really get used to it. Most of the snow was gone, just patches in the hills. The land was coming alive, already greening on the lower slopes, the first flowers coming up. The land was in a hurry, there was so little time. But the sea ice was still tight in the bay, and Mark heard the drone of a snowmobile coming in, a lone hunter returning, perhaps.
Mark said his goodnights and walked back to the hotel. There were lots of children running around, some playing road hockey, others engaged in games he had no conception of, and they regarded him curiously as he passed. He nodded and smiled at all of them. Very few adults out and about, but he knew the children might play all night. The spring sun governed their schedules. He dumped his stuff in his room, then returned to the dining room for a snack and to unwind in front of the television. There were some construction workers there, halfway through a video. Mark joined them for a while, but could not fathom the complex plot of the movie, having missed the first half. After a while he retired to his room and to bed
He caught the morning flight to Iqaluit, a trip of less than an hour. Back to the place he now called home.