That Max Foran chose to include in the title of his new book a word that typically summons images of one group of people oppressing or controlling another group of people was probably no accident. Foran is, after all, a professor emeritus of communication at the University of Calgary, and so knows the emotional weight of a word such as “subjugation” and the mental images that accompany it, whether they’re from the darkest chapters of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people or the pages of 1984.
But in The Subjugation of Canadian Wildlife, published late last month, Foran makes an argument for applying the verb to the way that Canadian governments and society have treated the nation’s wild creatures and failed to protect them from human exploitation.
In the excerpt below, Foran examines the plight of the polar bear, delving into the life of the iconic Arctic predator, the jurisdictional impasses that leave it vulnerable and the human-caused problems that could decide its fate.
Given Canada’s northern orientation and historical association with the Arctic, the polar bear is the country’s most iconic and symbolic animal. These awe-inspiring, beautiful creatures, with their great strength and incredible endurance, are synonymous with the harsh and timeless land they inhabit. However, even more than the other big mammals that make up Canada’s tapestry of apex predators, polar bears are vulnerable giants. As a “resource,” they join the rest of Canadian wildlife as instruments for human use. In that they are subject to serious threats to survival, fractured management frameworks, unique cultural-political discourse, and relentless hunting, the plight of polar bears is a sad testimony to the value of animal life in Canadian policymaking.
According to current approximations, Canada is home to about 16,000 polar bears, which is about two-thirds of the global population, or in human terms, an average attendance at a National Hockey League game. Considered a terrestrial rather than marine species, polar bears are scattered throughout the North in thirteen subpopulations (some sources refer to nineteen) and across seven jurisdictions, which include four provinces, the two northern territories, and Nunavut, the latter being home to over 80 per cent of Canada’s polar bears. Polar bears subsist primarily on blubber from seals, which they catch on the sea ice between autumn freeze-up and spring thaw. When on land, polar bears eat very little and can fast for months while waiting for freeze-up, when they can return to the ice platforms that sustain them. Their reproduction rate is low, with females denning every three years and giving birth in late fall, usually to twins. Despite their impressive size, polar bears are very mobile predators and excellent swimmers. Insulated by 10 centimetres of blubber, they can withstand intense cold and actually begin to overheat at 10 degrees Celsius. Their preferred habitat is the annual sea ice covering the waters over the continental shelf and the Arctic’s interisland archipelagos. Ranges vary. Individual polar bears have been seen swimming 200 kilometres from land-fast ice, and the range of female polar bears tracked with satellite transmitters is up to 600,000 square kilometres. Responsibility for polar bears in Canada is shared between federal, provincial, territorial, and Aboriginal governments. In this multi-jurisdictional system, only Manitoba and Ontario list the bears as “threatened,” thus banning hunting and other commercial activity in body parts. Elsewhere in Canada, except Nunavut, the bears are listed as a “special concern” (or its equivalent in the provinces and territories), a category that means little beyond the requirement to present a management plan specifying the measures to be taken to prevent declines. Since most of the Arctic is governed by constitutionally guaranteed land claims agreements, the Inuit and First Nations have major control over polar bear management in the North, and because Nunavut has over 80 per cent of Canada’s polar bears and is convinced that any listing of polar bears is unnecessary, federal involvement in the protection of this iconic species at risk has become increasingly problematic and political. Put simply, the federal government sees itself as having little choice but to keep the bears’ “special concern” status since raising them to “threatened” status would end sport hunting and commercial activity, putting the government on a collision course with the Inuit and First Nations, something it is not prepared to consider. All of this exacerbates the already serious plight of the polar bears.
The greatest threat to polar bears is climate change. In 2008 warming trends were sufficiently significant for the United States to classify polar bears in Alaska as “threatened” and to further predict imminent endangerment across all their ranges, some of which are shared with Canada. Overall, the ice cover in the Arctic has receded from 75 per cent in the mid-1980s to 45 per cent in 2011. In 2017 the Arctic’s sea ice had contracted 100,000 square kilometres from 2016 levels. Populations are threatened. According to Polar Bears International, continued warming trends could see a two-third reduction in global numbers within the next eighty-five years. Between 2001 and 2010, Beaufort Sea populations dropped by 40 per cent from 1,500 to 900 bears. A detailed scientific demographic analysis of polar bears in the Beaufort Sea found that the ice-free period increased by approximately 50 per cent between 2001 and 2005 and was exceeding 127 ice-free days, or the vital tipping point beyond which polar bear survival and reproduction are compromised. The authors concluded that “global warming is likely to have profoundly negative effects on future growth rates of polar bear populations” and that, at current trends, “there is a high probability that the Beaufort Sea population of polar bears will disappear by the end of the century.” A capture-release study in the southern Beaufort Sea between 2001 and 2006 involving 627 polar bears offered the following dire prediction: “Because this region includes c. 7500 polar bears, one-third of the current world population, our findings in the southern Beaufort Sea were considered relevant to the extinction risk facing a large portion of the world’s polar bears.” Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, summed up the situation well: “It is difficult to get away from the conclusion that as the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear.”
Projected warming over much of the polar bear range and reductions in the extent of sea ice are adversely impacting habitat and prey availability. Earlier ice breakups are affecting polar bear weight and conditioning, which negatively impacts reproduction rates and mortalities. In the western Hudson Bay region, where bear populations have declined over 20 per cent in the past twenty years, a recent study on polar bear migratory patterns by four Canadian scientists using satellite-linked telemetry data from 109 collared bears concluded that changes to the timing and rate of sea ice breakup and formation were depriving the bears of access to calorie-rich marine mammal prey, resulting in “additional reductions to body condition, reproductive success and population numbers.” For example, studies have shown decreased weight, length, and skull size of female polar bears in the western Hudson Bay.
Although the serious threat to polar bears posed by climate change is recognized by the scientific community, little is being done to help them, partly because no one really knows what to do. The Draft Nunavut Polar Bear Management Plan (2014) was in a state of denial. Noting that “the impacts on polar bears [are] not clear at this time,” the plan was quick to point out that polar bears were neither endangered nor threatened. An updated version, the Nunavut Polar Bear Co-Management Plan (2015), gave a clear indication of the Inuit position and, by implication, the major role of the Inuit in the plan they were preparing co-operatively with the federal government: “Pressure from national and international environmental and non-governmental organizations, climate change advocates, and the general public at large to conserve and protect polar bears has created contention about whether polar bear populations will need to increase, despite the fact that Inuit believe that there are now so many bears that public safety has become a major concern.” Not mentioned was that the overpopulation of bears around settled areas is a consequence of global warming trends rather than evidence of increasing populations.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s Management Plan for the Polar Bear (2006) rationalized that climate change would affect distribution more than numbers and that in the short run the province might be advantaged since more ice would drift free and increase the polar bear numbers in the south. The Canadian government made the following less-than-reassuring statement on climate change when it affirmed in the 2011 draft of its management plan (one still uncompleted) that “there is a need for focused research to understand the ecological conditions that are important to polar bear, and that inform conservation and management actions.” The strategy also admitted to limited information on “sea ice, habitat, and other environmental characteristics with which to build adequate models at a polar bear–relevant scale in Canada.” According to a 2013 assessment report by the Canadian Arctic Northern Contaminants Program, “much further work” is needed to establish the impact of climate change on the transport of contaminants to the Arctic.
Polar bears are also subject to human-caused contamination. Toxic chemicals from worldwide industrial activities are carried to the Arctic by air currents, rivers, and oceans. Researchers also worry about the effect of climate warming on the releases of contaminants presently sequestered in permafrost and glaciers. Polar bears, being top predators, are exposed more acutely to especially high levels of toxic substances through biomagnification, with negative long-term effects on their health and longevity. Arctic seals have particularly high levels of organochlorines concentrated in their blubber, and since polar bears mainly feed on seals, these toxins become even more concentrated in their fat layers. This potentially leads to an increase in cub mortality rates. An intensive investigation in 1991–1992 involving over 700 samples of polar bear fat from twenty-four arctic regions found major residues of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other contaminants, and a later study revealed increasing levels of brominated flame retardant and other brominated substances in east Greenland bears. A more recent study revealed that high-latitude ecosystems have a heightened potential for atmospheric mercury, which acts as a nerve toxin affecting the brain, especially in the foetus and the young.
To its credit, the federal government responded to the contaminants threat with the formation of the Canadian Arctic Northern Contaminants Program (CANCP) in 1992. In addition to its human-health component, which is focused on providing information to northern communities on contaminants in traditional food sources as an aid to diet choices, the program monitors, samples, assesses, and recommends with respect to persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the arctic biota. Despite the best efforts of the CANCP, the polar bear remains highly vulnerable to toxins. The CANCP assessment in 2013 documented the presence of new toxic compounds and raised concerns about the impact of climate change on the transportation of contaminants. With respect to polar bears, the assessment noted that they continued to be the species most affected by POPs and that, through the process of biomagnification, they were subject to “some of the highest POPs concentrations of any arctic species or any species on the planet.” New POPs such as perfluorooctane sulfonate were found in the livers of polar bears at levels higher than any other arctic animal. The assessment also felt that the addition of harp and harbour seals to polar bears diets as a result of climate change would result in even higher contaminant levels.