Climate change as culture shock.

Image by Barbara Ann Spengler |

Image by Barbara Ann Spengler |

There is very little dissent today regarding the reality of climate change. Across Canada there has been significant change to traditional weather patterns, including precipitation and temperatures fluctuations. More dramatically, there has been significant glacial retreat nationally.   

Glacial melting is one of the most striking and visual signs of the impacts of climate change. Over the last century, the southern Canadian Rockies have shown remarkable loss in glacial cover. In B.C.'s Glacier National Park, more than 50 per cent of the glacier ice has melted away in the last century.

Scientists estimate that globally glaciers are losing 92 cubic kilometers of ice per year. To put this in perspective, that is as much water used by Canada's homes, farms, and factories over six years all lost via glacier ice each year.

There have been many studies discussing what the impacts of global climate change may be beyond the current shifts, and many of those studies outline the impacts for Canada specifically. Lake levels are expected to decline in both inland lakes and Ontario's four Great Lakes, as more moisture evaporates due to warmer temperatures and less ice cover. Reduced summer water levels are likely to diminish the recharge of groundwater, cause small streams to dry up, and reduce the area of wetlands, resulting in poorer water quality and less wildlife habitat. Climate change will also mean an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts and flooding and even a shifting of the rain belt northward and this is just a very brief summary!

This has significant implications for the Canadian economy. Canada is the second largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world behind China, and both droughts and floods will diminish the capacity to generate income from hydroelectric plants. Further, there could also be different economic potentials in climate change. The melting glaciers mentioned above opens up new modes of economic development for Canada and other countries in the world, such as through the Northwest Passage, and the potential oil within the region which with glacial melt can now be tapped into.

All of these issues have been discussed at length within newspapers, in academic papers, and even on this blog but what hasn’t been discussed is the impacts climate change is having and will have on Canadian culture and social society more generally.

Historically, the colonization of Canada was based on extraction, specifically the extraction of natural resources. Much like the Spanish in Mexico, who took gold and silver (among other things), the British and the French came to Canada as both a way to get to Asia and a way to increase their resource stockpiles. In this way, what is fundamentally modern day Canada has been based on natural resources.     

Further to our resources, Canada’s waterways made the landscape relatively easy to navigate (I say relatively since the First Nations were often enlisted to help the Europeans “discover” Canada). At a certain point during this discovery, European powers began to see Canada as not just a “cash cow” for furs, fish, and lumber, but a settlement opportunity. Settlement was encouraged for people from the colonizers' home countries, and often artists were used to “sell” Canada to new immigrants. Sweeping open landscapes, lush farm land, and abundant waterways were all used as selling features for Canadian settlement. 

This trend continued, with the Group of 7 and Emily Carr’s interpretation of the landscape artistically, which have become some of Canada’s most famous artists domestically and internationally. In the art world when you look at Canadian art, you’re probably looking at pieces by these individuals.     

When asked what a Canadian identity entailed, Vincent Massey said “A patchwork of [things]: a sheaf of Marquis wheat; Canadian landscape painting; a beaver-pelt; a hockey stick; the Canadian Boat Song; a canoe; a pair of snow-shoes; a roll of birch bark; a silver fox; a Canada goose; a boom of logs; a buffalo; [and] a maple tree.” Although there are other images/customs/traditions mentioned throughout his essay, the majority of what he thinks makes Canadians Canadian are artifacts, evidence, and invocations of our landscape.   

Fast-forward to 2015, where some of our most famous artists, including musicians, have become incredibly popular due to their invocation of Canadian landscapes. We may not know what the “Canadian Boat Song” is anymore (I definitely don't!), but Hey Ocean!, a band from Vancouver, writes and sings songs that largely revolve around water images Jolene being my favourite. Similarly, the Great Lake Swimmers also sing about the Canadian landscape one of their more famous songs is “Rocky Spine” about the Canadian Rocky Mountains. All of this is to say that Canadian culture both past and present artifacts of Canadian-ness are more often than not based on our natural environment. What happens then when climate change fundamentally alters our landscape? Will the images by the Group of Seven still evoke Canadian-ness? Will being able to make love in a canoe (without knocking it over) still be what defines a Canadian citizen? What will the Great Lake Swimmers sing about if the lakes decrease in size further or pollution excludes us from participating in lake-based leisure activities? 

We have more at stake than just the Canadian economy we have all that it means to be Canadian at risk now as well.

This article was originally published via Sustainable Collective, which has since merged with The Starfish Canada.