Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
An Inuit hunter carves up a freshly caught seal in Hudson Bay.

How we see nature

Our relationship with the natural world depends on how we interact with it. For a member of one of Canada’s First Nations, a particular forest could be a prized hunting ground, while to a contemporary lumberjack, it is a rich source of wood pulp, and to a hiker, a sacred retreat. Each perception represents a distinct cultural interpretation, which can change during the course of human history. Similarly, the natural world encounters its own history, through major events such as fire or variations in climate. And while changes in the natural world can put a species at risk, changes in cultural perceptions can sometimes counterbalance these challenges, perhaps even preserving some species that would have vanished without our intervention.

Effects of cultural perception on local species

A harp seal may seem cute to some and dinner to others. A wolf’s call may be something nice to hear if you are snug in your house, but chilling if you are out walking your small dog. The orca is also referred to as the killer whale, and with this murderous moniker the United States Navy felt justified in using the animal for target practice. Our perspective of these and other animals has evolved as we learned more about them.

Some species ride a public relations roller coaster as our knowledge grows or fluctuates. The coyote has historically been maligned by farmers and grudgingly respected by some First Nations, who call it the trickster. For a short while it shed this varmint vilification, as reported on in a 1985 Canadian Geographic article, only to later return to the proverbial doghouse as it became a nuisance in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Parks and zoos often shape our cultural perceptions. National parks were originally created with an emphasis on tourism and recreation. Views of the parks, in light of them becoming extremely popular and almost “loved to death,” have changed in recent years to places of preservation rather than rampant recreation. Although traditional tourism still thrives in many places, less invasive forms of eco-tourism are yielding greater benefits for both local species and paying customers.  

Zoos have developed in a similar way. A scientist once lauded for his Alberta Game Farm, with hundreds of exotic species and plans to introduce the hardy Himalayan yak to northern agricultural practices, would no longer be cheered on. The notion that animals exist primarily for human ends is increasingly countered by arguments that animals represent ends in themselves.

Canadian Geographic retrospective

Power or wildlife, land, recreation?

By Walter O. Kupsch
October 1974

This article discusses the Churchill River Study where 100 investigators were delving into the potential impact upon the environment that a major development to produce more power would have. The author provided background information in the run-up to the public hearings about a proposed hydroelectric development in east-central Saskatchewan.

Kupsch noted that usually consequences of such developments can be foreseen but that they aren’t due to the old culture of how environmental impacts are assessed. The Churchill River Study included wildlife studies. Here the researchers found that the bald eagle was dependent on the riverine environment. The then-endangered species would have come under even greater stress if a reservoir eliminated the white water of the rapids that its lifecycle is closely tied to.

This impact study was rare in that it was open to public scrutiny. Past studies did not give the public enough information before decisions were made. This study prompted a recommendation for public participation package to be started. News sheets were printed, teaching kits for schools were created, and a travelling exhibit was formed.

This article was published to prepare the public for the study. The hope was that people reading it would be better informed for public hearings. The whole process showed a new openness. It noted that dams built in 1929 and 1942 were done so without public consultation but that now, no similar engineering works can be embarked upon without intensive investigation of the land and its people.

Licence to whale

By Michael Vlessides
January/February 1998

This article discusses whether hunting bowhead whales will help revive community and tradition for the Inuit of Nunavut. It is a narrative looking at a bowhead whale hunt that took place near Repulse Bay in the summer of 1996. Only a few of the whales have been taken in the eastern Arctic since 1979, when legislation was passed prohibiting bowhead hunting without a licence.

A mixture of young and old hunters was chosen from across the territory to participate in the hunt. For two days they searched the icy waters for a bowhead. Their meals included fresh caribou and seal as well as pork chops and potato chips. Some viewed the use of satellite phones and high-powered weapons an affront to the tradition of hunting while others feel the use of such things as a natural evolution.

The whale the hunters finally caught was 15 metres long and 45 tonnes. It was fatally wounded by numerous harpoons and bullets, and its lungs were pierced. It sank. Two days later it resurfaced and was towed to shore amid much fanfare to the community of Repulse Bay, population 557.

There were few Repulse Bay residents involved and some argued that the decision to take a bowhead whale should have been made by the community. However, a feast was held just hours after a blanket-sized piece of skin and fat was removed from the beached whale. It is eaten raw and considered a delicacy.

Archive photographs and Inuit artwork round out the article showing both pictures from the past and artwork from northern people, especially creations showing hunting in the Arctic.

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