Addressing the challenges facing SAR operations in the Kitikmeot, Nunavut, and across all of Inuit Nunangat requires sustained attention, new and equitable approaches, and, ultimately, government dollars. Kitikmeot SAR Project participants have noted that this kind of investment requires Southern Canadian policymakers to reconceptualise Northern search and rescue, understand unique regional challenges, and fund community-based capabilities accordingly.
At the conclusion of the Kitikmeot Roundtable on SAR 2020, a trio of community practitioners with decades of experience reflected on why SAR was so important to their communities. Effective capabilities allowed Nunavummiut to respond to life and death situations on the land – to save their neighbours, friends, and family members. Furthermore, it remained essential for Nunavummiut to go out on the land to be “healthy and whole,” hunting and fishing to feed their families, and travelling safely between communities over the ice, land, and water. They must be able to engage in economic activities that require extensive time on the land, such as commercial fisheries and professional guiding. As one community responder explained: “For all of this to be possible, you need SAR. You need people who know how to go out on searches. You need people who are willing to go out on searches. Because with all the changes going on, even the best-prepared people could have an accident and could need help.”
The health of Nunavummiut is tied to the land, and community SAR responders provide essential support to maintain this connection. In short, participants described SAR as an essential building block of the physical and cultural heath and well-being of Nunavummiut, of the territory’s economy, and of the overall resilience of their communities.
An effective SAR system also supports territorial, regional, federal, and Inuit priorities. Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework (ANPF), which was created through a “whole-of-government, co-development” process involving Ottawa, the three territorial governments, over 25 Indigenous organizations, as well as three provincial governments, explicitly connects SAR to the rapid environmental change in the North. It prioritizes the “Search and Rescue reaction and responsiveness to emergencies for Arctic residents and visitors” and the strengthening of the region’s whole-of-society emergency capabilities. SAR requirements also should be considered in any policies involving people moving and working on the land. For example, the ANPF identifies harvester-support grants and community-led food production projects, tourism, commercial fisheries, conservation, and land-based cultural industries as areas for economic growth and diversification that also “reinforce Indigenous connections with wildlife and the land.” These activities require a strong community-based SAR safety net. As one roundtable participant observed, programs designed to get people on the land and to support hunters are essential, but they all depend on SAR. “We need programs to … build our SAR teams” to implement other land-based social and economic programs safely, he emphasized.
Nunavummiut also highlighted the value of community SAR organizations in the transfer of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and in skill development more generally. Participation in GSAR teams, Auxiliary units, and Ranger Patrols facilitates intergenerational knowledge exchange through training and collective responses on the land. Kitikmeot’s SAR organizations regularly pair a new member with an elder or an experienced searcher so that the latter can teach the former. As the new member gains experiences, he/she/they can pass along their acquired knowledge to another recruit. Participation in these groups also provides opportunities for training and skill development that can be used to build resumes for potential wage employment: first aid and wilderness first aid, for example, are valuable transferrable skills.
Community SAR organizations also exercise Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. When academics and government officials discuss the link between SAR and sovereignty, they typically focus on Canada’s responsibilities pursuant to the 2011 Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic or the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. Inuit leaders, however, emphasize that “sovereignty begins at home,” with communities empowered to protect their people, lands, and rights in the spirit of self-determination (Simon, 2009). SAR capabilities are central to this empowerment. “I strongly believe that the federal government’s goal of asserting arctic sovereignty needs to be backed up with enhanced support to organizations in the north that are active in the area of search and rescue,” Baker Lake MLA Simeon Mikkungwak asserted in 2014. He argued that Ottawa must provide more “support for search and rescue activities, equipment, and infrastructure” (Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, 12 March 2014). The ANPF has embraced similar ideas by situating northern communities at the “heart” of safety and security in the region and linking sovereignty to “strong, self-reliant people and communities working together.”
In the end, investments into community-based SAR assets would protect communities and answer repeated Inuit calls for greater emergency response training and resources. It would be a great way to implement many of the safety commitments in the ANPF and the new Inuit Nunangat Policy’s commitment to develop innovative approaches to fund and administer federal policies, programs, services, and initiatives that “support community and individual wellbeing throughout Inuit Nunangat.”