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Lessons from ‘Dumpcano’ for Solid Waste Management in Nunavut

In partnership with the Arctic Yearbook, Arctic in Context is pleased to be running a series of interviews with the authors of the peer-reviewed articles that appeared in the 2016 edition. The authors with whom we will speak are among the Arctic experts whose research influences policymakers, business leaders, and media coverage. We encourage you to read further, and will provide a link to the full article at the end of each interview.

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This week, Arctic Yearbook managing editor Heather Exner-Pirot interviews Gloria Song, author of “Lessons from Dumpcano: Governance Issues in Solid Waste Management in Nunavut,” to better understand governance, jurisdiction, and local capacity issues in the Canadian Arctic.

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT: What is ‘Dumpcano’?

GLORIA SONG: ‘Dumpcano’ is the name that was given by the public, or more accurately by social media, with respect to a giant garbage fire in Iqaluit [the capital of Nunavut] in 2014. It was started by a spontaneous combustion in Iqaluit’s landfill, and grew to a massive size, about the size of a football field—it was a volcanic mountain of garbage that produced a lot of smoke and a lot of headaches for the city for about four months. It even ended up getting its own Twitter account!

HEP: Municipal waste management is not something most of us in the South have to think a lot about. Why is that different in Nunavut?

GS: For several reasons. One of the most important is the unique conditions of the Arctic. A lot of the approaches that we take in the South are not as appropriate or applicable in the North. For example, in the South, you can bury garbage, but that can be tricky in the North, where you have permafrost. Another aspect of the Canadian Arctic is that communities are very isolated from each other; they are remote, most are fly-in only, and so it’s difficult to remove garbage. Whereas in the South, you can drive it away to a more appropriate spot and deal with it there. Also, if any equipment breaks down, it could take a long time to ship in replacement parts or get the necessary personnel to make repairs.

In addition, there’s evidence that Northerners produce more waste per capita than those living in the South, due to the packaging associated with needing everything shipped to the North. Those are just some of the reasons we need to think of solid waste management differently in the Arctic.

HEP: You argue that the challenges in providing waste and water management in Nunavut exemplifies the broader issues of high infrastructure costs and jurisdictional issues. Do you think federal funding is the answer to these problems?  

GS: There are unique conditions in the Arctic that make it trickier; it’s not just about things being more expensive in the Arctic. Issues with implementing the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA) have at least partially contributed to these infrastructural difficulties. It seems that the governments involved at the time had different ideas about what it meant for the NLCA to be implemented properly.

Federal funding is an important part of dealing with solid waste management issues in Nunavut, but it’s about more than that. It’s about increased cooperation between various levels of government. What came out of the inspection reports was a lot of disagreement about whose fault it was and what could be done about it.  There were a couple of inspection reports where the municipality expressed frustration over not having the resources or the help that they needed. The government of Nunavut and the government of Canada disagreed about whose responsibility it was. What is apparent, however, is that there needs to be greater cooperation between the three levels of government [municipal, territorial, federal], and there needs to be recognition that this is something they all need to work together to address—to develop the solutions they need and share the resources they’ve got.

HEP: How many levels of government should ideally be involved?

GS: Part of the issue is that no single government is responsible for all of the aspects of waste management. There’s both territorial and federal legislation addressing how to deal with garbage in Nunavut.

I don’t know that it will ever be possible for just the municipal government to deal with it. It might be easier if they were ultimately responsible for it, and had the resources and support to carry that responsibility out. But in the end the other governments will be involved because Nunavut is a territory, and disposal of waste is related to multiple jurisdictions. If a landfill in a community in Nunavut isn’t properly maintained and hazardous waste leaks into the nearby Arctic Ocean, federal interests, not just the local community’s interests, are triggered.

HEP: How hard is it to provide landfill staff with proper training? I understand that’s a big issue with water treatment in remote communities, for example.

GS: I can’t speak to a particular hamlet’s ability to provide the required training, but generally, staffing and training is a challenge in Nunavut, and not just in waste management. There’s often a skilled labor shortage and high turnover rates in Nunavut, for a variety of reasons. And municipal landfill is no exception. They’re dealing with the same issues as other sectors in terms of retaining qualified staff, and providing the training and support that they require. There are often vacancies, and the reality is that most people have to deal with multiple jobs at a time while they’re waiting for other positions to be filled. And of course there are funding issues as well.

A lot of these jobs also require certain certifications or certain levels of education and skills—and that might not be available from the candidate pool they’re drawing from in the community.

HEP: You argue that we “must move beyond this perception of the North as only a passive victim and instead recognize the agency of its residents.” Why do you think Northerners have been framed as passive or as victims, in so much of the academic literature?

GS: I think it has to do with the fact that a lot of researchers aren’t based in the North, they’re coming from outside—and they have this image of the North as a place to be studied, and the people of the North as people to be studied. There’s a tendency to view Northerners as victims, and while it is true that the Arctic feels the brunt of many environmental concerns, the people that live in the North also have agency, and the ability to do things that affect their environment and the rest of the world. Take the example I gave about storing hazardous waste. Let’s say a local business owner doesn’t tell the landfill staff that they’re dumping hazardous waste at the local landfill, and that hazardous waste isn’t properly stored. Then it starts leaking into the ground and into the nearby Arctic Ocean. These actions over time could have a tremendous impact on the environment as well as the health of animals and people in the North. We need to reframe the way we conceive the North. A lot of the literature focuses on the things “we” are doing to the North. But as the people living in northern regions get a stronger voice, we need to recognize that they also have the power to affect their own environment. That’s why issues such as waste management are important to address.

HEP: How did your experience in the North influence your writing of this article?

GS: Many people have never had the opportunity to visit the Arctic so they may have this romantic conception of the North as this wild uninhabited place. We might forget that there are people living there who have to go about their everyday lives—like going to work or taking out the garbage. I lived in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, for a few years as a lawyer, and it gave me some valuable insight in dealing with everyday problems—like how do I get rid of old documents when we don’t have a shredder? Should I save up my tin cans to bring down to Ottawa next time I fly out, if there are no recycling services? Living there made me realize that I would love to see more discussion in the Arctic research community on how to strengthen and govern infrastructure and processes like solid waste management. It may not seem exciting to talk about mundane things like garbage disposal in Gjoa Haven, but we need to remember these issues have a huge impact on the people living there, and on the environment as well.

*****

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Gloria Song is a lawyer and researcher with a focus on Arctic and international development legal issues. She has worked as a poverty lawyer based in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and currently works in knowledge management and engagement for Polar Knowledge Canada. She also serves as a project coordinator for the Law Society of Nunavut and conducts research as part of the Change and Economic Development in Arctic Canada research team at the University of Ottawa, as well as the Disability and Access to Justice in the Canadian Arctic research team at the University of Alberta. The views expressed in the article are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect the position of any of her employers.

Gloria Song's article “Lessons from Dumpcano: Governance Issues in Solid Waste Management in Nunavut” can be found here.

This interview was conducted by Heather Exner-Pirot, managing editor of the Artic Yearbook, Strategist for Outreach and Indigenous Engagement at the University of Saskatchewan, and a blogger for Radio Canada's Eye on the Arctic. Her interests are in the northern and indigenous health, education and economic development, regional governance, and Arctic Council politics. 

[Photo courtesy of Alan Sim]

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