In Langscape Magazine Articles

Happening to Us: Amplifying Youth Voices from the Arctic

July 30, 2020

Text by Maéva Gauthier

Video by Jasmine Gruben, Brian Kikoak, Carmen Kuptana, Nathan Kuptana, Eriel Lugt, Gabrielle Nogasak, Darryl Tedjuk

Nathan Kuptana, nineteen, pauses on the stage in front of hundreds of people, as he feels his ancestors and all the changes they have seen course through his veins. He has been given the stage on World Youth Day, as the representative leader for the Indigenous Peoples of the world at the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP 25) of the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, Spain, in December 2019. Performing a cultural dance, he is surrounded by his team members Eriel and Carmen, while Darryl films the event. Following an emotional speech, the media come up and ask him to share his thoughts as a young Inuvialuit experiencing climate change on a very personal level in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada.

Climate change is not a remote concept; it is very much an everyday reality.

For Nathan and his fellow Inuvialuit youth, climate change is not a remote concept; it is very much an everyday reality. These students were personally invited to be part of the Inuit Circumpolar Council delegation at COP 25 to show Happening to Us, the film they made on how climate change is affecting their community and culture.

UN Climate Change Conference

The Happening to Us film delegation at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25) in Madrid. From left: Jaro Malanowski, Nathan Kuptana, Carmen Kuptana, Eriel Lugt, Maéva Gauthier, Darryl Tedjuk. Photo: Jaro Malanowski, 2019

The documentary is the outcome of a film workshop that a group of enthusiastic partners had facilitated six months earlier. My PhD research brought me to Tuktoyaktuk (or Tuk, as it is locally known) because my colleague and friend Michèle Tomasino, vice-principal and teacher at Mangilaluk school in Tuk, was keen to engage her students with this film project opportunity. Having spent time in Arctic communities before, I wanted to work in this context and support the community in sharing with the world the concerns that they might have about global changes and the solutions that they might envision.


Aerial view of Tuktoyaktuk. Photo: TukTV, 2019

Taking a community-based approach, I started by talking to the local organizations. The Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation was keen to get involved and instrumental in making this project happen. For my first community visit, I invited along filmmaker Jaro Malanowski of Avatar Media to share with the youth his twenty years of experience in the film industry, including multiple video projects with First Nation communities that told stories close to their hearts. What emerged from these initial interactions was the Nuna Tariuq Silalu (Land, Sea, and Air) film project, which aims to provide opportunities for youth in Tuk to learn filmmaking skills and share stories on topics that matter to them.

Climate change may still often feel like a foreign concept. As soon as you arrive in the North, however, it is an undeniable reality.

Early on in our conversations with the youth at the school and at the youth center, climate change came up as a pervasive issue that had many impacts on their lives—from culture change to threats to infrastructure and safety problems. For many of us southerners (I live in Victoria, British Columbia), climate change may still often feel like a foreign concept. The pace of change is simply not the same, and it doesn’t affect our daily safety. As soon as you arrive in the North, however, it is an undeniable reality. What could be more powerful than a seventeen-year-old student who has already seen drastic changes over the past five to ten years? What could be more moving than seeing a big sinkhole right in front of the Arctic Ocean–facing home of one of our film workshop participants, and realizing that melting permafrost is destabilizing the deck and threatening the safety of the whole house? It is shocking to hear young people recount their observations of the drastic changes they have seen in their short lifetimes; and those observations, combined with the long-term changes noticed by Elders over the past 40 years, make for a powerful way to communicate an issue that is neither political nor linked to a belief system. It simply is happening. Happening to them . . .

eroding coastline

Noella Cockney’s house at the edge of the eroding coastline. This and other houses had to be moved inland. Photo: TukTV, 2019

This film training method is known as “participatory video.” Its aim is to build capacity among community members to share their own stories by producing videos themselves. The level of mentorship and gear may vary depending on the capacity and resources available, but the idea remains the same: the making of the video is driven by the story that participants want to share. How they want to share it and with whom they want to share it is a collective decision. In this case, the youth discussed their concerns and topics of interest and brainstormed with film facilitators to create storylines. From the start, they were convinced that they wanted to show the world that climate change is “happening to us.” And so they did . . .

filming until midnight

Hard at work: filming until midnight with lots of sun! From left: Jaro Malanowski, Darryl Tedjuk, Michèle Tomasino, Brian Kikoak. Photo: Maéva Gauthier, 2019

By an incredible turn of events, right during the film workshop, then Minister of the Environment and Climate Change for Canada, Catherine McKenna, came to Tuk along with Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (an organization that works to protect and advance the rights and interests of 65,000 Inuit in Canada), for the release of the National Inuit Climate Change Strategy. Totally unplanned — but what an opportunity for the youth to interview them and get their project promoted among policymakers and Inuit governance organizations!

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

Carmen Kuptana interviewing Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, by the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyaktuk. Photo: Maéva Gauthier, 2019

Happening to Us was first screened in Tuk in June 2019, to an enthusiastic audience of about seventy community members. People were so proud of the youth — it was an emotional moment. Following the film workshop, a new student-led organization called TukTV was created for the youth to offer film services in their town. The students plan to continue working on their film to expand it into a feature documentary and include more solutions to climate change. They also want to explore the issue of plastics and microplastics in their environment and in the food chain.

It is shocking to hear young people recount their observations of the drastic changes they have seen in their short lifetimes.

As a non-Indigenous person doing a community-based research project with Indigenous people, I try to keep in mind who the project is for, why we are doing it, and how we can build capacity in the community to make this a viable, sustainable project. I do my best to listen and learn as we move forward. At the beginning, some people were expecting more direction, as researchers often come with a specific “agenda” or topic in mind. Instead, I came with an open mind, wanting to hear about the youth’s concerns and observations of change in their community—and that was the starting point for all that happened. So far, this has been an incredible journey—and at least as much of a learning experience for me as it has been for the youth who were acquiring filmmaking and leadership skills.

practicing new camera skills

Darryl Tedjuk practices his new skills on the camera. Photo: Maéva Gauthier, 2019

One of the most rewarding aspects of this project for me and my colleagues is being able to amplify youth voices and to support the making of connections among Indigenous groups. Yes, the will to save the Inuvialuit way of life and culture is right there in the hearts of the young participants. They want to be involved, be heard, and see more Indigenous leaders in power. Taking part in COP 25 showed them how complex this political world is, but also that other Indigenous Peoples from around the world are facing severe impacts from climate change as well. Whether it is loss of safety on sea ice and coastline erosion or major droughts affecting access to food and water, all those changes threaten Indigenous Peoples’ survival worldwide.

Group photo taken by the Arctic Ocean

Group photo taken by the Arctic Ocean after the youth interviewed Randal “Boogie” Pokiak. Standing (from left): Jaro Malanowski (Avatar Media), Eriel Lugt, Brian Kikoak, Michèle Tomasino (Mangilaluk School), Maéva Gauthier (University of Victoria). Kneeling (from left): Darryl Tedjuk, Carmen Kuptana, Randal “Boogie” Pokiak, Nathan “Muk” Kuptana. Photo: Johan Stroman, 2019

‘Every culture was so different, yet there was one thing we all had in common: that we are losing our land and with that comes the disappearance of a platform where our people practiced their survival skills.’ 

The youth from Tuktoyaktuk have seen the power of coming together as one and feeling supported along with other nations that face the loss of their land. Says Eriel Lugt, seventeen, of her experience at COP 25: “People from all over the world came in with their cultural knowledge, and it was so interesting. Every culture was so different, yet there was one thing we all had in common: that we are losing our land and with that comes the disappearance of a platform where our people practiced their survival skills.”

As well, the youth had amazing opportunities to meet high-level and influential politicians, from ambassadors to negotiators. I will always remember going to the Canadian Embassy in Madrid to meet ambassador Matthew Levin. The youth spent an hour and a half talking to him and learning about his role as an ambassador. They shared their fears and hopes with him. I understood the power of their voices as they commented on how unfair it is that they are so deeply affected by a problem they had no role in creating. Using filmmaking as a tool to share their climate change story opened the door for them to meet and interview people they would have never had a chance to come across otherwise. Their film is also included in the UN Youth Climate Report to reach policymakers all around the world.


View of the Arctic Ocean and the pingos in Tuktoyaktuk. Pingos are dome-shaped hills that only form in permafrost areas when groundwater freezes and pushes up layers of frozen ground. There is a very high concentration of pingos on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. Photo: Maéva Gauthier, 2019

Nathan Kuptana, at nineteen the oldest member of the youth group, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) during an interview that COP 25 was a transformative experience for him. He would like to do more filming and screening and to mentor younger kids in the community. He hopes their film Happening to Us will make an impact, especially on leaders who can take action on climate change. The time to act is now, though . . .

Also on the CBC, Carmen Kuptana, seventeen, said of her COP 25 experience: “They really showed concern. Their eyes opened up when they saw what was happening to our land, and how young kids were really concerned about what was happening.” Being around other Indigenous youth and leaders, she added, “made me feel more supported and heard when I wanted to speak about the problems my community and people are facing today, and that I’m not the only one who stands up wanting change and actions to be done.” She enjoyed showcasing her culture and felt empowered by the experience, which helped her to “grow as a person and a leader.” She added: “I’m not afraid to say what I want to say anymore.”


As I write this, COVID-19 has forced us to postpone Phase II of the film workshop, in which the youth were going to film on the land and add more climate change solutions to their story. We are looking for ways to keep engaging with them remotely, both online and by working closely with teacher Michèle Tomasino. “I had eight students showing up online for Math and English last night,” Michèle told me some time ago. “Filming would be a motivating activity to do outside for them while keeping social distancing.” As we brainstorm on how to go about it, I am reminded that even in these challenging times of COVID-19, climate change is not on pause. Recently, the Tuk community had to move several houses inland, away from the eroding coastline.

Even in these challenging times of COVID-19, climate change is not on pause. 

And subsistence activities are not on pause either. “I’m going geese-hunting with my dad today,” said Darryl, sixteen — one of the youngest members of the TukTV cohort, who has been so keen on this project from the beginning—in a recent Facebook chat. Although filming on the land is not possible at the moment, many of the youth are out there, engaging in and learning about the traditional subsistence activities.

goose hunting

First goose of the year (May 23, 2020) for Darryl. Photo: Ronald “Inung” Felix, 2020

Also chatting on Facebook, Carmen Kuptana reflected on her experience with the making of Happening to Us: “I learned something new every day—things such as handling a camera, doing an interview, working with others, and patience. But the one thing I learned that really surprised me was what the youth of today — or, as I see it, ‘my friends’ — were concerned with and what they wanted to speak up about and bring awareness to. Making this film showed me that if I have the right tools and guidance in life I could make the vision I see happen.”

Eriel Lugt chimed in: “My favorite part about being a part of TukTV was the learning experience. I was able to learn editing skills, which I was unfamiliar with before, and using the high-tech cameras was new to me. What I would hope to learn more through this experience is how we can document more of where I come from. So that would mean learning more of my land and cultural activities, which I know there is so much we can learn about. And, in that process, film, and hopefully make it [the film] broadcast around Canada.”

This project is only the beginning. “I have younger students interested in learning filmmaking,” says Michèle Tomasino. Now the older students can be involved in mentoring the younger ones in the next phases of this film. Learning by doing and with their peers is crucial. I am looking forward to continuing this project with these young filmmakers — remotely for now, and eventually in person, when it is possible to travel again.


The famous sign welcoming visitors to Tuktoyaktuk, the “Land of the Pingos.” Photo: Jaro Malanowski, 2019


Happening to Us trailer. Video: TukTV and Avatar Media, 2019


Follow TukTV on Facebook for future updates on the film.


Organizers and local collaborators: Maéva Gauthier (PhD student, University of Victoria), Michèle Tomasino (vice-principal and teacher, Mangilaluk school), Jaro Malanowski (filmmaker, Avatar Media), Shaun Cormier and Kendyce Cormier (project managers, Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation), Tamara Voudrach, Dez Loreen, and David Stewart (Inuvialuit Communications Society).


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Acknowledgments: Community of Tuktoyaktuk, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, Climate Change Preparedness in the North Program (CIRNAC), Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation, Oceans North, Canoe North Adventures, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Mangilaluk School, Avatar Media, University of Victoria, Aurora Research Institute, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Northern Scientific Training Program, Students on Ice Foundation, UN Youth Climate Report, Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Vistek, and Best Buy.

Maeva Gauthier.

Maéva Gauthier is a PhD student in Geography within the Community-based Research Lab at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, and a graduate student fellow at the university’s Centre for Global Studies. Her research interests include community resilience and adaptation, human dimensions of global change, participatory approaches, and youth engagement in the Arctic.

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