[October 27, 2020]
By Reilley Bishop-Stall
In the spring of 2019, Canada’s Changing Climate Report confirmed that the country’s northern regions are warming at three times the global average. With permafrost thawing, ice caps melting, and rising ocean temperatures threatening plant, marine, and animal life, the Canadian North is easily and often invoked as a harbinger of the planet’s ominous future. But for the communities in these regions, the effects of climate change are already present, acutely felt, and being actively confronted. Over half of the residents of Canada’s northernmost territories are Indigenous, and – with many social, economic, and subsistence practices already damaged by colonial violence and imposition – these communities are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. At the same time, however, they are on the frontlines of climate action and possess vast knowledge of northern ecosystems and conservation practices, rooted in Indigenous science and stewardship.
Documentary photographer Pat Kane, an Algonquin Anishinaabe member of the Timiskaming First Nation, has collaborated with various First Nations and NGOs since 2015, photographing Indigenous-led conservation efforts, culture camps, and tourism initiatives in the Northwest Territories for his ongoing series Guardians of the North. Photographs of the North, whether produced to accompany environmental initiatives, inspire travel, or promote resource extraction projects, tend to feature dramatic landscapes: open vistas and the aurora borealis, and sprawling, unpeopled expanses, verging on the sublime. Although Kane’s photographs certainly capture the beauty and monumentality of the region, Guardians of the North is focused more on the relationship between people and the land. Foregrounded are the northern residents’ familiarity and interaction with the land, water, and weather, rather than attempts to harness, overcome, or exploit the elements. Formally, the crispness and clarity of the photographs elevate or accentuate the environment, making the North itself an actor in or driving force of the series. The skies range from calm and clear to roiling and sinister. And the water is captured with striking precision in all its diversity: perfectly still or urged to motion by wind or by boat; a spotless mirror to reflect the sky; a bountiful provider, in liquid or frozen form.
Guardians of the North, which includes landscapes, action shots, portraits, and aerial photographs, provides a rich and holistic picture of multi-generational communities with deep ties to their environment. The breadth of the series is formidable. Kane documents a variety of activities, taking place over all four seasons, in a number of small, remote communities: people of all ages travelling by motorboat and snowmobile; checking traps; harvesting fish and game; hanging moose meat and hides to dry; and, as families, playing, labouring, cooking, laughing. There is a joyfulness to many of the images, as well as an apparent intimacy and affinity between the photographer and his subjects, despite his position as a visitor. Kane’s documentary approach is immersive, thorough, and decidedly collaborative, resulting in a series of respectful and nuanced images that differ strongly from the familiar and fraught history of documentary photography in the North, dominated as it has been by settlers travelling to the area and claiming authority to delimit and describe northernlife.
In Guardians of the North, the people photographed drive the series. There is a clear sense of community, despite – or because of – the geographical isolation that is also apparent. Given prominence is the intergenerational aspect of land-based practices and community-led conservation efforts. Children and teenagers appear frequently alongside adults and elders. As they participate in subsistence activities or play nearby, their presence signals the importance of knowledge and knowhow being passed from one generation to another. Particularly in a region so imperilled by the climate crisis and by political pressures, so coveted by environmentally unsound industries, and so isolated from the resources and supports available to southern Canadians, kinship, community, and conservation are of the utmost importance. There is an urgency underscoring the series, as the images belie the incursion of oil, gas, and mining companies; the shift in weather patterns, necessitating innovation; and the efforts of residents to protect and assert control over their territories. Kane has argued that Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land is fundamentally linked to identity and to community and individual health. His photographs display these ties and demonstrate the commitment to both cultural and environmental conservation, through traditional knowledge, adaptability, and resilience.
 Mylène Ratelle and Francis Paquette, “Climate Policy Should Reflect Resilience of Northern Communities,” The Narwhal, December 2, 2019, https://thenarwhal.ca/climate-policy-should-reflect-the-resilience-of-northern-indigenous-communities/.
Self-identified as mixed Indigenous/settler, Yellowknife photographer Pat Kane covers life and the environment in northern Canada, with a focus on Indigenous issues and empowerment. His approach gives people a sense of collaboration in the photo-making process and creates expressive and intimate stories. He is the co-founder of the Far North Photo Festival, a platform intended to elevate the work of photographers in underrepresented parts of northern Canada. www.patkanephoto.com
Reilley Bishop-Stall is an arts writer and researcher based in Quebec. She received her PhD from McGill University in 2019 and is currently a postdoctoral fellow with the Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership: The Pilimmaksarniq/Pijariuqsarniq Project at Concordia University. Her research is focused on contemporary art and on Indigenous and settler photography in Canada. She has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Photography & Culture.