Concordia University

Shirley Roburn is a Ph.D. candidate in the Joint Program in Communication Studies at Concordia, UQAM and the University of Montreal. Her research, inspired by living in northern Canada, concerns the “public stories” that First Nations communities and environmental groups tell about climate change and food security in northwestern North America, and whether these stories are effective in garnering public support and influencing global, national, and regional policy. Roburn is a long-time community activist and has served as an employee, volunteer and organizer for many environmental justice and human rights organizations.

Being Caribou: a story of transboundary migration

On April 8th, 2003, Leanne Allison and Karsten Heuer set off alone, on foot, to follow the 123 000 strong Porcupine caribou herd as it migrated through its spring, summer, and fall ranges in northern Yukon and Alaska. Using the Being Caribou expedition and its media products including a website; media coverage and educational and journalistic dispatches during the expedition; an adult and a children’s book; and a film that was broadcast on television, shown at film festivals, and circulated as a DVD through activist and educational network as a focal point, this paper analyses the role that transboundary grassroots organizing, storytelling, and community building played in bringing the plight of the Porcupine caribou, and the concerns of Gwich’in people, to the attention of Americans in all fifty states. The caribou migration is unconstrained by international borders. However, the lands and peoples within the herd’s habitat are fundamentally shaped by these boundaries: the key decisions on whether to open the herd’s calving grounds to oil and gas development are made in Washington DC. The self-determination of the remote Gwich’in and Inuvialuit communities who depend on the herd for food is constrained by this arrangement, particularly as the Canada-US border divides the indigenous nations. In the period from March to December of 2005, when American legislative attempts to allow drilling in ANWR were decided by as little as a single vote, Being Caribou expedition products were systematically used by grassroots organizers to educate Americans about the Arctic Refuge calving grounds and Gwich’in peoples, and to mobilize hundreds of thousands of voters to write letters, call their elected officials, and demonstrate publicly against opening the refuge to development.