A polar bear walking on a snowless landscape

Photo: Daniel J. Cox

Wapusk in Northern Ontario

By Clive Tesar, Guest Contributor



17 Mar 2023

Wapusk in Northern Ontario

Most Canadians likely don’t know that their most populous province includes a few resident polar bears. While most people in Ontario live near the border with the United States, the province stretches a long way north until it touches Hudson Bay. There are fewer people up here, just a handful of communities on rivers near the coast. Most people who live here are Cree, and many still follow traditional ways, hunting, fishing, and trapping.

Being out on the land and waters, people are used to occasionally seeing polar bears (“wapusk” in Cree). What they are not used to is the increasing frequency of bear encounters. The bears of the threatened Western Hudson Bay population are spending more time on land. Their favored sea ice habitat has been shrinking over the years, as climate change effects take hold. At the same time, people from the Hudson Bay communities are using the shoreline more than they used to, building cabins and camps.

Polar Bears International representative Clive Tesar tries out the effectiveness of bear spray at -36c. There were no bears around at the time, this was just a test canister.

Photo: Joe Northrup

Polar Bears International representative Clive Tesar tries out the effectiveness of bear spray at -36c. There were no bears around at the time, this was just a test canister.

The increase in encounters has raised fears for people’s safety, and for the effects on the bear population if people feel threatened and resort to shooting bears. Polar Bears International has joined with the governments of Ontario and Canada, and with York University, to engage with the communities and find out if there are ways to keep people safe without having to shoot bears.

While it is early, the “Wapusk Project'' team has been contacting communities to gauge their level of interest. We recently made the long trip to the northernmost community in Ontario, Fort Severn. The community of about 350 people is one where some people have expressed a desire to find non-lethal ways of dealing with polar bears in their backyards.

The trip north takes several hours by bush plane, flying over the immensity of the frozen Hudson Bay lowlands. Few people were out and about on the streets. The highest temperature in the three days we were there was -35C. We went to the band office to meet with the local chief and a councilor. They were receptive to talking further about what to do about polar bear safety. Like many northern communities, the children here play outside a lot of the time, and the increase in local polar bear sightings has made people nervous about their safety. We discussed methods that have worked elsewhere to chase off bears that wander into communities. We also showed them a rubber bullet that, with the proper training, can help discourage bears from lingering.

Aerial of the Hudson Bay lowlands

Photo: Greg Thiemann

The immensity of the Hudson Bay lowlands.

We also left behind some posters and pamphlets that the team developed specifically for these Hudson Bay communities. Written in Cree and English, they give people some safety tips about dealing with wapusk. Before leaving, we asked about a public meeting, so we can hear people’s concerns and ideas directly. The chief and councilor agreed that returning in June for such a meeting would be the best timing. 

We plan to return to this community and others along the coast to work together with them on community-driven plans to improve the prospects for local safety. The day we left, a mother and two cubs newly emerged from a nearby den wandered around the edge of town, a reminder that the bears are never far away. They pass through without incident.

Clive Tesar teaches Northern Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, and specializes in northern policy and communications. He also works as a consultant for Polar Bears International.