Polar Bear Summit Allows Media In, But Not Churchill

Media Appearances, Climate, Frontier Centre

Environment Canada loosened restrictions Thursday on media access to a federal summit on polar bears in Winnipeg today, but the mayor of Canada’s polar bear capital said he’s disappointed he was not included.

Mike Spence, mayor of the 1,000-person town 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, said Churchill town staff received no response from Environment Canada when they inquired about attending.

“I think they’re sending the wrong message by not including us… The biologists indicate the numbers are down, but we don’t see it, in all fairness,” he said.

Summit organizers have been secretive about who would participate in today’s event, which will include government officials, researchers and Inuit groups.

The summit will focus on the future of the iconic Canadian mammals, which some scientists say are in decline and some Inuit groups argue remain at healthy levels for harvesting.

On Thursday, Environment Canada changed its policy and said the summit’s opening and closing remarks will be open to journalists, as well as certain panels — but no list of speakers was publicly available.

An Environment Canada spokesperson said an estimated 30 people will attend the round table on the future of polar bears, including federal Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice.

The spokesperson said participants included those who “play a role in the management and conservation of the polar bear,” and the list was still being finalized Thursday.

“It’s a critical time, a pivotal time, for the polar bear,” Prentice said. “We are essentially the stewards of the polar bear population. It’s a very heavy responsibility that we bear.”

Spence said the town of Churchill has important information on polar bear populations.

“We’re a model and I think we can share that with other communities in terms of how to co-exist,” he said.

Churchill is internationally renowned for conservation efforts related to the approximately 935 bears in the western Hudson Bay area, according to 2004 figures from the World Conservation Union.

Mitchell Taylor, a polar bear biologist who is an adjunct professor at Lakehead University, gave a lecture on polar bear populations at a Frontier Centre for Public Policy luncheon Thursday.

He won’t be at the summit, though, and admits he’s disappointed he wasn’t invited. Taylor questions whether all 19 separate polar bear populations are decreasing due to climate change.

“The climate’s not constant, it’s always changing. We need to be mindful of that,” he said. “It appears most of our populations, at least at this time, are still abundant and productive and they’re not dying out.”