You may have seen Up Here magazine’s recent survey results indicating how little southern Canadians know about the North. We weren’t surprised, having done our own (less scientific) surveys. Bottom line is we’re pretty clueless and need to become better informed.

My son is learning about Inuit right now in school. They’ve been spending a lot of time on it (I asked him if he wanted me to write his name in Inuktitut syllabics last week and he grabbed a pen, wrote it himself, and handed it to me with a “Dad, tell me something I don’t know” look). His homework recently was to describe the difference between a kayak and an umiak. Hopefully the assignment was in the context of “transportation then and now”, as describing a complex culture in terms of kayaks and umiaks would be like teaching about Vancouver by describing the difference between a Smart car and a mini-van (if most of us drove neither). I suspect the school understands that because he has also learned the importance of Ski-doos for wildlife harvesting. Kudos to the school for truly working to improve our kids’ understanding of the North. My son knows that penguins don’t live in the Arctic and that already puts him ahead of 70% of southern Canadians.

But if left to ourselves to try and figure it out, southern Canadians aren’t likely to ever get it completely right no matter how well-intentioned we are.

Two things became clear through the process of planning and implementing the Arctic Connections Southern Expedition: First, Northerners can and probably should play an even greater role in helping us Southerners “get it”. And second, the better northern Canadians understand the South, the more they can play an active role in helping us understand the North.

All communication occurs within a cultural context and communication across different cultures can only be effective when those contexts are understood. That has been one of the greatest benefits of the partnership with the Arctic College Environmental Tech Program in Pond Inlet: the students are learning a lot about how southern Canada works, what we understand (and don’t) about the North, what priorities exist in the South and, importantly, how we come to understand what we do about the world we live in. (One of the big lessons is that we aren’t really all that different.) As a result, they have been able to communicate about life in the North in ways that resonate with our mostly-southern Canadian audience and target key misconceptions.

Based on the idea that gaps in communication are caused or exacerbated by lack of cultural understanding (in both directions), we hosted a discussion we called “Ways of Knowing” at the Vancouver Aquarium on the last day of the Arctic Connections Southern Expedition. We wanted to take the opportunity to discuss some key cultural aspects that could interfere with bridge-building and look for ways to improve North-South communication, especially in the Inuit and Western science-based cultural contexts.

We explored questions such as, “what must happen for information (an observation of animal behaviour, for example) to be considered knowledge that can be trusted and acted upon?” We discussed how knowledge is learned and communicated in Inuit and Western Science-based cultures, what makes information reliable, when it’s OK to question or challenge knowledge, and other ideas as the dialogue progressed.

The Ways of Knowing discussion was well-attended.

One of the most interesting areas of discussion centred on the question: What makes information reliable enough to use? It’s one of the key differences between traditional Inuit and Western Science cultures.

Here are some of the take-home messages that I came away with. They may not (and probably don’t) represent the opinions of everyone in the room, and others likely came away with a different take.

What makes information reliable enough to use?

Reliability of information in Inuit culture is judged to a greater extent by experience than case-building. In Western Science one is expected to build a case and demonstrate it through one or a variety of different accepted means. Only then can information be accepted as knowledge that can be acted upon.

This idea of building a case has traditionally been less important in northern culture. One’s direct experience or the word of an “experienced” (usually older) individual is considered of significant value in determining what counts as reliable knowledge.

Right from the start, then, we can see that there is a difference in what can be considered “trustworthy” knowledge. We often hear from northern communities that their knowledge is dismissed and considered of little use for science-based understanding. Many scientists would argue that the knowledge has not been gained through the case-building process that is considered required for use in Western Science.

We heard concerns that scientists won’t believe what Inuit say unless researchers can measure, observe or model it themselves. In a culture where wisdom that comes with age and experience is so highly respected, it’s easy to see why this is tremendously insulting.

It is fair to ask, though, whether that is out of lack of respect for Inuit knowledge specifically or simply a cultural taboo in science: in science culture, one remains sceptical of any information unless it can be confirmed through accepted scientific methods. Even the observations of the most well-respected scientist will be greeted with scepticism if they cannot be backed up by accepted scientifically-derived data.

I’m not sure how comforting that is to Inuit, or for that matter any non-scientist, as it really just means that any information that has not been gained through accepted scientific methods is of limited use to the scientific community (and, by extension, the agencies and organizations that base their decisions on the Western Scientific way of kowing and acting on information, which is most of them, really). But scientists would argue that it is that constant demand for case-building and data to back up observations that allows Western Science to consider its knowledge gained to be as free from bias and human observational error as possible (we won’t be opening the can of worms labelled, “How bias-free is Western Science” here).

Meanwhile, we have a lot of decisions to make about critical northern issues and we don’t have the luxury of time. Environmental changes are occurring rapidly and the resulting pressures for commercial development, resource extraction, economic growth, social improvements and political sovereignty are increasing. Our scientific understanding of many of these complex issues is still very limited. It’s good science; we just don’t have as much of it as we need. And as thorough it is, Western Science can only build an actionable knowledge base so fast. The need for decision-making is far outpacing our scientific understanding. As a result, we are making some critical decisions based on our “best-informed guess” without conclusive scientific findings.

As a Western Science-based organization, we recognize the value of good scientifically-derived knowledge. But in dismissing Inuit knowledge as “un-scientific” are we excluding potentially valuable information gained, however unscientifically, over many generations of direct daily engagement with the subject of interest? And at a time when we are rushing to make critical decisions, struggling for any information at all about the Arctic, climate, and all the rapid changes we’re seeing, can we afford not to use all the information available?

This expedition was made possible by the generosity of members of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Board of Directors  and support and contributions from

The Nunavut Arctic College

Government of Nunavut Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth

Parks Canada

The Selzer-Chan Pond Inlet Foundation

Canada Goose

Canadian North Airlines

Discover Canada Tours

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

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