As head of Arctic initiatives at the Vancouver Aquarium, I am fortunate to be able to travel north and experience the Arctic first-hand. But I’m far from the first to set foot on the ice and tundra of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. There are about 50 communities in Canada’s Far North, and to truly understand the Arctic environment, one must get to know its people as well. These are the people who are most directly impacted by the massive environmental changes occurring in the north – changes brought about and intensified by our activities down here, in the South.
For at least 5,000 years, people have lived in the Far North. The environmental knowledge gained over that time and passed on from one generation to the next is immense – in both quantity and value. Inuit traditional knowledge – Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) – is an important source of information about the past and the present in the Arctic, and has much to contribute to those seeking to understand Arctic change.
Many Inuit Elders have stories to tell about how the ice used to be thicker and safer for travel, how animals that were once abundant are no longer seen, and ground that was once stable has thawed and slumped into the sea. As “change” became the central theme in political, social, cultural and environmental Arctic dialogues, the line of questioning has gone from “if things change,” to “when things change,” and now – “as things change.”
As valuable as it is, Inuit traditional knowledge does have its limitations. An oceanographer who is interested in the way layers of seawater mix 50 metres below the surface might be less likely to find the answer in the local IQ. And as the rate of change in the north increases, we look to the predictive ability of western science to help us understand what we can expect in the coming years.
While both local knowledge and scientifically-derived knowledge each have significant strengths, many barriers exist that hinder cooperation and communication between northern communities and the southern public and scientists. These include significant cultural differences, and a history that has eroded trust between the North and southern, science-based institutions, among the more obvious barriers resulting from geographic distance and logistical constraints.
In 2011, the Vancouver Aquarium, in partnership with the Pond Inlet Environmental Technology Program, developed a program intended to break down these barriers, improve communication and collaboration among scientists and northern communities, and give Canada’s most northern communities more of a voice in the south. We called it the Arctic Connections Southern Expedition and it brought a group of students from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, to meet with government agencies and researchers, and to work with staff and volunteers at the Vancouver Aquarium. It was based on building a foundation of trust and sharing perspectives and knowledge.
This collaboration improved the relationship between scientists and the community of Pond Inlet, built local capacity to further engage in relevant scientific research, and provided a voice for the community to reach a large southern Canadian audience through the Vancouver Aquarium. It also inspired graduate students at the Centre for Northern Studies (University of Laval) to form a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to improving the relationship between scientists and Canada’s Arctic communities.
There is still a lot of work to be done to improve communication, cooperation and trust and enable the North and the South to work together to share and gather knowledge that will ultimately benefit Canada’s Arctic. Our goal has always been to find ways to allow other Arctic communities, research groups and southern institutions like ours to share similar experiences. Now we have that chance.
Last Wednesday night, based on the 2011 Southern Expedition and a plan to expand that program, we were awarded the 2013 Arctic Inspiration Prize. Winning this prize is a great honour and it will allow us to partner with four more Arctic communities, four more zoos and aquariums and many more researchers to build trust, communication and collaboration. This partnership, called Ikaarvik: Barriers to Bridges, was one of three teams sharing the $1 million CAD prize this year. It’s awarded to teams that have made a substantial contribution to the gathering of Arctic knowledge, and that will put a concrete plan into action for the benefit of the Canadian Arctic and its communities.
As the Ikaarvik team leader, it will be my honour to work with the team to build stronger, more effective collaboration among partner Inuit communities and scientific researchers, improve public discourse about the Arctic, and increase leadership capacity among young emerging Inuit leaders. It will also involve the Canadian Rangers Ocean Watch program (a research partnership between the Department of National Defense, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Vancouver Aquarium) as both a case study and a practical application of Ikaarvik’s bridge-building.
The $1 million CAD Arctic Inspiration Prize is awarded annually and is made possible through the generous endowment of the S. and A. Inspiration Foundation, the commitment of ArcticNet to voluntarily manage the Prize, and the contribution of numerous volunteers and partners.
The Vancouver Aquarium Arctic programs seek to bridge southern and northern perspectives, knowledge and ideas. Our goal is to create greater awareness and understanding of important issues that affect both northern and southern Canadians, and to create a place for respectful, solutions-oriented dialogue. More details can be found here.
By Eric Solomon, Vancouver Aquarium director of Arctic programs