Not long after the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre opened as a centre for conservation, research and education dedicated to West Coast marine life, our founding director Dr. Murray A. Newman set his sights further afield. For more than 45 years, the Vancouver Aquarium has been leading expeditions, research and education programs in Canada’s North in order to call attention to the crucial role this region plays in the world’s ecosystems.
Home to more than 40 per cent of Canada’s land mass, 70 per cent of its shorelines and some of this country’s most iconic species, our North plays a vital role in Canada’s ecology, economy and sovereignty. And it is vulnerable. Canada’s Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the global average, making our research and advocacy in the region — from groundbreaking studies on the communication patterns between beluga whale mothers and calves to monitoring populations of narwhals — more important than ever.
The most valuable resource we can cultivate to protect Canada’s North are the young people who call this region home. “There’s so much change going on in the Arctic and so many people want to monitor what’s going on, but for the most part Inuit haven’t been involved to the depth they could be,” explains Shelley Elverum, an anthropologist and educator based in Pond Inlet, Nunavut.
Empowering Inuit youth to be involved in decisions that affect their home region has been a top priority of the Vancouver Aquarium since 2010, when we engaged in an innovative program aimed at bridging the gaps — both psychological and physical — between those who live in remote northern communities and the rest of Canada.
At the time, Elverum was teaching an environmental technology course through Arctic College in Pond Inlet with the aim of training young Inuit to participate in environmental monitoring and assessments. She realized educating young people in scientific techniques was just one part of a complex approach needed to truly engage and empower Northern youth.
“So many of the decisions that affect people’s lives up here are made somewhere else,” says Elverum. “So if you’re talking about policies for the Northwest Passage, it’s made somewhere else, if you’re talking about quotas on wildlife, it’s made somewhere else. When you’re trying to get people empowered and passionate about things, it’s really important to know where those decisions are made and where they can fit into that decision-making.”
Opportunity to provide that perspective came when Eric Solomon, the Vancouver Aquarium’s director of Arctic programs, met Elverum on one of the Aquarium’s expeditions to the North. “Eric just got right away how important and critical it is to have Inuit involved in this kind of research, he said ‘what can the Aquarium do to help?’”
Solomon set about finding some funding and in 2011, they were able to bring 13 young Inuit youth, students in the environmental technology program, on a tour of southern Canada. They met with government officials in Ottawa, researchers at Laval University in Quebec and, of course, they came to the Vancouver Aquarium.
The trip was a priceless experience, Elverum says, noting even something as simple as standing beside the Aquarium’s beluga habitat allowed for crucial revelations to occur. “When they saw families watching belugas, and belugas watching these families, some of those kids were like ‘oh, now I get why some people think it’s wrong to hunt,’” Elverum says. “It stripped away that us and them mentality. That’s a really powerful thing.”
Since that first exchange, the Vancouver Aquarium has partnered with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and members of northern communities to create Ikaarvik, an innovative program that combines traditional Inuit knowledge with scientific inquiry and provides a framework for Inuit to mentor each other. With dozens of youth now having gone through the program, more and more young Inuit are armed with the skills and knowledge to be leaders as their communities face challenges posed by climate change. It’s more important than ever for Inuit to set research priorities to deal with issues such as loss of transportation routes due to melting sea ice, or increased pressure from mining activity.
“Our goal is to create a generation of young people that understand why science is important and can be advocates for their community,” says Elverum, Ikaarvik’s Northern Coordinator. Together, we can ensure Canada’s North stays strong for generations to come.
Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is celebrating 60 years of ocean conservation with a series of stories that highlight its impact on the world around us. Better known for its conservation efforts, such as the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and Ocean Wise, Vancouver Aquarium also operates Canada’s only Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, and has connected 42 million visitors to aquatic life since opening its doors in 1956. Join us as we explore six decades of milestones and look ahead to what’s needed to protect our world’s oceans.