By Samphe Brulé
Take the Klondike Highway from Whitehorse to Stewart Crossing, then head north-east at the Silver Trail Junction to arrive in Mayo, nestled at the confluence of the Stewart and Mayo Rivers in the central Yukon. Dr. Chris Burn, a physical geographer at Carleton University, began working in Mayo in 1982 and has visited the village every calendar year since. Through these visits, Burn laid the groundwork for a community partnership between Carleton University and the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun (FNNND).
Over the last four decades, collaboration with FNNND has proven invaluable to Burn’s myriad research projects, with members of the First Nation often assisting students in data collection or suggesting problems to work on. More recently, on September 9, 2020, Na-Cho Nyäk Dun Chief Simon Mervyn and Carleton University President Benoit-Antoine Bacon signed a Memorandum of Understanding, initiating a formal partnership between the university and First Nation for seven years, with the possibility of renewal. The agreement is centered on the co-creation of knowledge, and the First Nation will identify community-driven research priorities, determine how best to involve local people, and serve as a repository for the research results.
“Given everything we know about the history of scientists in the North, it’s time that we started to work more closely, carefully, and collaboratively with First Nations communities,” says Burn.
In winter, Mayo residents see no more than four hours of daylight, so elementary and high school students often arrive to and leave from the village’s J.V. Clark School in the dark. But this winter, Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business gave students something special to look forward to. Led by Dr. Troy Anderson, Instructor of Sprott’s Developing Creative Thinking course, Carleton students made two trips to Mayo this year to engage with local youth, collaborating with them to design and build skateboard decks, and set up a storefront to sell them on a Shopify platform. The youth will also be using the platform to sell other products from both the school and the wider community.
“Our main objective is to promote the benefits of social entrepreneurship,” says Aditi Mohan, a Sprott student who spent time at J.V. Clark this winter. “Now I feel like students have an idea of all the opportunities available to them to promote all of this creative work that they put so much effort into.” Social enterprises seek not just to cover costs, but also generate a positive return to society—in this case, skill building and capacity development for Mayo youth.
Sprott’s initiative represents one branch of a much larger and longer-term community partnership between Carleton University and FNNND. Whether they are visiting the Yukon with Burn’s annual field course—part of the Northern Studies Masters program—or traveling north to assist with research, Carleton students work in close collaboration with Chief Simon Mervyn and Na-Cho Nyäk Dun’s implementation and governance manager, Adrienne Hill.
“I think the continuity and evolution of projects that this partnership provides has been huge,” says Jani Djokic, the Chief Executive Officer at FNNND’s Development Corporation.
Both in terms of relationships with the faculty so that projects can continue to be built upon as students progress through their educational careers, and that Carleton has been closely collaborating with community entities that can house these projects for the long-term.Jani Djokic
Both in terms of relationships with the faculty so that projects can continue to be built upon as students progress through their educational careers, and that Carleton has been closely collaborating with community entities that can house these projects for the long-term.
Faculty and students alike are engaged in research spanning the disciplines, from geomatics to food policy. Murray Richardson, as associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, uses drone surveys to map ground and building movements caused by permafrost thaw in Mayo and the surrounding area. Land ownership in the village is demarcated, and Richardson provides geomatic resources that allow FNNND to make informed decisions based on cooperative scientific evidence for land use planning. These resources also help inform decisions when land use conflicts arise.
NND has also identified various community-driven research interests related to Indigenous food sovereignty and northern food security. Professor Patricia Ballamingie led a Community-Engaged Research course in fall 2021, where 4th year and graduate students worked in teams to explore Indigenous food sovereignty, document the history of the FNNND Farm, scan other Indigenous-led farms in the Canadian north, and create scaffolding for a potential food strategy. The students presented their findings to Chief and Council, and their work became a springboard for future Carleton researchers.
“This work will generate insights into how to improve food security in northern communities while supporting greater Indigenous food sovereignty—potentially with broader application for communities in circumpolar regions around the world,” says Ballamingie.
Carleton University plays a unique role in the community. Faculty and students position themselves in projects with a spirit of reciprocity. Students' experiences in the North are enriched and FNNND has access to a diverse source of human resources and perspectives that neither partner would normally have access to. By the end of this spring term, fifty-seven Carleton students will have completed projects with FNNND.
Chris Burn emphasizes the inherent need for flexibility and recognition of opportunities in the operation of university-community partnerships. “I don’t have a template, I don’t have a fixed road map, I don’t have rules, and I don’t have deliverables,” says Burn.
This is an organic partnership, it is not a partnership that is a contract. We want to work together for the common good and we work respecting each other's expertise.Chris Burn
This is an organic partnership, it is not a partnership that is a contract. We want to work together for the common good and we work respecting each other's expertise.
The Memorandum of Understanding between Carleton University and Na-Cho Nyäk Dun First Nation is one example of how institutions of higher education can work in allyship with Indigenous peoples to create tangible, meaningful change.
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