By Suzanne Bowness
Photos by Luther Caverly
To reach Gjoa Haven, one of the most northern Canadian communities in Canada’s high Arctic, you have to fly to Edmonton or Yellowknife, stay overnight, and then fly six-and-a-half more hours to finally arrive in the community of 1,500. And that’s on a good day—in winter, the length of the journey is compounded by snowstorms and blizzards that can waylay your arrival by several days.
For Carleton School of Public Policy and Administration professor Stephan Schott, the challenging voyage is one he’s already taken twice this academic year. It’s all in the name of a four-year project initiated by a local group of hunters and fishers to study the sustainability of Arctic char (and eventually Arctic cod and Northern shrimp) in the region, which also includes other communities in the Kitikmeot region such as Cambridge Bay (home to the Canadian High Arctic Research Station). Undertaken in collaboration with three biologists (Virginia Walker, Stephen Lougheed, and Peter Van Coeverden de Groot) from Queen’s University and in partnership with Ontario Genomics, the project was awarded $5.6 million from Genome Canada’s 2014 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition.
Theirs is the only Genome Canada grant awarded in Ontario, and a first for Carleton’s Faculty of Public Affairs.
As the social scientist on the project, Schott’s role is to lead the consultations with the local community, while the biologists take care of the genetic work and fish sampling. That consultation kicked off with a five-day workshop in February, where Schott and his team interviewed around two dozen Gjoa Haven residents, a mix of elders and active hunters, and representative harvesters from Cambridge Bay and Kugaaruk about their hunting and fishing practices. The initial workshop also served as an opportunity to run the project plans by the community and get early feedback.
While fish may be the focus, the larger social question is about food security, or how to reduce the community’s dependence on expensive food imported from the south. At the moment, community fishers can’t always afford to go out and fish as they once did (for both positive reasons like having a full-time job, and negative reasons like being unemployed and unable to afford repairs and gas for their snowmobiles), so part of the project will help identify how to make fishing viable again. The project will also investigate the potential for limited-scale commercial fishing operations, which would bring the fish staple back into the community and even create revenue through exports to stores and restaurants in the south.
By interviewing locals, Schott and his team plan to create a snapshot of the region’s fish hot spots as well as a record of traditional practices.
“We first want to talk to traditional knowledge holders to ask them what they know about fish stocks and about where fish are,” says Schott. “We also want to know what are traditional approaches and accepted practices of hunting and fishing, so that we don’t look at suggestions that interfere with those.” To keep the project even more community-centred, Schott and his team rent facilities and stay in the community, and hire and train local research assistants (already a local project manager helped to set up the workshop), including students from Arctic College who will help with field research.
As another project that will flow back to the community, the team is undertaking a mapping exercise where locals will identify where they hunt and fish by season, and what routes they take.
Schott is working with Carleton’s Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre, under the direction of Professor Fraser Taylor (Geography), to put all the information collected into an interactive atlas tool that will overlay both historical and current fishing practices.
It’s an exercise that not only digitizes the traditional knowledge transfer, but has the potential to integrate the generations, says Schott. “This is kind of a heritage preservation instrument, too, where the young can learn from the elders what routes they’ve taken in the past, where the ice is, and so on. The youth can maybe show the elders how the technology works, so that we bring them closer together.”
The team will also share their scientific findings, particularly the genomics research they are doing to trace the Arctic char population—how many different discrete stocks there are, the contamination level in each stock, and their genetic makeup. Beyond pure science, another benefit of this effort is to create a baseline for these fish stocks in waters that are under increasing pressure in the name of Arctic sovereignty as claimants outside Canada try to open up what has been traditionally called the “northwest passage” as an international shipping route.
Insight into the fish stocks will also help to determine the viability of commercial fishing, and importantly, best practices to follow in terms of economic and environmental strategies. For Schott, who has spent the past nine years conducting research projects in the Canadian Arctic, it’s all about integrating the traditional knowledge with the science and sharing results. “At the end, we say, ‘Listen, this is what the science is showing us, this is what your traditional knowledge is showing us—how can we integrate those two to a better benefit of the community?’”