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Ulukhaktok project focuses on climate change adaptation
Community-led research project first of its kind

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 26, 2013

A project set to begin this week in Ulukhaktok will look at climate change adaptation in the region.

NNSL photo/graphic

Mona Kuneyuna and Phylicia Kagyut sew together during a project to create a pair of traditional drum dancing shoes earlier this year. The community and researchers are hoping to revive traditional sewing techniques such as this through the newly launched Nunamin Illihakvia: Learning from the Land project. - photo courtesy of Adam Kudlak

The Nunamin Illihakvia: Learning from the Land project is one of the only government-funded projects in Canada where funding goes directly to the community, which is in charge of the project and supported by researchers.

Scientists and residents have partnered to deliver the project. One aim is to learn how traditional knowledge can be adapted to a changing environment, said Tristan Pearce, the project's lead researcher and an adjunct professor with the geography department at the University of Guelph who has spent almost a decade researching the human aspects of climate change and traditional knowledge in the Western Arctic.

Another is to promote intergenerational learning on the land, allowing older residents to share their knowledge with young hunters and sewers.

"There are people that want to (learn), but there is just not that direct access to, say, a teacher or an opportunity," said Pearce.

"This is a pretty rare opportunity for the community and it's pretty unique within the scope of funding in Canada," he said. "I guess the unique aspects of it are it's a partnership with the community, the community controls it and they're really doing what they want, and that's pretty neat."

Laverna Klengenberg, chair of the Ulukhaktok Community Corporation, said she and other community leaders approached Pearce about putting together a proposal for Health Canada funding earlier this year. The funds are provided through Health Canada's Climate Change and Health Adaptation Program for Northern First Nations and Inuit Communities.

"It's for the elders and for the young people to work together in learning how to travel on the winter sea ice," said Klengenberg.

She said Health Canada provided $135,920 for the project, with an additional $32,000 coming from in-kind donations, such as the use of buildings and facilities within the community.

The first step is to select between 15 and 20 residents who want to participate, Klengenberg said.

The group will be made up of both experienced hunters and people who want to learn hunting, fur preparation and sewing skills.

Pearce said similar to many communities, some young people in Ulukhaktok fall into a "gap," where they are old enough to be finished high school and are therefore unable to participate in on the land programs at school, but are perhaps too young to have learned skills from older hunters and sewers.

"It's not the ones that maybe learned from their grandfathers, who are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, it's really this generation that is kind of in between," he said. "They're not in school and they're not really engaged full time in any subsistence, they're kind of floating."

Klengenberg said community members consulted about the project agreed.

Klengenberg said while residents often hunt seals in the fall, spring and summer, winter seal hunting has fallen behind.

"It's not very practised as much nowadays as it used to be," she said.

Pearce said the project will focus on promoting and developing winter seal hunting skills.

Making sure those skills are learned and passed on to younger hunters today will help ensure hunting techniques are not only maintained, but can be modified to a changing environment, Pearce said.

In addition to adapting hunting skills to accommodate climate change, Pearce said learning to hunt seals in the winter provides residents with a source of food at a time of year when some people are most vulnerable to food insecurity.

He said climate change affects the health of wildlife and can make some species, such as seals, harder to hunt, which impacts food security in communities.

The ability to hunt and provide for others also plays a huge role in promoting confidence and an overall sense of well-being, Pearce said.

"It's not just the act of getting that food for nutrition, but it's also those intangibles that go to mental health and mental well-being," he said. "Not being able to travel and be on the land has really significant implications for people's well-beings."

The act of hunting also promotes other valuable lessons, Pearce added.

"It comes down to values and teachings that are inherent to the process of learning those skills, but

they're often forgotten," he said. "Things like forbearance, staying calm under pressure, planning, determination, self worth. When somebody comes back with a seal, it's not a simple as coming back and cutting it up. It's a real community process."

Learning fur preparation and sewing skills is another aspect of the project, Pearce said.

One of the barriers to learning traditional sewing skills is the ability to process seal pelts, Pearce said.

Currently, pelts are sent outside of the community to be processed and purchasing them can be costly. Pearce said while it's still too early to tell what direction the program might take, an option could be to allocate funds to develop a processing facility in Ulukhaktok.

This would give seamstresses greater access to materials and could increase the overall output of sealskin products in the community, which could then be put to personal use or sold.

"It's a great way of bringing in money to the household by making the crafts or the clothing and selling it," he said.

Developing a way to balance traditional skills with modern education methods is another of the project's spinoffs, Pearce said.

"It's this concern that this younger generation is not, in some cases, getting that balance of some of the important skills and knowledge to live in the North," he said.

Researchers from the University of Guelph's geography department and McGill University are also participating in the project, including a film student, Pearce said.

In partnership with the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre, Pearce said hunts and other activities will be recorded to allow for the possibility of an educational DVD or video.

"I'm not sure what it will look like, but it will incorporate the idea of visual and audio for long term use," he said.

He also said feedback and stories will be gathered from the community.

"It will add a new element, which will be focusing on that idea of stories about how the environment is changing and the impact it has on hunters and sewers and really get that discussion going and cross-generational discussion," he said.

Klengenberg said while there are many aspects of the project, teaching residents traditional skills is key to preserving their way of life.

"It's important because it's part of our culture, it's part of our heritage that we live off the land," she said. "We live off the animals that are there for us to use in a respectful and responsible manner. It's always been that way with our culture."

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