Research subject to self government

Northern science used to treat Arctic aboriginal people as specimens to be studied, just the same as caribou and polar bears, says Bob Van Dijken. Now, First Nations are telling the scientists what to look at.

Northern science used to treat Arctic aboriginal people as specimens to be studied, just the same as caribou and polar bears, says Bob Van Dijken.

Now, First Nations are telling the scientists what to look at.

The International Polar Year is a study of the Arctic. It has happened approximately every 50 years since the 1880s in most circumpolar nations, including Russia, Norway, Canada and the United States.

The fourth started in 2007 and still has a few projects to complete.

It could be the last.

“It’s over,” says Van Dijken, the Yukon International Polar Year co-ordinator.

The International Polar Year is out of money and securing support for a fifth round doesn’t look good, Van Dijken says.

But in Old Crow, the hope is to leave the community with tools they need to keep doing important scientific monitoring, says Van Dijken,

This is not an obligation of the researchers, but after working and living with people in Old Crow for the last few summers, they have made it a priority.

The numerous projects in the small, isolated community of Vuntut Gwitch’in are on the forefront of the change that has happened in northern research, says Van Dijken.

It has largely been unheard of to have the community point out areas of priority and actually sit down to write the proposals for the projects together with the researchers, he says.

“They were always considered part of the landscape,” Van Dijken says of northerners in past IPY projects.

But that community-driven instruction and collaboration is exactly what happened in Old Crow.

“It’s a generational change,” says former Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nation chief Joe Linklater, adding the change has happened on both sides: researchers who are starting to recognize what northerners can bring to their studies and enthusiastic First Nation youth who want to find answers.

Many of the most recent IPY projects in Old Crow focus around climate change and the effects it has on the Vuntut’s traditional territory and way of life.

They cover things from tree rings that prove the drastic disparities in climate, to the desperate search for answers about why lakes in the Old Crow Flats have started to dry up and disappear.

However, there was one project in the remote community that did focus its research on the people themselves.

Old Crow was compared to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, by Gabrielle Slowey, a political science professor from York University. The goal was to examine the differences between a northern community engulfed by the oil and gas industry to one that has largely refused exploration.

But the result turned into a comparison of the wellbeing of the people of a self-governing First Nation versus a non self-governing First Nation in the North.

Self government is necessary for a healthy North, her findings show.

Going even further, Ottawa needs to change its priority of Arctic sovereignty to human security which, she argues, goes hand in hand with self governance.

Human security is a term Slowey champions, despite letters from the Prime Minister’s Office telling her to stop, she says.

“There is no precise definition of human security,” she says. “Just like there is no precise definition of self government. It depends on the community and their needs.”

In essence, human security means the wellbeing of the people. Are they fed, housed and happy? And how well can they sustain this lifestyle?

As an abrupt end of a discussion with Linklater at a conference down south, Slowey was invited to visit Yukon’s northernmost community to “see for herself,” she says.

Those visits changed the project’s focus, she says.

The Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nation’s land management is more environmentally sustainable and respectful of the natural world, she says.

Its sustainability is directly related to its ability to make the decisions and control its own development.

She presented her findings at an IPY workshop in Whitehorse on Tuesday.

She was flying from Whitehorse to Yellowknife Wednesday morning to give her input on the current devolution negotiations in the NWT.

“Get self government in place and then have devolution,” she says. “Otherwise, they’re just going to turn the battle from First Nations to the federal government to battles between to the territorial government and the communities.”

And with First Nations recognized as a government, they are less plagued by the paternalistic ignorance from Ottawa.

“I think the best thing that any federal, provincial or territorial government can do when it comes to making decisions in the north is ask northerners, ‘What do you think we should do?’” says Linklater. “I wouldn’t want to hand over the future of my young people to somebody who lives in Ottawa who doesn’t really give a shit about us. There’s no impact on them. Five o’clock they go home. We’re living with the decisions they make. At the end of the day, the person who makes the decision goes to sleep in the Yukon. They live with it 24/7. And, at the end of the day, we’re way further ahead and I think we are envied by a big part of the country for what we’ve accomplished in the Yukon.”

The criticisms of self-governing First Nations are widespread.

Insufficient capacity, lack of resources, cronyism, corruption – the list goes on. And Slowey adds to it, rolling her eyes.

“These are new governments, they are junior, they are learning the ropes and they are all stumbling out of the starting block. They have to be allowed to fail, to learn,” she says. “Have you been in downtown Toronto? We all have alcoholics. We have very corrupt political leaders. None of our leaders are immune from scandal, and yet we expect these aboriginal communities to be these perfect microcosms of government and that’s unfair.”

Unless the critique is constructive, it has no place – no matter who is footing the bill, she says, noting if Canadians actually calculated the royalties owed to First Nations for developing resources, “it’s a small chuck of change,” she says.

If you go back to the original agreements and establishment of Indian and Northern Affairs, the Crown of England recognized First Nations as the owners of the land, Linklater says.

They called themselves the trustees. Self-governance is really just First Nations taking back over that responsibility, he says.

We have become much healthier since we’ve taken back control of our land and ourselves, he adds, pointing out real failure exists in the pockets of reserve land Ottawa created.

“It’s not like you have to grow up in Southern Canada in order to be able to govern. We’ve been governing as Gwitch’in ourselves for over 30,000 years and nothing has changed,” says Linklater. “Why do we have to prove ourselves?”

Findings from 19 researchers, conducting 14 different projects in Yukon were presented to more than 160 people in Whitehorse this week.

They will also be included in a large, international conference in April 2012.

The conference is being called Knowledge to Action, and will represent the end of the International Polar Year.

Looking to the future, Van Dijken looks to Old Crow.

“While it is ending I think we’re seeing glimmers of hope,” he says. “In designing things so communities can continue this work.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at