Scientists, artists team up with Indigenous communities in fight against climate change

Forty years ago, Margaret Ireland’s father noticed something only the trained eye could see: the shapes of pine needles around the community of Jean Marie River in the Northwest Territories were changing.

Forty years ago, Margaret Ireland’s father noticed something only the trained eye could see: the shapes of pine needles around the community of Jean Marie River in the Northwest Territories were changing.

So were the fish the residents ate: the flesh was less firm and tasted different.

As years passed the changes observed by the residents of the small First Nation community on the Mackenzie River became more pronounced.

These days thawing permafrost sends trees tumbling over because the roots are unstable.

The ground doesn’t fully freeze before snow covers it, insulating it for the rest of winter, Ireland said.

Climate change isn’t just threatening traditional ways of life, it’s threatening people’s lives.

A couple of years ago one of Ireland’s brothers was snowmobiling on a frozen lake when he fell through the ice. An exceptionally warm winter that year meant the lake didn’t freeze as thick as it used to.

As elders grew more concerned about the changes they were seeing, Ireland, Jean Marie River First Nation’s resource management coordinator, began to research climate changes.

Around the same time, Graham Strickert, a University of Saskatchewan professor, was working on ways to engage communities on issues of water security and natural hazards.

So it made sense when Yukon College’s Northern Climate ExChange called him. They wanted to pair scientists with students from the Yukon School of Visual Arts (SOVA).

The goal: using recorded interviews with elders to find out how climate change disrupts traditional lifestyles and looking at ways the communities could adapt.

The idea is to make climate change research available in a way local Indigenous communities can use.

“What we realized is that the traditional approach to research communication in terms of building a report at the end of a project doesn’t connect with people very well,” Strickert said.

“We recognize we have to engage people in different ways, connecting not just to the cognitive and rational (sides) but the emotional side (too).”

So last spring during breakup, Strickert, Fabrice Calmels — a Yukon College researcher — and two SOVA students went to Jean Marie River, while SOVA director Curtis Collins, researcher Alison Perrin and two other SOVA students went to Old Crow.

“A lot of it was pinned down in conversations around coffee with people in the community,” Strickert said. Sitting on the banks of the Mackenzie River, Strickert met with Chief Gladys Norwegian and elders who still practice a traditional lifestyle.

In Old Crow, Collins learned how climate change affected caribou migration patterns, but also how it has much more immediate effects, like flooding the community graveyard.

Both communities welcomed the teams with open arms, Strickert said.

In Old Crow the students, one from Vancouver and the other from Toronto, got to eat caribou every day.

“It was quite a special occasion for them,” Collins said.

The sentiment was shared by the community.

“One of my brothers was just amazed by the interest of the young people,” Ireland said.

“His English was limited (but) he was able to talk with the students that came.”

The SOVA students also ran a workshop for local children.

“It’s making sure that anytime you visit you’re bringing something to the community, not just extracting information out of the community,” Strickert said.

This cross-disciplinary approach is increasingly common, Collins said.

Being in the communities during the river breakup was one experience the scientists and students won’t forget.

“The entire village goes to the river to watch it,” said Collins.

But climate change half-ruined the party.

“Normally you’d have those big ice floes piling up and releasing which can be quite a dramatic thing to see,” Strickert said. “What we saw was more of a slow flow of chunks of ice for four days until the river was more or less clear.”

The art component was also helpful to the scientists. Strickert said science can be great for pointing out problems — but it can’t always imagine solutions to those problems.

“The social science adds clarity around the priorities once those solutions are created,” he said. “By transforming the biophysical science into artistic expression it gives us creative space to think about ideas that haven’t been thought about.”

The people of communities like Jean Marie River want their stories to be told. These northern communities don’t only provide insight into what climate change will look like for southern cities in several years. They provide a way to better appreciate how humans affect the environment.

“Cities depend on an influx of resources. Bringing resources into cities has consequences for the natural world,” Strickert said.

In the meantime, people in Jean Marie River have already started to adapt their lives to the reality of climate change. When hunting or trapping, residents will go out in pairs to stay safe.

That’s what saved Ireland’s brother when he fell through the ice with his skidoo.

He was travelling with another brother who started a fire and kept him warm before going back to the community.

“People have to change,” Ireland said. “Our people are used to adapting to changes in the environment.”

The SOVA students have since graduated and gone home. But they’re still working on the project — they have hours of interviews to sift through.

Eventually the goal is to have a website with the interviews, Collins said, which will require going back to the communities to present the finished product.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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