Inuvialuit, Gwich’in land users document land changes

Inuvialuit, Gwich’in land users document land changes
Trevor Lantz explains his research techniques to a crowded room of students and community members at Aurora College’s Thebacha campus last week.Photo: Jessica Dutton.

A research project from the University of Victoria is using photography and videography to document land user knowledge of environmental change with the aim of expanding scientific knowledge beyond the laboratory.

Trevor Lantz, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria, is the lead behind an environmental monitoring project, which gathers interviews, photos and videos from land users to document environmental change in the North.

The project, he said, allows scientists to more efficiently direct their research efforts.

“If everyone in the Aklavik area, for example, is talking about one thing that is both concerning to them as a community, but also something that is really unusual and quite abnormal from an environmental perspective, then that message comes through really clearly through this program,” Lantz told The Journal. “As a scientist, it helps guide where we put our limited resources and effort.”

Lantz informally began working with land users in 2008-2009 when his research on environmental change led him to connect with Northern community members as guides and collaborators.

When Lantz and his team first heard accounts of the 1999 storm surge that flooded the Mackenzie Delta and Yukon North Slope from those in Inuvik and Aklavik, he realized there was a disconnect between scientific knowledge and land user knowledge.

“Lots of people were on the land when it happened. Some people had to be evacuated; people who had camps out there saw the effects of it first hand. They watched the vegetation die when they were at their camps the next spring, but it was kind of off the radar of scientists and decision makers,” he said.

“At the end of it we realized that what had happened here was a really big deal and it had largely fallen between the cracks in terms of being documented beyond the local community’s knowledge of it.”

Lantz led his research team to begin formalizing a method by which the community could document their first hand knowledge of environmental changes and share it with scientists.

A monitoring program was later developed in participation with government and organizations in the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in settlement regions, including the Inuvialuit Joint Secretariat, the Gwich’in Tribal Council, the Mackenzie Delta Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

The monitoring program has thus far collected photos and recordings from 52 local experts at more than 270 locations over the past three years.

“People often focus on the cultural changes of the landscape and what those changes mean for the cultural significance, talking about things like place names, family traditions and stories about the land. It takes it in a dimension that often resource management and science doesn’t really go and it’s a really important aspect to think about,” Lantz said.

A recent addition to the program has land users signing out cameras to document their day-to-day impressions on the changing environment.

Research techniques shared in Fort Smith

Lantz was in Fort Smith last week to share his research techniques at Aurora College’s Thebacha campus, with about 70 people crowding in for his presentation.

Sarah Rosolen, manager of the Aurora Research Institute, which organized Lantz’s visit, said she hopes research in the form of photo and video documentation by land users catches on in other communities like Fort Smith.

The research could be used to study areas of cultural importance and environmental change, she said.

“Some of the benefits that (Lantz) was suggesting is you are getting the full story when you do those interviews and when you go out on the land with people. You’re not just taking the information that you want; you are taking it all and if you really listen to it, it can inform where you go,” she said.

“These people are on the land and they are experts on the environment. They have a lot of knowledge there and if you listen to it, your research as a Western scientist can be so much more informed.”

Rosolen said she hopes to continue working with Lantz towards cultivating land-user research in the community, particularly in the school system, but it ultimately depends on the level of local interest.

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