York profs report back to Arctic communities

For two weeks in January, two York professors bundled into parkas and flew to Arctic villages along the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline. They were delivering valuable cargo – the results of their International Polar Year (IPY) research.

Reporting back to the communities was a condition of receiving IPY research funding in 2007, and after three years ecologist Dawn Bazely and political scientist Gabrielle Slowey were ready to deliver. When the two arrived by bush plane, citizens in Fort Simpson and Inuvik crowded into local meeting halls to hear them. Some had helped do the research, all were curious to hear the results.

Right: Dawn Bazely in a plane back to Yellowknife from Fort Simpson

“They were never going to read a report. They need to hear things orally,” says Bazely, director of York’s Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability.

Bazely led the Canadian component of an IPY project called Gas, Arctic Peoples & Security (GAPS), investigating the effect of oil and gas development on northern communities. She oversaw teams of natural and social scientists investigating invasive plant species, housing security and homelessness, mental health services and the advantages of self-governance in indigenous communities in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

“What was really unique about our program was no other had natural and social scientists working so closely in tandem from the beginning,” said Slowey. Oil and gas was the context, human security or the well-being of these communities was the framework. The collaboration worked really well and achieved real results, she said.

Above: Gabrielle Slowey in front of the igloo church, Our Lady of Victory, an Inuvik landmark

Normally, denizens of these northern communities pay little heed as scientists from the south come and go, and never return to share their findings, says Bazely. This time they were all ears. The research offers them a glimpse of what is in store for them and ways they can deal with change. “It’s empowering,” she says.

Slowey agrees. “We’re not just taking knowledge away, we’re giving it back and helping them.” She also presented her findings in Whitehorse.

For the past three years, Slowey has been comparing the ability of self-governing versus non-self-governing indigenous communities to cope with change wrought by oil and gas development and exploration. After surveying residents, community leaders and industry  officials, she found self-governing communities, such as Old Crow, have more control over what happens to them. They can make their own decisions and negotiate directly with the territorial government over oil and gas development. Non-self-governing communities such as Tuktoyaktuk must deal with multiple levels of government to get anything done. “Self-government removes all those layers and gives more local empowerment.”

Left: Gabrielle Slowey

After her presentations in Whitehorse and Inuvik, people in communities such as Pelee Crossing, Yukon, and Sachs Harbour, Northwest Territories (NWT), sought Slowey’s advice on how to proceed given mining exploration or oil exploration occurring in their area. “I highlighted not just onshore but offshore oil and gas development. It’s going to be huge.”

Folks in the NWT were also curious about the potential impact of devolution (downloading of jurisdiction from Ottawa to the territories) on their self-government agreements and future development. It’s a hot topic in the North and Slowey has pointed out in newspaper editorials how Ottawa bureaucrats are ill-prepared to make decisions about the North because they have no understanding of what life is like for the people who live there.

Moreover, she says, “we tend to think of people in the North as victims of policy instead of agents of change. I’m telling them they’re on the right track by pursuing self-government.” Do it now, she’s saying, before the territorial government embraces devolution. Yet it’s not so easy, as local indigenous leaders scramble to keep up as Ottawa keeps changing the rules of the game.

Over the past three years, Bazely and her students have looked for evidence of invasive plant species in settlements from Fort Simpson, gateway to the Nahanni and home of the caribou, north to Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope and Inuvik. Oil and gas exploration and development has brought outsiders to the area and with them a foreign fungus that has infected the grass that caribou eat. Not good news for people whose diet depends on caribou meat. Bazely advised communities to revegetate the ground along the pipelines and roads with local seeds, not imported seeds. Doing so could lead to local – and sustainable – business opportunities, she told Northern News Services in Fort Simpson.

Above: The frozen Mackenzie River

The GAPS research projects will be published in peer-reviewed academic journals, presented at conferences and spawn graduate theses, says Bazely. But the best value, she believes, comes from sharing it directly with local policy-makers and citizens.

By March, IPY research will be completed and next year the results will be shared at a Montreal conference, From Knowledge to Action.

Bazely is editing a book, Environmental Change and Human Security in the Arctic, to which Slowey is contributing a chapter. By this fall, Slowey expects to finish editing a book, Rethinking Public Policy in the Northwest Territories, highlighting each of the Canadian GAPS subprojects.

The biologist and political scientist have embraced the IPY imperative to report back to the communities. They plan to share their IPY research findings with indigenous groups in northern Ontario and local groups in Pennsylvania, who are faced with shale-gas development.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributor