Blending science and tradition in the Arctic

Published in Indian Country Today in 2005. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Nunavik, the Arctic portion of Quebec, is changing. Fast. The existence of climate change is not debatable here. “The North is a very different world now,” said Pita Aatami, president of Makivik Corporation, which administers the benefits of a 1975 Inuit land claim from offices in the regions capital, Kuujjuaq. “We have no winter until December, whereas we used to begin driving our skidoos in October; and the sea ice melts earlier in the spring, so polar bears are coming inland in May instead of late June or July.”

Other new challenges include airborne pollutants riding the winds from industrial parts of the world, mining activities that may cause local contamination, and a growing population. In the face of these transformations, the Inuit of Nunavik are using all means available — traditional and modern — to make informed choices and protect their 14 villages, which range in size from 280 to 2,000 residents and are located mostly along the Ungava Bay and Hudson Bay coasts.

One important tool is the Nunavik Research Centre, established in 1978 to monitor wildlife populations and ensure optimal harvesting levels for the traditional subsistence hunts. “The most healthy population has individuals distributed among all age classes,” explained wildlife technician Peter May (Inuk), who has worked for the lab since 1983.

“It’s important that the Inuit have that data,” added toxicologist Michael Kwan, who is one of the center’s four scientists, shown at top. “They need it for the sake of their own health and that of the region, and also for negotiating with the government in regard to hunting and fishing quotas. If we have our own studies, we know the actual situation instead of having to accept the word of other scientists.”

Having scientists on the Inuit payroll was vital to Nunavik’s elders, who had noted that researchers would arrive in the region, collect data, and disappear without telling local inhabitants what they’d found. Aware that in a rapidly changing environment the information gathered would likely be significant, the elders advised Makivik Corporation to put cutting-edge science and traditional knowledge to work for the people.

Nowadays, the communities convey all sorts of questions to the Nunavik Research Centre. The concerns are expressed first to the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, which is responsible for public health; it then turns them over to the research center. Under the supervision of director Bill Doidge, a marine mammologist, the lab’s staff devises studies, often in collaboration with Health Canada, Environment Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The results go back to the health board, which in turn — as the elders directed — makes recommendations to the communities. 

“Recently, we got a call from people who had found dozens of dead eider ducks,” said May, who is one of four technicians at the lab. “It turned out that the birds had contracted avian cholera. We paid for people to return to the site in canoes, burn any carcasses, and clean up the area.”

In another case, a village asked that water, snow, and soil from around a nearby mining site be analyzed for pollutants. “We found that the mining company had, in fact, done a good job with its environmental monitoring,” said Kwan.

Safety of the local food supply is a new issue. Surprisingly high pollution levels have been discovered in the circumpolar region; this occurs in the seemingly pristine territory because volatile materials such as mercury, PCBs, brominated flame retardants, and aerosol pesticides are carried on the wind from other areas and plummet to earth when they condense in the Arctic cold. As a result, the Inuit worried that “country food” — the traditional fare they have hunted, fished, and eaten for thousands of years — had become contaminated.

To see whether the concern was warranted, the research center hired Kwan in 1996 to run a toxicology lab — the first one in the eastern Arctic — and expand the organization’s portfolio to include food-safety studies. Kwan looks for the presence of heavy metals. Wildlife parasitologist Manon Simard was hired in 2003 to take over ongoing research into diseases such as trichinellosis and toxoplasmosis, which may pass from animals to humans.

We found that levels of contaminants here are very low, though we did recommend continued monitoring, as levels of mercury and other pollutants are definitely rising in the Arctic,” said Kwan. “We also confirmed that country food is good for you — with high-quality protein and plenty of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, including omega-three fatty acids in the marine mammals and fish. In contrast, store-bought foods may have fewer nutrition benefits and their own contaminants, such as hormones and pesticides. We then worked with the health board to produce educational materials that explain this in non-technical terms.”

Lining the lab’s walls are examples of informational posters — on mercury, on botulism-free ways to ferment walrus meat, and more — that take the scientists’ work back to the people in English and Inuttitut.

Community members take part in the research center’s projects. Kwan explained: “If we want beluga samples, for instance, we contact local hunting and fishing associations and send kits with labeled bags, measuring tape, writing instruments, and instructions: everything the hunters need to collect the samples. Depending on the project, they’ll be paid about $60 for measurements of an animal and a set of tissues, such as meat, blubber, and liver.”

Simard has accompanied hunters to Sleeper’s Island in Hudson Bay, where a higher proportion of walruses appear to be infected with trichinellosis than is the norm in Nunavik. Trichinellosis is caused by a worm that’s related to the one found in pork. It can be killed by cooking meat well; however, the Inuit consider raw or fermented walrus a delicacy, and communities that habitually hunt in this area may find that half of the walruses they harvest are infected and can only be eaten cooked.

During the trip, Simards job was to see if an existing scientific field test for trichinellosis worked. She was testing the test, as it were. If it was reliable, the hunters could use it to check the walruses while out on the land. They wouldn’t have to send a sample of the animal — ordinarily the tongue — to the Nunavik Research Centre to be analyzed.

Unfortunately, the test was not accurate, so Simard will next evaluate the reliability of traditional means of determining whether walruses are sick (including the presence of yellowed skin and extra-long tusks). She’ll also look at the lifecycle of the disease and the management of the hunt to see what can be done to control the disease. 

“In projects like these, the whole community is involved: the hunters, their associations, the health board, the research center,” said Simard. “There’s a lot of collaboration and talking to each other. It works, and that’s important.”

Text and photos c. Stephanie Woodard.

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