A U of G grad is among a team of researchers who received a 2021 Governor General’s Innovation Award for including traditional Inuit voices in discussions of new shipping routes being planned for Canada’s North.
As the project’s community research lead since early 2016, Dr. Natalie Carter, PhD ’15, Dip. ’98, has paid repeated visits northward to help involve 14 Inuit communities from northern Quebec to the Northwest Territories in the discussion and to train local youth in community research methods.
Working with community members and local organizations, she aims to meld traditional Inuit knowledge with western science to inform development of shipping routes that avoid disrupting sensitive environmental areas and longstanding cultural traditions.
“Shipping traffic in the Arctic has more than doubled since 1990,” says Carter. “Ottawa is creating low-impact shipping corridors to focus resources and to make a safer environment for ships and, at the same time, to respect the local environment and ecology and local cultures.”
The project, called Arctic Corridors and Northern Voices, was among six Canadian initiatives to receive the Governor General’s award this spring.
Carter received the honour along with project lead Dr. Jackie Dawson, Canada Research Chair in Environment, Science and Policy at the University of Ottawa; Natasha Simonee, a researcher in Pond Inlet, Nunavut; and Shirley Tagalik, a long-time educator in Arviat, Nunavut.
The U of G grad is a research associate at both the University of Ottawa and McMaster University.
The team has developed a comprehensive database of shipping traffic through the Canadian Arctic since 1990 and made recommendations for locating shipping corridors based on discussions with communities ranging from Nunavik in northern Quebec, through Nunavut, to the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Western Arctic.
The group has shared that information with Ottawa as the federal government looks to define routes – likely to be authorized in one or two years — that will lessen impacts on the environment and on local Inuit cultural practices such as hunting and fishing.
In a story about the innovation award in the Nunatsiaq News in Nunavut, Carter said community members worry about effects of ecosystem contamination and loss of wildlife habitats on traditional food sources.
So far, the project has been used to map out boundaries for a marine protected area near Ellesmere Island and to help develop management plans for another protected area. As well, their work has fed into advisories to mariners about avoiding key areas during caribou migration, and for community discussions involving mining and shipping companies in Coral Harbour in Nunavut.
Carter has visited eight of the communities for three-week stints, ranging from Iqaluit with almost 8,000 people to the hamlet of Resolute (population about 200). Typically, her visits take place from November to March or April, when fewer residents are on the land.
Describing herself as a “conduit,” Carter says she draws upon earlier experiences as a U of G grad student. Along with population medicine professor Dr. Cate Dewey, now associate vice-president (academic), she worked on ways to improve livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Kenya and Uganda.
Comparing that East African research with the Arctic project, she says, “I’m working cross-culturally in both instances, addressing topics combining Indigenous knowledge with western science.
“I realized my skills could empower people in the Arctic to change their own livelihoods. I’m not doing research for the sake of doing research but to have a real-world impact and enable others to make a difference in their own lives.”
Carter hopes to head north again in the fall.
“Every time is an adventure and at the same time, it’s so humbling,” she says. “It’s like having a backstage pass into a part of the country that most people never get to go to.”