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A big presence in the Big Land

Photo By Dave Sorensen

By Emilie Bourque Whittle

"Labrador is beautiful and welcoming. Words of wisdom: wear warm clothes. Come with an open mind."

That's what comes to mind for Dr. Rebecca Schiff when asked about her experience in Labrador. She moved there from Regina last May, when she was offered a newly-created faculty position in Aboriginal health within the Faculty of Medicine. She's based at the Labrador Institute (LI) of Memorial University, in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Dr. Schiff is just one of the many Memorial faculty and staff living, working and researching in Labrador, experiencing a world of culture and opportunity only this unique, northern region can offer.

You may have heard of the Labrador Institute before. You may even know of some of the projects happening there or some of the people working and researching there. But few in Newfoundland and beyond know the real scope of Memorial's presence in Labrador. And, right now, it's a rapidly growing one.
Recognizing its special obligation to the citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador – as declared in Memorial University's mission statement — is and has always been one of the university's guiding principles since its inception in 1925. And today, meeting the needs of the province remains high on the list of Memorial's priorities.

"Needs of the province," of course, must address the needs of both Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Dr. Keith Chaulk

No one knows how vital funding is in addressing those needs better than the director of the Labrador Institute, Dr. Keith Chaulk.

"It's part of the university's strategic plan to meet the needs of the people of the province. Labrador is part of the province and we feel that, therefore, the university should have a more permanent presence there to meet that obligation," he said in a recent interview with the Gazette.

Dr. Chaulk said he had an opportunity to show the then-new president of Memorial, Dr. Gary Kachanoski, exactly what his vision was during a visit the president made to Labrador in 2010.

Then, during Expo Labrador in June 2011, the president made an announcement: the Labrador Institute's operating budget would be significantly increased.

The news means great things for LI. Dr. Chaulk says there will be heavy emphasis on research in the area of natural resources, but particular needs in areas like the humanities, arts and the social economy will also be recognized and addressed.

He is also excited about the new direction the institute can take with increased funding and, therefore, an increased presence in the region.

"The Labrador Institute has been given an opportunity here," he said. "We've received input over the last number of years from Aboriginal groups, community, industry, as well as the university. We're in a unique position to be the lens that focuses that input."

Martha MacDonald and Jennifer Butler

Jacks of all trades
Martha MacDonald, LI's associate director, first went to Labrador in 1988 when her husband got a job at the College of the North Atlantic, which is co-located with the Labrador Institute. They've lived in Happy Valley-Goose Bay ever since.
"We are very involved in the arts community here and have found it a wonderful place to bring up our children," she said.

Like many people who work at the Labrador Institute, Ms. MacDonald plays many roles. She's been part of the group organizing Memorial's Nunatsiavut bachelor of social work program, co-ordinating the non-social work courses.

"I also enjoyed organizing the Labrador Explorations symposium, which was part of the celebrations for the centenary of Mina Hubbard's journey from North West River to Ungava Bay," she said. "We recently published a book called Very Rough Country: Proceedings of the Labrador Explorations Symposium which contains the papers from that conference."

Most recently, Ms. MacDonald led a collaborative process which resulted in the publishing of The Polar Bear in the Rock, a children's book that combines a traditional Inuit legend with a geological explanation of why you can see a polar bear on Mount Sophie in Nain.

LI and beyond
The Polar Bear in the Rock is just one example of the collaboration-based strategy at work at the Labrador Institute – within the institute itself, with local community members and with Memorial personnel.

"The Faculty of Medicine was first to put a faculty position in Labrador," said Dr. Chaulk. "There's a program run out of the hospital by Dr. Michael Jong called NorFam and is used as an example, Canada-wide, for the training of rural family medicine practitioners."

Dr. Chaulk says while the Faculty of Medicine stands out as a precedent-setting example, many other Memorial schools and faculties have had their share of involvement in the Big Land.

"The Marine Institute does quite a lot there in terms of contract and industrial training," he said. "The Division of Lifelong Learning has been active and looking to become more active in terms of their continuing education opportunities."
Beyond the presence of a variety of Memorial units, individuals are making their marks, too.

Dr. Lisa Rankin, acting dean of the Faculty of Arts and an associate professor of archaeology at Memorial, is in the fourth year of a five year Community-University Research Alliance funded project. A large part of her research will eventually see the history and culture of the Southern Inuit of Labrador incorporated into K-12 school textbooks.

Dr. Douglas Wharram teaches in the Department of Linguistics on the St. John's campus and also co-teaches during intersession at LI. Dr. Wharram is one of the few experts in the world on Labrador dialects. Some of his current work focuses on documenting a dialect in danger of being lost forever, Rigolet Inuktut, now only being spoken by the three elders who still know it.

Memorial graduate students are also focusing their energies up north. PhD student Nathaniel Pollock is working with the Innu Nation and the Nunatsiavut Government to do research on the risk and protective factors related to suicide in Labrador. The initial work is funded by startup grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research. Nathaniel is working on this project with Labrador-Grenfell Health, the Labrador Institute, the Division of Community Health and Humanities, and the School of Social Work.

Dr. Tom Gordon

Culturally diverse
Dr. Tom Gordon, director of the School of Music at Memorial from 2000-10, is another researcher who has embarked on numerous trips to Labrador with a mission to explore.

"Labrador first fired my imagination in 1974 when a musician friend of mine in Toronto returned from a trip to Nain with stories of Inuit choirs and orchestras playing Baroque music in a true Baroque style," said Dr. Gordon. "I took the first opportunity I had to travel to Nain, Hopedale and Makkovik to hear for myself. What followed was now close to a decade of growing to know the richness of the Inuit culture in Labrador."

He says one of the surprising takeaways from his time in Labrador is the realization that, with its tiny population of only about 30,000 – about one-sixth of the population of the province – Labrador is one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet.

"The settler Labrador mingles with Inuit Labrador as it has for hundreds of years; Innu Labrador is in a dynamic stage of collaboration with industrial Labrador; and Goose Bay's surprisingly European culture is completely at home with the NunatuKavut Metis who inhabit the same community," Dr. Gordon said. "The individual cultures of Labrador are distinct, but there is a sophistication in their cohabitation that is almost surprising against the backdrop of the immense wilderness of the Big Land."

Why Labrador?
Dr. Gordon feels it is important Memorial's presence in Labrador grows.
"We are a double-barrelled province and Memorial has a responsibility to support the aspirations and needs of Labrador and Labradorians every bit as much as it does for Newfoundlanders."

But even more to the point, he says, Memorial University has a great deal to learn from the people of Labrador – people who have maintained a deep relationship with their challenging land for generations beyond memory.

He's not alone in this sentiment. Scott Neilsen is a Memorial PhD candidate and the program co-ordinator for the new LI research station in North West River on the shore of Lake Melville. He says Memorial is better positioned than any other institution to conduct research in Labrador.

"In the past there have been great individual efforts, but since the new president came on, I feel as though there is a new institutional focus on Labrador," said Mr. Neilsen. "This will open many, many new opportunities involve Labradorians and the local communities in undertaking research."

Ms. MacDonald says she remains fascinated by the history of Labrador, and that, as a place to live, there are always opportunities for interesting work. Often, she says, many talented people "see short-term contracts turn into long-term jobs."
She also thinks it's important for more of Memorial's faculty to spend time in Labrador.

"You can't really get a sense of the place otherwise, the sheer size, the scenery, the vast differences in culture and history from the island of Newfoundland. I find that once people have been here they want to come back."

Dr. Schiff agrees. As the sole university in the province she says it is "critical" that researchers and other university representatives spend time in Labrador to gain a true understanding of its life and culture.

"It adds value, depth, and respect to research, teaching and all other university-related activities," she said.

With two facilities in Goose Bay, one staff member in Labrador City and now part-time staff in North West River, Memorial's presence in Labrador is becoming increasingly felt. And with the new funding underway, Dr. Chaulk is hoping to put in place at least four new faculty members at LI.

"We've been told by different think tanks based in Nova Scotia that Labrador leads Atlantic Canada in GDP growth. I think this new funding is going to elevate the Labrador Institute to a whole new level."