Memorial and Innu Nation join forces for research

By Sonia B. Glover

Biophysical and environmental research in Labrador and adjacent parts of Quebec were hot topics at a recent two-day workshop co-hosted by Memorial University and the Innu Nation of Newfoundland and Labrador.

It was the first time the university and the Innu joined forces to organize such an initiative, called Biophysical Research and Knowledge Network Workshop, bringing together a variety of groups interested in research and development in Labrador, including scientists, aboriginal organizations, government, and private industry.

Besides this province, the more than 50 participants were from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec. The workshop, held at Memorial's St. John's campus, focused on how to generate environmental baseline data that can help create a better understanding of the Labrador-Quebec ecosystem. The workshop also promoted a more effective means of sharing environmental research data and analysis, as well, participants discussed ways of overcoming barriers for environmental research in the area.

Peter Armitage, consultant for the Innu Nation of Newfoundland and Labrador and co-chair of the science workshop, said there are many gaps in our knowledge about the environment and biological systems in Labrador and adjacent parts of Quebec. He said the workshop attempted to identify these gaps and discuss ways of filling them -- by sharing databases.

"We found that many researchers didn't know what was going on in other related research areas… or there were government agencies that didn't know that another government department had data that might be of use to them in their research. So we wanted to find ways to foster a more co-operative approach to data sharing and to talk about various ethical issues around data sharing," said Mr. Armitage.

He said one way that information sharing will take place is on the Internet through a new web site called LInKS - Labrador Integrated Knowledge System.

"The main thing that came out of this workshop was a commitment to set up LInKS, which will be an Internet-based way of sharing data.  The LInKS will facilitate exchange of information. It's going to let people know what kind of research is going on out there, what research has been done in the past, where they can go to get more information and the research methods that were used to generate data and results," he explained.

Mr. Armitage said that eventually anybody with Internet access will be able to tap into the LInKS network and get different types of data. "This is good because we could have schools in Nain or Makkovik, Labrador accessing this information. Some of the data will be very complex and may only be of real use to researchers working in particular areas, but hopefully there will be data that is more accessible to the general public. Of course, you will also have data that is confidential and you will have to get permission of the owner in order to access it."

Dr. Derek Wilton, Memorial science professor and workshop co-host, said a joint venture of this kind was long overdue, adding the university was delighted to take part in the workshop.

"I think this workshop and the introduction of LInKS will prove to be very beneficial to the university…and to any user group or stakeholder with developmental concerns,"  said Dr. Wilton.

"The Innu Nation for example, they obviously want to have information in their area of land claims negotiations because they can't generate that kind of data.  The government generates data on forest and animals and so on, so for the Innu to be able to talk about land use and potential land claims negotiations they'd have to know stuff like this. And  on the other side, the government needs to know about various data so they can negotiate with the Aboriginal groups."

He added: "This workshop brought together a range of scientists, from geologists to people who study birds to people who deal with the climate. As scientists we would try to link the different data bases together and try to see what kind of connections there are within the ecosystem."

Dr. Wilton, who is also chair of the Liaison Committee for the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, said the workshop is one sign that the research potential in Labrador is finally being recognized and respected.

"I feel that from this workshop we could perhaps see the beginnings of some great adventure for the university. There's so many things taking place up there and about to take place.  It is a scientist's paradise in terms of unanswered questions and I guess that is what we do, we find questions and try and answer them.," he told the Gazette.

Memorial's acting dean of science, Dr. Willie Davidson agrees. He said this is a time when a lot of information about Labrador is available and therefore very timely for Memorial to have a bigger presence in Labrador.

"The recent naming of a new director for the Labrador Institute now gives the university a full-time presence in Labrador and also with the new low-level flying institute set up in Labrador…there are golden opportunities for us. This institute has a hefty budget to look at the impact of low-level flying on wildlife and the environment and I am hoping that this initiative allows us to put together packages which will help expand Memorial's presence in Labrador,"  said Dr. Davidson.

He said the university recognized this workshop as an opportunity for faculty members to become more informed and potentially involved in more research in Labrador, which he stressed is a very expensive venture.

"The whole idea of the workshop was to bring all parties together because everybody had been working independently. And that was one of the best things that came out of this, that all parties were brought together. The low-level flying institute was there and we took advantage of this opportunity to make contacts that will help us do what we've always wanted to do - carry out research in Labrador."

Mr. Armitage, meanwhile, said Memorial's participation in the workshop was very encouraging and he is pleased that the university is interested in continuing or developing research in Labrador.

"This important effort helps position Memorial University better in terms of research in Labrador. I was concerned that the university was missing the boat with respect to environmental or biological research. I knew the university had the intellectual resources and I believe this workshop helped to better identify those resources and what the university has to offer," Mr. Armitage told the  Gazette.
 

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