Award winning documentary has roots at Memorial

Jan 8th, 2013

Kelly Foss

Dr. Joel Heath
Award winning documentary has roots at Memorial

When Joel Heath moved to Sanikiluaq, Nunavut to study the effects of climate change on Arctic sea ice ecology for his PhD, he had no idea that his work would ultimate lead him to create an award-winning documentary, or that it would have anything to do with hydroelectric projects.

As co-writer, cinematographer, director and producer of People of a Feather, Dr. Heath used time-lapse photography and an underwater camera to follow the movements of birds and ice over a period of 11 years, and compiled a stunning story of the vital role of the eider duck to the 800 residents of Sanikiluaq, a community located on one of the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay.

‘Because there was no caribou they switched to using birds, in particular the eider duck, for their clothing and food,” he said. “So the story of the eider ties together the story of the Inuit with recreations from 100 years ago and modern life in the community.”

The film also outlines how the region’s hydroelectric projects threaten not only the eider duck, but also the Inuit way of life. Spring run off from the rivers, which is held behind dams, is released into the bays in the winter months to meet energy demands.

“They’re effectively reversing the seasons of the hydrological cycle,” he said. “The warmer water from the reservoir gets dumped and reduces the amount of ice, but then the fresh water freezes quicker than saltwater, and causes more ice at other times which traps the eiders and affects other wildlife.”

“We’ve are hoping through the film to promote inspirational solutions, rather than just pointing a finger. We’ve been talking to Hydro Quebec and are looking forward to developing a positive relationship with them.”

He says Iceland is already using their hydroelectric power to produce hydrogen fuel to power their shipping industry and believes that can work here.

“If we could generate power from the Lower Churchill to power ships going to Hibernia on hydrogen fuel, we would be making our own oil industry cleaner and perhaps get carbon credits making our oil more valuable,” said Dr. Heath. “Producing hydrogen fuel from hydroelectricity could also help distribute the energy to local communities in Labrador that are burning diesel, and it might even be a more effective way to get it to Nova Scotia instead of an underwater cable.”

He has also helped start a registered charity, the Arctic Eider Society (, to promote community-based research, monitoring and education programs. It works directly with Inuit using knowledge of sea ice to study environmental change in Arctic ecosystems.

They’ve develop curriculum for junior and high school youth and the post-secondary system that is linked to the film, as well as more generally culturally relevant math and science curriculum for the north.

“By combining these different approaches we are able, for the same project and budget, to be cost effective and having multiple deliverables,” said Dr. Heath. “We can do research, outreach and educational programming all from the same core infrastructure, which makes it more comprehensive, as well as cost effective.”

Originally from St. John’s, Dr. Heath has worked with a number of environmental organizations such as the Conservation Corps, Virginia River Conservation Society, Fluvarium and Quidi/Rennie’s River Development Foundation.

His studies at Memorial, first through a joint honours degree in biology and psychology and later a masters in Cognitive and Behavioural Ecology, introduced him to the seabird colonies in Witless Bay, Cape St. Mary’s and Salmonier Nature Park, and the birds and habitats of river canyons in Labrador.

The documentary has been playing, and cleaning up, at film festivals around the world, garnering a dozen awards. New showtimes have recently been added across the province. St. John's, Empire Theatres, Avalon Mall, Jan. 17, 7 p.m. Mount Pearl, Empire Theatres, Mount Pearl Square, Jan. 18-Jan 24, 7 & 9:15 p.m. daily, plus weekend matinees. Grand Falls-Windsor, Gordon Pinsent Centre for the Arts, Jan 16, 8 p.m. Labrador City, Labrador West Arts & Culture Centre, Jan. 29, 7:30 p.m.

Gander and Stephenville screening dates are also in the works. The film has previously played in St. John's, Corner Brook, Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

The educational version of the film including lesson plans and a license for screenings is currently available at


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