Tapping into Traditional Knowledge

Labrador Institute Researchers engaging in community capacity building up North

Scott Neilsen

As Operations, Facilities and Logistics Coordinator at the Labrador Institute's Research Station in North West River, researcher and PhD candidate, Scott Neilsen, is working with community researchers from the Sivunivut Community Corporation to better understand the effects of climate change upon Inuit culture and community health.

According to Mr. Neilsen, climate change in the North poses specific challenges. In regions where life and communities are closely linked to the seasons, even small changes can have major effects. The people of the Sivunivut Community Corporation, a branch of the Nunatsiavut Government, know this as well as anyone- with members in North West River and Sheshatshiu, they’ve seen changes first hand.

Responding to significant community interest in finding ways to adapt to coming climate-related changes, Mr. Neilsen, the Labrador Institute and the Sivunivut partnered to develop a research project. The group made a successful application to Health Canada’s Climate Change and Health Adaptation Program for Northern First Nations and Inuit Communities.

The first stage of the project involved surveying community members to gather knowledge and experience related to three topics: ice conditions and travel routes, sensitive animal habitats, and potable water resources. The goal was to record changes that had been witnessed over time, documenting local histories, noting potential threats and ultimately understanding the evolution of the land.

In order to find knowledgeable interviewees, Mr. Neilsen’s team went straight to the source, asking participants in the survey who they could recommend. “Community members always know more about the community than a researcher does,” he says. “Once people realize their information is valuable, they are much more willing to participate,” he says. “People who live here see these things their entire life. But this research affirms the community’s belief that their knowledge is on par with scientific knowledge.”

For example, the project with Sivunivut has just moved into a second phase. Taking survey results from Stage I, Mr. Neilsen's team trained local researchers to carry the research forward, mapping out sensitive areas of the land and conducting further interviews. Mr. Neilsen highlights this was an important development. “Now, community researchers have the skills to conduct surveys, interviews and systemized data collection,” he says.

It’s real life results and tangible benefits like these that inspire community members to engage in research projects like these, says Mr. Neilsen. This positive reaction, Mr. Neilsen says, is also an indicator of a sustained relationship with the people of North West River. “I’ve lived in Labrador since 2008 and one of the complaints I often hear as a researcher is that people come in, do research and leave,” says Mr. Neilsen. “To some degree, I think people feel used. But that is starting to change at Memorial. People have begun approaching me with new ideas for research projects,” he recalls. “They have gained trust in me, and you can't put a high enough value on that.”

But the benefit, he adds, is mutual. “I think the university has to act like a citizen,” concludes Mr. Neilsen. “You have obligations. You have to respect the area, be present in the area, and consider the area in your decision making. Not only does this kind of research benefit communities, but as a researcher, you learn a lot by having people more present and engaged.”