What attracted you to the study of environmental science?

Megan Sheremata
(Photo provided by Megan Sheremata)

I was an undergrad not long after Inuit and Cree protests against the expansion of the James Bay Project occurred in the 1990s. I began to hear about how communities and scientists were working together to address a number of natural resources problems –  hydroelectricity development in James Bay, logging in Clayoquot Sound – and I wanted to support these kinds of collaborations. The idea that people could come together – Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples – to address these problems was inspiring.

Why have you focused your research on Inuit knowledge of the cumulative impacts of environmental change on sea ice and salinity, and the associated effects on wildlife and Inuit land-users?

These are goals that communities in eastern Hudson Bay have expressed as research priorities. Since the 1980s, Inuit across the region have noted significant changes to their sea ice and salinity of their waters since the construction of the James Bay Project. Since that time many of the impacts of hydroelectricity development have been compounded by the effects of climate change.

Interview in Inukjuak with Eliassee Weetaluktuk (2017). From Left to right: Laura Iqaluk, youth research assistant; Eliassee Weetaluktuk, elder; Megan Sheremata.

In response, hunters in the region created the eastern Hudson Bay/James Bay monitoring network to study sea ice and salinity changes in partnership with the Arctic Eider Society and the University of Manitoba. This work has been science-based, but is also very much grounded in Inuit knowledge. However, a study focusing on Inuit knowledge has been advised by hunters in the network to provide greater context to their monitoring results, and to situate the changes they have observed within the perspectives of the land-users and communities experiencing the effects of environmental change.

How important is it to include local peoples in your project?

Co-analysis Workshop in Sanikiluaq (2018). Back row, left to right: Megan Sheremata, Johnassie Inuktaluk, Johnny Kusduluak. Lucassie Ippak, and Peter Kattuk. Front row: Davidee Qavvik, Joe Arrantaina, and Charlie Takatak.

I think it is important to be critical of some of the language we regularly use in research that engages with Indigenous knowledges. Often ‘inclusion’ and  knowledge ‘integration’ occurs at the discretion of the scientist. Real engagement with Inuit knowledge, on the other hand, involves collaboration with knowledge-holders.

But there have been many mistakes made by researchers in the past that, in some instances, continue to be made in the present. Some Inuit I have met have spoken about being misrepresented by researchers, and of never hearing back from researchers. Of helping to build the careers of researchers for little in return. Of being treated rudely, or of researchers not consulting with local leaders and organizations; these actions are not respectful and are counterproductive.

What do you think are best practices for engaging local peoples in research?

Building relationships is in my view the most important practice. This has been taught to many of us doing community-based environmental work. But it’s not always obvious what we mean when we talk about relationship-building.

Being very reflective and second-guessing myself helps me to listen more actively and become more aware. I am not Inuk and I speak very limited Inuktitut, so an enhanced awareness of relational dynamics is really valuable. So, I have invested a lot of energy into reflecting on my relationships with community partners, just as I would in any important relationship in my life.

Many Indigenous researchers – like Margaret Kovachs – have written a lot about relationship-building. But it’s not exactly something you can really prepare for by reading alone. It’s primarily once you go through the motions and start looking at yourself and reflecting on ways of becoming a better community partner that you can actually become a better community partner.

We also spent a lot of time establishing funding for preliminary research trips to co-develop my dissertation proposal in communities. It has been a guiding intention to create as many opportunities for community members to be a part of and/or to guide the project as possible. At times we have needed extra funds for unanticipated trips – such as when community members were unexpectedly unable to participate in a workshop. Unpredictability is common in any small community where a few leaders are often involved in a large number of projects. And as such, funding is a central to building in essential flexibility in research in the north.

Co-analysis workshop in Umiujaq (2019). Left to right: Noah Inukpuk, Joshua Sala, Annie Inukpuk and Willie Kumarluk

Reporting to communities, presenting on research with community members, and conducting collaborative analysis workshops have all been important.  I send trip reports after every research season and work to keep in touch with communities partners when I am in the south, and try to co-disseminate results at conferences alongside community partners when that’s possible. Collaborative analysis allows us to verify results together, and minimize misrepresentation. All of these efforts require a great deal of support from funders, research partners, and supervisors.

How have you tried to incorporate locals into your work?

In any way possible. This is their project since their experiences are being told, and their knowledge is being shared. One of my colleagues, Katherine Wilson, a PhD student also supervised by Dr. Ljubicic, describes her approach to community-based research as ‘facilitation’. I really like this, because she doesn’t put herself at the centre of the research. 

I also see my work in this way. Central to a facilitative approach is to try to create much space as possible for communities to guide the research process, or at least to be involved in all stages. This is critical to meaningful results. But it is also difficult because there are so many institutional barriers to doing this, as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) illustrated last year in the National Inuit Strategy on Research. They discuss systemic problems, such as how research agendas are often not in line with community priorities, timelines of funding agencies can be arbitrary, etc. In this project, a facilitative approach has meant to emphasize listening, prioritizing preliminary research, co-designing the project, being prepared for extra research visits to accommodate community capacities, and working with as many youth as possible.

What have Inuit land-users contributed to your project?

Everything! Even though I am facilitating this as the lead researcher, the land-users are the ones drawing on their years of experience and insight. They really are the senior scholars of their lands and without them this project could not happen, and we would know significantly less about the Arctic region.

How have you tried to give back to local communities after they have helped you with your research?

Me and Annie Novalinga (Community Researcher and Director, Tursujuq Park), FM Radio Station, Umiujaq, Nunavik.

I have tried to listen to what is important to each group I have worked with in each community. Most elders enjoy opportunities to discuss their observations in groups with younger community members as a means of developing the knowledge of youth.

What are some key things you would recommend people new to research in the Canadian Arctic to do as part of their research?

In terms of pre-research preparation, doing a lot of preliminary research in communities is essential. So is studying Indigenous research methodologies – by people like Smith, Kovachs, McGregor, and many others. Currently there is a lot of very good Inuit-specific methodological work being published – I am currently reading McGrath’s new book on the subject. I also highly recommend the Carleton University Indigenous Research Ethics Institute – which was transformational for me. All of these would help people in the social or natural sciences.

Once in communities, I find it helpful to build time in to get to know people, and to listen instead of talk about your research too much (which can be easier said than done!). Listening for a lot of us involves a lot of unlearning of habits and attitudes toward non-academic ways of thinking. Also, when back either to the research station or to the south, it’s important to be able to discuss challenges, concerns that communities bring up, and uncertainties with supervisors.

Also, if working in Inuit Nunangat, I would recommend connecting with as many Inuit-sourced ideas as possible in Inuit films, art, and books. There is so much available now in the south. I also highly recommend attending conferences like ArcticNet, where there are many Inuit attendees, presenters, and sessions led by Inuit organizations and researchers, as well as using social media.

Many people have told me that they just don’t get enough knowledge in return from scientists. We should be having conferences in communities in some instances – especially where there are research stations with lots of researchers coming and going. Unfortunately, even in just the few years I have been doing research, you sometimes see a bit of a disconnect, with little interaction with communities and natural scientists.

Sanikiluaq, NU Harbour (2018)

What do you think is the value added to the study of Inuit homelands and environmental management through your research project?

Well, as one elder in Umiujaq discussed with me, it is important that people know that Inuit have been experiencing environmental change for much longer than most because of the changes that began with hydroelectricity development. Being from southern Quebec myself, I grew up hearing about the effects of the James Bay Project on Cree, but heard almost nothing about the impacts on Inuit. It has been an experience that has received limited coverage. So understanding Inuit perspectives of not only sea ice and salinity, but of the historic impacts of these changes on their communities, is so important.

It also frames the conversation as one of cumulative impacts. Our environmental assessment process is built around understanding environmental impacts in very simplified ways. We don’t have a governance system that reflects the very complex ways in which large mega-projects are compounding the effects of climate change, and operating alongside a range of other environmental impacts. By focusing on cumulative impacts, we are advancing a more complex view of change, and of how communities have responded to change.

[Please note: All pictures that accompany this publication were provided by Megan Sheremata]

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