Known by friends and colleagues as a 'humble' role model and community leader, Joey Angnatok is the first-ever recipient of the Inuit Recognition Award for involvement in Arctic research. 

The hunter and fisherman from Nain, N.L., was given the honour during last week's ArcticNet conference in Ottawa. 

"It was quite overwhelming at first," says Angnatok, who didn't know he was getting the award until it was announced and he was called on stage. 

"I guess my heart was pumping quite a bit."

Over the past 25 years, Angnatok has worked with researchers from various universities and, by now, he and fellow Inuit have enough knowledge to go out collecting data on their own. 

"I feel that the work that I do with the researchers within the community is important to give back to the people," he says. "And they feel it's good too to see people from the communities getting involved."

Learning about what you can't see

Inuit guides have long been touted by researchers as knowing more about the land and certain environmental changes than scientists can glean from the data they collect. 

Joey Angnatok at the wheel of the MV What's Happening

'It was quite overwhelming.' Joey Angnatok was surprised to receive the Inuit Recognition Award for Arctic research during a conference in Ottawa last week. (Rodd Laing)

But Angnatok says the research into persistent organic pollutants that he's participated in, has given him new insight into how Nunatsiavut is changing.

"I grew up in a community where if you didn't see it for your own eyes, it didn't exist," he says.

"Given some of the mercury levels within seals or fish... I always thought that if it came fresh out of the water it was safe to eat, but in some cases now it isn't."

Angnatok has taken water, tree and animal samples for researchers, who are looking into trends among sea ice and populations in northern Labrador.

Research for Inuit, by Inuit

Over the last 13 years, Angnatok has adapted his 19-metre-long boat, the MV What's Happening, into a fully-equipped coastal and offshore marine research vessel. 

"We are fishing every summer and then when we're done the fishery part we try and maximize the potential with whatever else," he says.

Along with two younger brothers and a couple of other relatives, he uses the ship to conduct research in Arctic conditions. They've sampled diverse areas, ranging from Goose Bay, N.L., to Resolute, Nunavut. 

The 100 per cent Inuit-owned and crewed vessel is a first for Canadian Arctic research, providing local employment opportunities. 

But research and fishing isn't all that goes on aboard the MV What's Happening. Through the "Going Off, Growing Strong" program, Angnatok takes Nunatsiavut youth, who are struggling to feel connected, and brings them out on the land.

The youth check on ice measurement stations once a week and hunt for ptarmigan or seal. 

"You can tell that [being on the boat was] having a good impact on the kids," he says. "It's something they really enjoyed."

Angnatok was given a plaque and a new pair of Nunavut-made kamiks (sealskin boots) during last week's Arctic Change 2014 conference.

The Inuit Recognition Award is judged by Arcticnet's Inuit Advisory Committee and co-ordinated by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.