Arviat program aims to lower rising search and rescue numbers

Youth in Arviat, Nunavut, are learning traditional survival skills in the hope of curbing the growing number of search and rescue operations in the North.

'It's a real community concern,' says Dylan Clark about the doubling of searches over the past decade

Five youth in Arviat took part in a land safety course earlier this month, where they learned hunting and survival skills from local elders. (Submitted by Dylan Clark)

A Montreal researcher and local Inuit in Arviat, Nunavut, hope a new traditional skills program aimed at youth will help curb the rising number of search and rescue operations across the territory.

Dylan Clark, a member of McGill University's Climate Change Adaptation Research Group, has analyzed search and rescue data from the past decade.

"There's been a pretty steady increase — more than doubling, essentially," said Clark. "It's a real community concern."

In 2006, Clark said Nunavut Protective Services was involved in 111 searches — each of which may have been for a single individual or a group. Less than a decade later, in 2015, that number had jumped to 251 searches. 

The youth will put together a video of the survival program, so the knowledge of elders can be shared more widely. They used a drone camera to capture aerial footage. (Submitted by Dylan Clark)

"We're really looking at why search and rescues are happening and what can be done to prevent it." 

One of the keys to understanding how to prevent searches is knowing why people end up overdue on trips or lost out on the land. 

Clark analyzed 202 search and rescue operations from Nunavut in 2013 and 2014 and found 53 per cent of issues were caused by issues with equipment. 

Innosar Issakiark learned how to build an igloo as part of the pilot program. (Submitted by Dylan Clark)

"That could be anything from a snowmobile overheating and seizing up to an axle in an ATV breaking," he said. 

Searches occur most often in the spring and fall, Clark said, when there is more chance travellers will become stuck in slushy or muddy areas or end up stranded by shifting ice floes. 

Even those with years of experience and vast traditional knowledge can end up thrown off course as a warming climate may be subtly changing the weather indicators Inuit have relied on for generations, with ice conditions becoming more unpredictable. 

Recently, Nunavut MLA Pauloosie Keyootak survived on the land for more than a week, with his son and nephew — prompting a search that would include volunteers from three Baffin communities and garner attention across the country. 

"There's so many people willing to volunteer to go out and work for the search committees that people are coming back safe," Clark said.

But, he said, it's important to remember that most searchers — who scour the land for friends and family — face emotional, as well as physical burnout. 

Passing on traditional skills

Earlier this month, five young Nunavummiut, including 20-year-old Innosar Issakiark, spent two weeks learning survival skills from experienced elders and hunters. 

"I learned how to carefully navigate through ice and which area is good or not," Issakiark said.

"I'm really, really happy that I could join." 

Dylan Clark says teaching you basic first aid could help prevent serious injuries on the land. (Submitted by Dylan Clark)

The young students were taught basic first aid, how to recognize unsafe weather conditions, how to hunt for seals and caribou and how to build an igloo.

"I was really interested because I never really got to go out on the land that often because we don't have any snow machines or warm clothes," he said.

Video could expand program access

With hunting trips becoming more dependent on having access to expensive equipment, Clark said the lack of survival skills among the next generation is a common concern across Nunavut. 

He interviewed people in four communities.

"There's a lot of concern about the youth. They don't have as many opportunities — many of them at least —  to be out on the land, as their fathers did," Clark said. 

The Arviat Film Society and the Arviat Wellness Centre helped run the program, which was funded by the Government of Nunavut's health department. 

The youth are filming their experiences and hope to release an instructional video within the next few months. 

Traditionally, Inuit have used the direction of snow drifts to figure out which way is North when they are out on long hunting trips. (Submitted by Dylan Clark)

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