Arctic researchers prepare for a summer where they can't travel North

With the territory's chief public health officer confirming on Wednesday that only essential workers and residents will be allowed in the territory, it will be a very different summer for a territory that’s enriched with research projects.

Many Arctic researchers from Southern Canada can't travel to the territories due to COVID-19 travel bans

Dustin Whalen, a physical scientist with Natural Resources Canada, is one of the many southern researchers who won't be able to come North this summer due to COVID-19. (Submitted by Dustin Whalen)

For the first time in about 15 years, Dustin Whalen will not be coming up to the Beaufort Delta region in the Northwest Territories this summer to continue research on coastal change. 

"I thought: 'oh no, we are going to have a gap.' Not just myself, but a gap in the entire Arctic research field," said Whalen, a physical scientist with Natural Resources Canada from Nova Scotia.

With the territory's chief public health officer confirming on Wednesday that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only essential workers and residents will be allowed in the territory for the summer, it will be a very different season for a territory that's enriched with research projects.

However, there has started to be an increase in community-based research in the the territory, including the Tuktoyaktuk climate change monitoring program through the Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation.

Whalen, who worked with monitors last year, said this is a chance for him to get some of their research done by the community members.

"My mind immediately started to turn and think of ways that I could incorporate the work that they're doing and maybe get them to take some samples for us to help us get our ... data set to grow."

'Changing the way people do research up North'

Usually Whalen comes up with a team of about 15 people doing field work for about six weeks, but some team members are there the entire summer. He said because he has a pretty good relationship with monitors in Tuktoyaktuk, he's hoping the transition will be fairly seamless.

"There's definitely other groups that are floundering and wishing they had strong connections to community groups right now," said Whalen.

Whalen said this is also an opportunity to use some of their budget to pay monitors and contribute to the economy in the Beaufort Delta region.

In a typical year, his team would pay for wildlife monitors to come with them on the land, rent places to stay and also buy groceries from local stores.

Scientist Dustin Whalen fishes a camera out of the water. Whalen, who worked with monitors last year, won't be able to come up North from Nova Scotia this year to continue research on coastal change. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Challenges not working face-to-face

The Inuvialuit Living History Project is another long-term research project in the Beaufort Delta region. It was started in 2009, and part of the project's goal is to make Inuvialuit cultural material more available to those living in the region.

Normally, students and project co-ordinators come up to the region, but also bring elders and Inuvialuit residents south for meetings.

Recently, the group had planned to meet in Edmonton to revise their website, a meeting that's since been called off.

"That's hard to do over the phone or even over Zoom, where you can talk to people … it's harder to do visual things when you're all separate and it's way easier to do collaborative research face-to-face," said Natasha Lyons, co-director for the project.

Last year, part of the project was connecting Inuvialuit teens to their culture by bringing them to a camp, where they interviewed Aklavik elders and learned more about Inuvialuit artifacts and history.

Lyons said luckily this summer, the team was going to be focusing mainly on its website. However, one PhD student was hoping to talk to residents about the direction for his research.

Lyons and co-director Lisa Hodgetts are working on an analysis of Banks Island and were hoping to get up to Sachs Harbour.

Now, they're trying to figure out how to move forward, hoping to get a permit with the Aurora Research Institute for residents in Beaufort Delta communities to collect plants.

Lisa Hodgetts, left, and Natasha Lyons, right, co-directors of the Inuvialuit Living History Project, pose with Parks Canada resource management officer Mervin Joe. The researchers are working on an analysis of Banks Island and were hoping to get up to Sachs Harbour this summer. (Submitted by Natasha Lyons)

Colleen Davison, an assistant professor at Queen's University who has done public health research in Nunavut, says she hopes that she's hoping that the pandemic will have a positive impact on Arctic research.

She says although there is a loss on both sides by researchers not coming to the communities, "sometimes I think the research isn't always as beneficial to the North as it should be, so maybe this will be a bit of a wake-up."

Davison said that researchers can sometimes support some of the services provided by organizations in the communities, and bring in evidence that sometimes would be harder for residents to access.

However, she'd like researchers to better meet some of the principles set by the Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research, including inclusion, authentic partnering, shared benefits, commitment to the future, responsiveness to causes of inequities, and humility.

"When we get to restart again, let's restart better. Let's restart with these principles in mind … let's not just research for the sake of research again so we have opportunities here."

with files from John Last


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