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Land connections, climate change and grief

Inuit-led program changes the conversation on health and the environment

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial’s innovation ecosystem, a pan-university effort focused on supporting the development and success of innovators across Newfoundland and Labrador.  

By Michelle Osmond

Ecological grief.

It’s how Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo describes how climate change is affecting Inuit peoples — a phrase that was inspired from hundreds of interviews with Inuit in the five communities of Nunatsiavut, Labrador.

Dr. Cunsolo, director of the Labrador Institute and cross-appointed with Community Health and Humanities in the Faculty of Medicine, has worked with Inuit for almost a decade on climate change and health research.

Deep emotions

In 2008 she joined a public health research team working with the community of Rigolet in Nunatsiavut about climate change and links to waterborne disease.

The community wanted to know more about the ways climate change was impacting all aspects of health, and how people were responding.

When she and a team of Inuit and non-Inuit researchers began conducting interviews with people, Dr. Cunsolo noticed some deep emotions emerging during those conversations.

So, she and others started asking the question: “How do these changes make you feel?” That’s what changed the conversation.

“Inuit are people of sea ice. If there’s no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?” said Anthony Andersen, a resident of Nain, Nunatsiavut, in the film Attutauniujuk Nunami/Lament for the Land.

Ice fishing near Rigolet, Nunatsiavut.
Photo: Submitted

The film is a collaboration between Dr. Cunsolo’s research team and the five Inuit communities on Labrador’s North Coast.

‘Complex relationship’

In a place where the temperature is rising almost twice as fast as other parts of the world and a place where people are deeply connected to place, Dr. Cunsolo says it’s a complex relationship between climate change and well-being.

“So much of Inuit lives are tied to the environment, the land and the water, that even subtle alterations have huge impacts on humans in a way that we don’t see in other parts of Canada,” she noted.

“For example, if it’s cold and then there’s a big rainfall, in Labrador, that affects the ice and possibly makes it unsafe, and that means many Inuit can’t travel, which affects so many things, including hunting, relationships and self-worth.”

eNuk Project

As the research was conducted, community leaders started to ask how the work could move from documenting changes and Inuit experiences to responding to these changes.That’s how the eNuk Project was born.

The eNuk Project is an environment- and health-monitoring program that’s run through an app, designed and led by Inuit in Rigolet. The app is in the pilot stage, with five families currently beta testing in the community.

Observations, such as weather conditions and travel routes, are relayed back to a central location through the app.

Man on snowmobile on the ice holding an iPad
Taking pictures of environmental conditions outside of Postville, Nunatsiavut.
Photo: Submitted

The community members were provided with smart devices in order to take photos, voice record, type notes and geo-locate where they are.

The app even has hashtag options, such as #ice and #caribou, and emoticons, providing community members the opportunity to share land-based information as it relates to their health.

The goal is that the app will eventually be available to the whole community and then the region.

Inuit led

Dr. Cunsolo says the eNuk app is a holistic approach to climate change and health monitoring that honours the land and supports connections to and relationships with the land in a way that links with Inuit culture.

She not only works in partnership with the communities, but under their guidance and leadership, as well.

“People’s lived experiences are so far ahead of where scientific data is right now when it comes to climate change.” — Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo

She believes this has been essential to the research because Inuit are highlighting what’s important to them and taking control of their research and their research story.

“When you think about all the questions that hadn’t been asked yet because we researchers come in with a particular lens or idea, and we only ask the questions that we wanted the answers to, it leaves out other pieces,” said Dr. Cunsolo.

“It’s a reminder to researchers to ask the questions that haven’t been asked. People’s lived experiences are so far ahead of where scientific data is right now when it comes to climate change.”

True innovation

Dr. Cunsolo says Inuit innovation looks “very different” from non-Inuit innovation.

She says the eNuk app is a real reflection of what happens when you take already existing technology but incorporate everything that is important to Indigenous people: the idea of reciprocity in relationships, giving back, stewardship of the land, loving the land in a different way and feeling responsible to it.

Knowing that, suddenly, technology takes on a new understanding.

“This type of Inuit-led, Inuit-based, Inuit-valued technology, to me, are the true innovations,” Dr. Cunsolo said. “This is where we’re going to make the leaps and bounds in what we understand about the world and how we deal with climate change.

“If you bring everyone together in a true partnership, and how you can create something no one’s thought of,” she continued, “that, to me, is what innovation is — at its heart, partnerships and relationships coming together in a new way.”

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