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Northern Inspiration: Bringing science and youth together in the Moose Cree Homeland


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Claire Farrell
Science and Youth Coordinator

Related

Freshwater fish Freshwater Early-Career Scientists Youth Indigenous partnerships

Published

2020-04-14

I was on my way north to Moose Factory to attend the Moose Cree Career Fair and represent Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada in my role as a scientist studying lake sturgeon in rivers running through Moose Cree traditional territory.

By Claire Farrell

Youth voices around the world are calling loudly for action on climate change and biodiversity loss, including voices from Indigenous youth such as Autumn Peltier and international voices like Greta Thunberg. But this urgency really became tangible for me as I travelled north to Moose Factory on the edge of James Bay over winter roads that were quickly becoming impassable.

Conditions on winter roads (ice roads) connecting far north communities are particularly poor this year -- slushy and impassable in some areas -- because of unseasonably warm temperatures. Winter roads, unlike all-season roads are temporary access roads made of ice and snow that are built over lakes, rivers or sometimes stretches of frozen wetlands. These roads are critical for connecting far north communities and many communities rely on winter roads to get the bulk of their supplies for their year delivered affordably. Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the representative organization for some of the First Nation communities in northern Ontario, reported in mid-February that only five communities had roads that were in good enough condition for freight hauling. As climate change continues to increase global temperatures, especially in northern regions, these already isolated communities will have less and less reliable use of winter roads.

On this slushy winter road, I was on my way north to Moose Factory to attend the Moose Cree Career Fair and represent Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada in my role as a scientist studying lake sturgeon in rivers running through Moose Cree traditional territory. WCS Canada’s lake sturgeon research program is a collaboration with the Moose Cree First Nation (MCFN) Resource Protection Unit. Recently, our joint research project received funding to develop Indigenous youth programming as an integral part of the work we do in the Moose Cree Homeland. In Moose Factory, I joined our partner and research lead from MCFN, Jennifer Simard, to recruit youth for fieldwork and events for this coming year (some of these activities may now be delayed due to COVID-19).

When people ask me about what we do, I explain how we tag and study namayo (lake sturgeon) in the Moose Cree Homeland; how we are assessing the impacts of hydroelectric dams on these ancient fish; and how this will demonstrate the importance of the intact North French River in the Moose Cree Homeland as a globally unique area where sturgeon have seen few changes over the last couple of centuries, unlike the heavy human impacts that have happened or continue to happen in almost every other place lake sturgeon are found.

A new part of our project includes a Moose Cree youth program, where we hope to give Moose Cree youth the opportunity to reconnect with different parts of their Homeland, learn about impacts on rivers, and about how researchers go about assessing lake sturgeon populations. We hope this will, in turn, inspire them to think about potential environmental careers and empower them to become leaders exploring solutions for the combined climate and biodiversity crises. Our research recognizes the sacred wisdom held by Indigenous people and hopes to find ways different knowledge systems can complement each other towards achieving effective actions to protect lands and waters.

The Moose Cree Elders advisory group, which helped develop and inform this research project, identified youth involvement as a priority. In practice, this means engaging youth in learning about what is happening with the rivers that flow through their traditional territory as well as developing youth stewardship initiatives for these waterways. MCFN Elders value the passing on of teachings through actually being out on the land, learning from the land, and giving youth a chance to share their insights.

In Moosonee and Moose Factory, we were hoping to sign up more youth to work with us on lake sturgeon fieldwork this coming spring and fall (pending a decision that is safe to proceed), and to attend Elder-Youth Gatherings made possible by Ontario Indigenous Youth Partnership Project funding and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk. While there, we also did some classroom presentations on the project to tell both youth and community members about what we were doing and what we were seeing. This type of face-to-face interaction is important as a way to explain what our goals are for the project and how youth can get involved. We also get to hear from the youth.

This past fall, we had two Moose Cree youth join us for the first time to help with our fieldwork. I was lucky enough to be able to again experience the first joys of fieldwork through the eyes of Denika and Ocean, our two Moose Cree youth assistants. Who knew how much fun demonstrating waterproof paper or modelling chest-wader-fashion could be?

Waders, lifejackets and mud: fieldwork fashion essentials. Moose Cree youth gain hands-on field experience while accompanying WCS Canada and MCFN Resource Protection Unit researchers in October 2019 maintaining underwater acoustic telemetry receivers in the Lower Mattagami river. (From left, Jacob Seguin (WCS Canada), Claire Farrell (lower, WCS Canada), Jennifer Simard (upper, MCFN Resource Protection Unit), Jonathan Rickard (MCFN Resource Protection Unit), Denika and Ocean (MCFN youth))

As we travelled down the Lower Mattagami River, community members on our field crew stopped the boat and, using a depth-finder, showed the two youth the enormous drop-off in the riverbed below. They explained to the astonished pair that we were floating above an 80-foot waterfall that community members used to visit and fish at -- now underwater due to flooding caused by hydroelectric development on the river.

Denika and Ocean told us that some of their classmates were astounded that they wanted to do fieldwork and spend two whole days in the field without cell service! However, Denika and Ocean are eager to continue learning and looking forward to gaining new experiences from our research project. Now, we are working hard to get more youth involved, including in future Elder-Youth gatherings. And while it’s a good start to provide youth with opportunities to participate in gatherings, trips and hands-on learning, what we are really aiming for is to keep youth engaged in stewardship in a lasting and meaningful way.

As I took my last taxi over the winter road back to Moosonee to catch the train, slowly manoeuvring around large slushy puddles, the taxi driver stated that part of the road would soon be closed. The urgency of preparing for climate change couldn’t have been clearer.

The vast expanses of intact forests and networks of rivers in the far north in Ontario are highly vulnerable to the cumulative impacts of climate change and industrial development. This makes it all the more urgent for youth to be involved and informed about environmental issues facing their homeland. Engaging youth in our research has been inspiring – for us as project leaders and for them as youth leaders – and I hope it becomes a much more widespread part of scientific research everywhere.

Author’s Note: This Muddy Boots blog post, and the activities and travel described in it, was written before the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario. Fieldwork activities, youth programming, and gatherings, now and in the coming months, are being delayed/cancelled/modified according to the recommendations and decisions of Indigenous, provincial and federal governments.

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