A recent tweet by a Carleton University PhD graduate, Dr. Jenn Provencher, said something to the effect that Indigenous people are willing to share traditional knowledge, if they think you are willing to learn. She was live tweeting at the Annual General Meeting of the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies (ACUNS) and was sending to twitter a paraphrase of one of the keynote’s, Sen Murray Sinclair’s, inspirational points. So true! For our work on avian cholera in the Arctic, Inuit participation, guidance, and direction was of paramount importance. Collectively, it steered another Carleton PhD candidate, now Dr. Sam Iverson, to many eider duck breeding colonies on islands along the shores of Hudson Strait.
The Inuit hunt this seaduck and collect its eggs for country food and also harvest its feather down for the clothing and textiles industry. Thus, they rely on this species for both subsistence and income and were most willing to tell us where cholera outbreaks were occurring and where they were not. And we were most willing to listen and learn because there is no way a few southern researchers could have witnessed the breadth of the emerging epidemic firsthand or monitored its regional spread. With the help of our Inuit partners, we developed a sampling design, determined a schedule of visits, and traveled across a remote and challenging landscape. Their support was sharing of traditional knowledge, perspectives and wisdom in approaching emerging problems in the Arctic.
The upshot of this community-based research initiative and how it relates to our project is captured in a paper, just published in Ecology and Society. Inuit harvesters were the first to notice the occurrence of large-scale die off events at eider colonies in the Canadian Arctic. At some locations, hundreds of birds were found dead on their nests - a situation without precedent in this region. A few scattered reports made their way to southern wildlife authorities, however it was only after engaging with Inuit harvesters in communities spread across southern Baffin Island and the Ungava peninsula that we were able to determine the scope of the epidemic. We found that colonies located along the migratory flyway connecting eider breeding grounds in Hudson Strait with eider wintering areas in Atlantic Canada had heightened risk of outbreak in comparison to colonies located along flyways used by other potential host populations such as lesser snow geese, which were arriving on the breeding grounds from wintering areas in the central United States. We also found that islands with high bird density, but few freshwater ponds, had an elevated risk of epidemic take off. This makes sense. Evidence from more southerly areas, where avian cholera is endemic, indicates that ponds often act as transmission foci.
It is clear that continuing to document the magnitude of the cholera outbreak across the eastern Arctic will not be easy and would not even be possible without Inuit community participation. They also make the search for determinants of outbreak occurrence possible.
Professor & student