Two hunters observe wildlife at a Polyna

Carleton Mapping Project in Running for Google Impact Challenge

By Tyrone Burke

Vote for the Arctic Eider Society’s SIKU platform here until March 28, 2017

Everyone has heard about how the Inuit have so many words for snow and ice, says Joel Heath, executive director of the Arctic Eider Society and a research associate at Carleton University. That part of the Inuktitut language – terminology around land use activities– is the most vulnerable to being lost.

With increasing expense for equipment and more dangerous and less predictable ice conditions, not as many Inuit are spending time on the land, and less of the nuanced language for ice conditions is being passed on to the next generation. The linguistic loss means a distinct way of knowing polar regions that helps better understand environmental change is also at risk.

Siku, for instance, is the Inuktitut word for sea ice that forms the heart of the landscape for Inuit and wildlife in winter. Heath, an associate with a participatory mapping evaluation project led by Gita Ljubicic in Carleton’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, has been working with Inuit and Cree communities in the eastern Hudson Bay region of Nunavut and Quebec’s Nunavik region to record that knowledge via SIKU: the Inuit Knowledge Wiki and Social Mapping Platform. This collaborative mapping platform has been designed to help illuminate large-scale cumulative impacts of environmental change and development projects.

Google Impact Challenge

It’s a community-driven initiative that’s caught the eye of the map experts at Google, who selected SIKU as one of 10 Canadian finalists for the Google Impact Challenge. The Silicon Valley tech behemoth is funding 10 non-profit innovators that use technology to solve the world’s biggest social challenges. Five finalists will receive a $750,000 grant; the other five $250,000. Results will be announced on March 30, 2017.

For Heath and the Arctic Eider Society he founded after undertaking his PhD research in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, either amount would be a boon, allowing him to spend less time filling out grant applications and more time developing tools to connect Sanikiluaq with its neighbouring communities of Inukjuak, Umiujaq, Kuujjuaraapik and Chisasibi in Quebec.

The North is huge. Hudson Bay alone is 819,900 square kilometres, larger than Alberta. Each community has deep knowledge of their own territory, but the region’s size makes comprehensive assessment of environmental change impossible without collaboration.

“The communities each have their own areas they can access by Ski-Doo,” Heath says, “and they get a piece of the puzzle, and by putting each of the pieces together, we can get the big picture. We created the prototype for SIKU to connect our work in the five communities. It’s not just doing the same work in different places. It’s helping connect them collaboratively.”

Already, the prototype for the platform is providing near-real time results of indicators of environmental change. On the ice, observations are recorded about wildlife, contaminants, ice conditions and Inuit knowledge. Photos can be tagged with profiles for wildlife and sea ice types using Inuktitut terminology, and are referenced with GPS co-ordinates to convey exact conditions at a given time.

Once back in Wi-Fi range, this information is linked to current satellite data via an upload to a shared platform. Information is then instantly available to other platform users, providing both valuable safety information and an up-to-date record of changing environmental conditions.

Mobilizing Inuit Knowledge

In addition to mobilizing Inuit knowledge and observations for research and environmental stewardship, the data is also used to create school curriculums for northern schools and can be interpreted by Inuit hunters using their own knowledge system.

That’s key.

“Inuktitut language is really important in terms of understanding environmental change,” Heath says. “Their classification system is process-oriented.”

That’s where Ljubicic comes in. The associate professor is a project team member, supporting Heath’s work in eastern Hudson Bay. She developed a keen interest in understanding Inuktitut sea ice terminology during years of research with communities around Baffin Island.

“We couldn’t effectively discuss sea ice – understand its importance, understand its dangers – if we were only working in English,” Ljubicic says. “The English terminology is very focused on the specific condition. Inuit language focuses on how you’re interacting with sea ice. What you’re trying to do. What season it is. How it’s formed. How the winds were. How the currents are. It’s much more action-oriented and encompassing of people’s engagement. Hunters are interested not just in the most recent imagery, but in how things froze up, so they can know what the conditions are now, and how things might break up in the spring.”

Context and Nuance

Inuktitut provides context and nuance to a frozen and yet dynamic world that an English speaker might see as an unbroken monotone.

It adds dimensions to a world that satellites see as flat, and the platform the Arctic Eider Society is creating with SIKU is empowering Inuit to share these dimensions with each other and with the world.

It’s a tool with the potential to connect communities in eastern Hudson Bay and beyond. The Arctic Eider Society wants to make it available throughout the North and it could be useful to First Nations communities in other parts of Canada as well.

“A lot of people talk about combining Indigenous knowledge and science,” Heath says. “We’ve been doing that for a long time. Sometimes, it’s just out on the ice . . . having day-to-day conversations that guide hypotheses. I think this is going to be a much more meaningful and quantitative way to do it than has ever been possible before.

“Inuit have been providing extensive knowledge about environmental change, and sometimes it is written off by scientists as anecdotal, without data to back it. This platform will allow documenting the raw data of Inuit observations that forms a basis for their knowledge and interpretations. It will give Inuit the ability to mobilize this knowledge for environmental stewardship, education and any purpose they see suitable. And that is going to be a game changer.”