Graduate Student Reflection by Alex Sawatzky

Almost immediately upon returning from my trip to Rigolet in February, I was faced with the unavoidable, arguably unanswerable, question: so, how was it?

Even after having had time to reflect and process everything, I still struggle with answering this question. There is no way I can articulate exactly how I feel about Rigolet, about the incredible people I get to work with here, and about the project that I am lucky enough to be a part of. I think this struggle with putting my feelings into words is largely due to the fact that the project, the people, and the place are all intertwined, and they all became a part of my life so easily and so quickly that my words have trouble catching up to my emotions.

Before my first trip to Rigolet this past October, I was incredibly nervous. I was so intimidated at the prospect of being involved in such a large, interdisciplinary project. I didn’t exactly know where I would fit, let alone what the community would think of me. But as soon as I stepped off that first Air Labrador flight, all my fears disappeared and I knew I would never be the same.

Fast forward a few months, and before I knew it, I was back on a plane headed North with Dan, Oliver, and Ashlee. It was an amazing feeling, and an enormous privilege, to have the opportunity to return to Rigolet. Again, I was nervous, but this time my pre-trip jitters had more to do with being overwhelmingly excited to continue moving this project forward, to reconnect with people in the community, and to experience winter in all its Northern glory.

For a bit of background, our research involves the participatory development of a surveillance system, led by the community of Rigolet, to to track and respond to changes in the environment and resulting impacts on health and wellbeing. The basis of the approach we’re taking to build this project is to listen, learn, understand, and then respond to what the community needs and wants. To start this process, back In October we asked members of the community five main questions in a series of interviews and focus groups: (1) what are some important issues with regards to the environment and health; (2) what sorts of changes in the environment and resulting health impacts are you noticing in your community; (3) of these changes, what do you think is important to monitor/track; (4) how are you already keeping track of these changes; and (5) what sorts of tools/technologies (if any) are you using to do so?

As I was preparing to return in February, I thought critically about what we had learned from the community thus far, and how we might build off these initial discussions surrounding important environment-and health-related issues. However, in order to build from these discussions and move forward with the project in an appropriate way, I first needed to develop a deeper understanding of the reasons why these issues were important, who they were important to, and how they were prioritized. In short, I needed to ask some new questions.

I sat down with many of the same individuals who I had met with in October to present the preliminary findings and ask for their feedback. Then, I asked: (1) why are these issues important to you; (2) how would you prioritize these issues; (3) what are some ideas you have that could help make this program engaging and easy for people to use?

With each person or group I spoke with, my mind was blown over and over again by the depth and breadth of wisdom that is held in Rigolet. One of the key points brought up in this round of brainstorming sessions was that we need to work together to create a program that wouldn’t necessarily feel like a “program” – we need to create something that can be seamlessly incorporated into day-to-day life. Conversations like these made me realize over and over again what an honour it is to be working with and learning from this community. As always, the ways in which people described their connections to and relationships with the land absolutely blew me away. Although I will never even begin to know the true depth of the love that’s shared here between the land and its people, I am so grateful to be taking part in this learning journey.

During our trip, we also had the opportunity to engage in some hands-on, experiential learning on the land. Within a few hours of arriving in Rigolet, we took off with Sandi and Karl – our gracious hosts and dear friends – to spend the weekend at their cabin on English River – about a 2.5-hour skidoo ride outside of the community (mind you, this same trip typically takes Sandi and Karl about 1.5 hours). From the moment we left, we knew this would be the adventure of a lifetime. We left Rigolet in the late afternoon, and as we were making our way across Lake Melville we witnessed the most stunning sunset any of us have ever seen. The only description that somewhat captures this experience is that it felt like gliding above the surface of the clouds; hard to tell where the ice ended and the sky began. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of this magical experience because it was way too cold to stop and pull out my camera. Yet, there is something to be said for just living in the moment and absorbing the surroundings without viewing them through a lens. Moreover, there is no way a photo could have captured that kind of beauty anyway (at least, no photo that I could take).

Our weekend at the cabin was filled with fun, adventures, and delicious food (everything tastes better when cooked on a wood stove). We had a massively successful ice fishing escapade, and Oliver and I even skinned our first rabbits under Sandi’s patient instruction and watchful eye. Sandi and Karl, I don’t think we can thank you enough for keeping us full, safe, warm, and smiling.

This experience also gave us many important insights that will be absolutely crucial to incorporate into our project as we learn to better understand how technological tools can help people keep track of various environmental observations and changes while they are on the land. For example, our phones and cameras would freeze at times, so using them outside in certain conditions was not feasible and is something we need to account for in developing the project. There was definitely something to be said about learning how to navigate through these unanticipated challenges firsthand.

Upon reflection, I am realizing that this project, these people, and this place all share the same part of my heart – a part of my heart that I most certainly didn’t realize was missing until I found it. I feel so fortunate to be working with a team of community partners and researchers that is so incredibly supportive of each other. We hold the same basic values, share a deep and indescribable love of the North, and we take our research as seriously as we do our long underwear and scavenger hunts. Through these experiences, I’m finding that in order to do your best work and be your best self, it helps to be surrounded by people who bring out the best parts of you.

In terms of the place, its immense beauty never ceases to amaze me. There are really no words, only feelings. The colours are brighter, the food is tastier, the air is fresher, and life feels more authentic. It’s a place where I can let my guard down, open myself to change, and challenge myself to grow. But no matter what I say about it or how I try to describe it, there is so much more that I can’t even begin to describe. That which no words can capture. I truly feel as though I left a part of my heart there. This is something I struggle with articulating because I know that no matter how much I learn about/love this place, I will always be an outsider, a stranger to the land. I will never know the love that these people have for their homeland, and that which the land has for them. So thank you, Rigolet, for welcoming us Southerners with open arms and allowing us to share in your incredible beauty and wonder. As I’m slowly running out of words to capture how I feel about working, learning, loving, and growing in this place, I’ll call upon the help of Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway author:

“To be struck by the magnificence of nature is to be returned again, in those all too brief moments, to the innocence that we were born in. Awe. Wonder. Humility. We draw it into use and are altered forever by the unquestionable presence of the Creator. All things ringing true together. Carrying that deep sense of communion back into our work-day life, everyone we meet becomes the direct beneficiary of our having taken the time for connection, prayer, and gratitude. This is what we are here for – to remind each other of where the truth lies and the power of simple ceremony.”

Alex Sawatzky is a PhD Student at the University of Guelph, working with myself and Dr. Sherilee Harper

Coverage of Climate Change & Mental Health Research

Today, the Toronto Star published the second in a series of articles by Tyler Hamilton examining the many complex facets related to climate change and mental health, and featured our work in Nunatsiavut, Labrador.

Sometimes there are moments in life that change you, that alter you in ways that you can never really fully articulate… and that continue to teach you things years later. This research, and working with the Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut, Labrador, is one of the moments. Hearing the voices, experiences, and wisdom of the people with whom I work is humbling beyond belief. And dealing with, responding too, and hopefully mitigating the mental and emotional impacts of a rapidly changing climate and environment is something that continues, daily, to occupy my thoughts and drive my actions.


An excerpt:

Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, an assistant professor of indigenous studies at Cape Breton University, said the connection between mental health and climate change in Canada’s North is growing stronger and in “urgent” need of further investigation.

“There’s this dialogue that’s just waiting to leap out into the national and international consciousness,” she said. “In Canada, we have this active fishing culture, active farming culture, and large Arctic indigenous groups who are on the front lines of climate change, yet we have been really quiet on this topic.”

This is indeed a national dialogue that needs to happen in this country, and we are in a time in this country that I believe there is a willingness and and ability to listen and to act.

Thank you to Tyler Hamilton for his excellent reporting, and for his interest in this topic. His work is making sure this information and these voices get out, and for that, I am eternally grateful.


Climate Change & Inuit Mental Health

Today, an agreement is being tabled at COP21, calling on over 200 countries to sign on. As we continue these national and international dialogues, it is important to remember human impacts, including human suffering, distress, and psychological impacts.

I am pleased to share this new ebook feature through Adjacent Government that was just released to coincide with COP21. Click on the picture below to access the article.

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New Article on Inuit-Youth-Led Participatory Video & Adaptation

Just in time for the annual ArcticNet Annual Scientific conference in Vancouver, BC, Arctic has released our new article on using Inuit-youth-led participatory video as a strategy to enhance adaptive capacities and support known protective facts.

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Grief & Climate Change

As the discussions continue at COP21, and the sense of cautious optimism continues to grow that world leaders will reach a strong and binding agreement, I am thrilled to see discussions also growing around the ways in which climatic and environmental changes can cause grief and mourning.

Thanks to David Suzuki for writing a great article, Healing Humanity’s Grief in the Face of Climate Change, and featuring our work from Nunatsiavut, Labrador.

The interplay of environmental degradation and geopolitics has had alarming repercussions. Over the past decade alone, millions of people have been displaced by war, famine, and drought. The world is shifting rapidly as a result of climate change and there’s little doubt we’ll see increasing humanitarian crises. We must face this new reality as a global community.

Climate change is one of the most destabilizing forces in human history. We must deal with carbon emissions but we must also deal with human suffering. In Canada, Inuit are feeling the impacts disproportionately. Ice appears much later in the season and melts earlier. Changing wildlife migration patterns disrupt community livelihoods, land-based activities, and cultural practices.

Cape Breton University Canada Research Chair Ashlee Cunsolo Willox is working with Inuit to understand their communities’ climate-related mental and emotional health impacts, documenting anxiety, despair, hopelessness, and depression, increased family stress, drug and alcohol use, and suicide attempts. People are grieving for a way of life that is changing with the landscape.

These are conversations worth having. These are emotions worth considering.

New Open Access Article Released

Happy to have worked with a great group of students and colleagues on this paper, released through Open Access format on Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, critically examining community-based adaptation approaches within the Canadian North.

The abstract is below, but if you are interested in the full text, click here.


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New Article: Elder Perceptions of Climate Change

Here is a sneak peak of a new article that is hitting the presses this week through the Journal of Aboriginal Health Special Issue on Inuit Health & Wellbeing. The article will be available through the International Journal of Indigenous Health.

Congratulations to Joshua Ostapchuk for publishing his thesis research!

Article Front Page