People of a Feather: Where Filmmaking, Community-led Research, and Education Meet

September 19, 2016

When researcher Joel Heath traveled to the remote island community of Sanikiluaq, in the Hudson’s Bay to work on his PhD, he had no idea the impact that this community would have on his life. His work would help document and demonstrate the impacts of climate change, as a result of industrial development, on this community’s unique way of life.

His research led to the creation of the critically acclaimed film, People of a Feather. The film led to an environmental charity, community-led research programs, and culturally relevant education packages for Indigenous youth in the Hudson’s Bay area.

“Our success with the charity is largely driven by the success of the film,” explains Heath. “Film is such a powerful way to tell a story, and it has really helped open up a lot of doors. When we start working with new communities, people know what we do and what we’re about. It helps to create a sense of trust and it really helps make things easier.”

Heath was studying the cumulative impacts of large scale hydroelectric developments on the mainland of Quebec, just off the coast of this tiny island community. The developments have caused changes in the hydrological cycles which affect the salinity, temperature, and ice consistency in the area. This had a major impact on the birds and wildlife that the Inuit of Sanikiluaq needed to survive and thrive, as they had done for countless years. The Inuit here are unique, cut off from caribou herds and resources on the mainland; they rely on eider ducks for food and clothing.

Heath worked with the community to create the award-winning film which depicts the community’s way of life and struggles in face of a changing environment.

“It’s very much a cultural film first and foremost,” explains Heath “it gives an idea of life in the North, and living off the land. In the community, it shows traditional life and modern life and the natural history. The idea is to let people know of the issues and then to turn that knowledge into action through our charitable programs.”

Out of the film came the Arctic Eider Society, a charity designed to work with Inuit and Cree to address environmental change affecting sea ice ecosystems. The charity allowed people who heard about their plight to become involved, while the film spread awareness.

“The film was kind of the catalyst that started the charity and a lot of the work on the outreach side lets a lot of people know about what’s going on with the issues we’ve been trying to raise for over 20 years,” says Heath with excitement.

Now Heath and his team are developing culturally relevant education programs for high schools in the Hudson’s Bay and James Bay area. The curriculum helps educate and engage students on the environmental changes happening right in their own backyard.

“Inuit traditional knowledge and modern research are used [in the new curriculum] to explore all kinds of the human impacts up North,” says Heath. “The idea is to try and inspire youth by providing traditionally relevant curriculum to keep youth in school and increase graduation rates and to get them interested in math and science. There’s some gaps in the north especially high school math and science.”

Programs train hunters and fishers with the tools they need to monitor the local environments they know so well. While outreach programs bring in youth and pair them with the hunters and fishers so that they may learn the monitoring skills as they learn their traditional skills.

From Muskrat Falls in Labrador, to the Site C Dam in British Columbia, Heath says the big hydro is having huge impacts across the country, and self-imposed environmental monitoring and assessment processes are not enough.

“The way it’s managed right now, a lot of the environmental assessment is around the construction phase and not the operational phase,” says Heath, “and a lot of the issues we are dealing with on the marine side are from the operational phase and the lack of water management.”

Heath hopes that the work he is doing will help Inuit and Cree develop the qualitative skills they need to monitor and record the environmental changes that they are witnessing. While at the same time he hopes the film and campaign will educate the public and encourage hydroelectric companies to think more about the local environment.

“Hydroelectric damming has certainly been green washed a lot and the mentality behind building dams is still stuck in the 1960s, conquering nature, and I think there are other ways of doing it with water management policies in place. That can even improve existing dams so our function has been trying to not just upset the industry by making them look bad but to try and inspire them to do better,” Heath explains.

Joel Heath and community members from Sanikiluaq will be screening People of a Feather with a discussion at the Suncor Energy Hall on October 8th at 14:30. Heath will also be leading the workshops, The Hudson Bay Network: Community-driven research bridging jurisdictions and connected by an Interactive Knowledge Mapping Platform (IKMAP) and social media for the north and, The Arctic Sea Ice Educational Package:Culturally relevant curriculum for northern schools.