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'It’s not an opinion': U of A integrates Indigenous knowledge for new climate change study

The recent findings are part of a six-year study called Tracking Change

Chelsea Martin played a part in a study that showed climate change is affecting Indigenous ways of life.

Kevin Tuong / Edmonton Freelance

Chelsea Martin played a part in a study that showed climate change is affecting Indigenous ways of life.

A new study showing the impacts of climate change and resource extraction on northern waterways is combining Indigenous traditional knowledge with contemporary scientific methodology.

The University of Alberta study, led by 12 Indigenous communities, shows how climate change and resource extraction are negatively impacting the Mackenzie River Basin, a vital food source for Indigenous peoples in Canada’s north.

Academics worked directly with students and elders in Indigenous communities to document the health of waterways in their area and the overall health of the ecosystem.

"One of the biggest things that stood out for me was how people were talking about warming waters," said Chelsea Martin, a master’s of science student who travelled to Délįne, NWT near Great Bear Lake as part of the study.

The study found consistent, concerning trends in the 12 communities, which span Alberta, Saskatchewan, B.C. and Yukon and Northwest Territories, said Brenda Parlee, the lead researcher and a professor in the department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology at the University of Alberta.

The findings include lower water levels, drying conditions, warmer water temperatures, thinning ice, and deteriorating health and supply of fish.

“I’m definitely concerned about the ways in which this is adding pressures or exacerbating the stress on communities in the southern part of the basin and creating new kinds of stresses for those further north,” Parlee said.

Those ecosystems are being affected not only by climate change, but also by resource extraction such as drilling and mining, she added.

In Délįne, Martin interviewed elders who told her the fish in the waterways aren’t the same as they used to be, and in some cases are inedible because the flesh is so soft.

They speculate the fish are changing due to the warmer waters.

“When you cut into a firm piece of salmon, you still get a chunk, whereas you cut into this stuff and it just falls apart into flakes,” Martin said.

“It just becomes dog feed or seagull feed. And that has huge implications for food security,” she added.

Another common discovery are cysts in the fish, which is a new phenomenon.

“People sometimes cut them out and still eat the fish, while others throw the fish out entirely,” Martin said, noting she hopes to document how different groups are adapting in different ways.

While the Great Bear Lake area still has abundant fish, areas such as Lesser Slave Lake have seen certain fish, such as Lake Trout, disappear.

“The absolute opposite would be communities in Lesser Slave Lake, who no longer have access to the fish they once did. And the fish are not as healthy, they’re smaller, or basically not abundant enough to support a family,” Parlee said.

She emphasized that the traditional knowledge from elders is scientific, not just anecdotal.

“It’s definitely empirical. And that’s the key point – it’s not an opinion,” she said. “It’s different than science in the sense that people aren’t collecting that data to make Excel spreadsheets ... they’re doing it because they need to know ‘Can I eat the fish? Can I drink the water?’”

Martin, originally from the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation in Ontario, said the elders’ emphasis on how future generations need to take better care of the environment strongly resonated with her as a young Indigenous woman.

“It really strikes home for me … I start to think about how my community would even look like without the lake, the fish, the animals and trees … and how we have to start considering more sustainable ways of life. Because people absolutely need it for their livelihood.”

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