Notes from Happy Valley-Goose Bay: The College goes north

“It’s attitude not latitude that counts”

-saying that reaffirms a Northern identity

From June 19-21, 2017 five members of the College of New scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada participated in a Labrador Learning Tour organized by College member Ashlee Cunsolo, Director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University: Cynthia Milton (President), Elke Winter and Sean McGrath (College Council members), Bing Chen and David Hornidge, as well as College Manager Russel MacDonald. Together we covered the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. These notes are from the meetings we had with different forms of local government, organisations and citizens.

The College had two primary questions or objectives in going to Happy Valley-Goose Bay:

  1. The first was to learn and hear about the different challenges facing remote Canadian communities;
  2. The second was to learn other forms of knowledge production and dissemination.

In summary, for the first question, we learned a very disheartening and difficult account of the legacies of colonialism (and ongoing forms), combined with unfettered collusion between economic growth and government, combined with climate change. In Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the Muskrat Falls project throws into high relief this dynamic.

For the second objective, we learned about the importance of including in the refrain of “evidence-based knowledge” the taking into account of local knowledge as evidence that comes through experience (for instance, when communities recount salmon runs, and local corporations state their studies show otherwise). We also learned of the importance of outside researchers engaging with local community knowledge brokers in locally-inspired projects.

What the College members took away most greatly from this experience is the resilience of the people to address the challenges their communities are facing and their profound hospitality in receiving us.


June 19, 2017

Meeting with Mayor Jamie Snook

As mayor of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Jamie Snook, explained to us on our first day, Happy Valley-Goose Bay has five bodies of government: federal, provincial, municipal, and two indigenous governments. Municipal government can have an important impact at the local level, for instance on questions of health and wellness. Mr. Snook (who is a Trudeau fellow pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Guelph) gave the example of taxation: how we tax citizens can impact people’s health. Another example: he would like to see strategic plans to include health and wellness assessments on communities and not just environmental impacts when governments accord permission to large-scale project such as pipelines or hydroelectric dams: “It is clear how much they [residents] care about the land here.” The mayor would like to see more politically neutral research being conducted that would engage with municipal government, so that “we can make better decisions at the council level.”

As we would hear over and over during our learning tour, Muskrat Falls—a megadam project just on the outskirts of Happy Valley-Goose Bay being built by the crown corporation Nalcor (a Newfoundland government project)—has brought about great socio-economic and environmental change. While gross economic measurements indicate temporary higher employment and secondary benefits to restaurants, hotels and the like, as well as infrastructural changes such as a full-time fire chief and GPS, our tour focused more on the long-term impact on and the concerns of local residents. For instance, the municipal council feels that Nalcor is not making a sufficient enough consultation with them and taking into consideration their communities needs and concerns. Community expectations are high. The cost of living has skyrocketed, particularly the cost of housing, so now there is a housing shortage in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. And the project has pitted parts of the community against each other: those who have jobs directly on the site and those that worry about the environmental impact of the megaproject on water quality, on wildlife (such as salmon) and on the safety of their homes and communities. The devastating flooding last spring of Mud Lake, a community that is hundreds of years old, where the community was evacuated in the middle of the night—is seen not as an isolated incident but as a sign of what awaits Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the surrounding area, which would have but 18 minutes to evacuate in the case of flooding from the Muskrat Falls project. As Dr. Cunsolo stated “Muskrat Falls is a model for a discussion about grief and development.”

Meeting with Nathaniel Pollock

Our meeting with Dr. Nathaniel Pollock, a researcher at the Labrador Institute, deepened our conversation of the health challenges in remote in northern regions, where colonialism, climate change and economic transformations have had a drastic effect on the well-being of residents. His research into suicide and self-harm in local communities shows that it is not a problem in all indigenous communities here, so work needs to be done in order to identify the causes and possible services. It is largely connected to questions of social inequality and food insecurity, housing and poverty, and a feeling of an unmet need to have a sense of value and to contribute. The divergent experiences of the different communities are related in part to their different historical experiences of colonialism: for instance, communities that underwent forced relocation have higher levels of suicide and self-harm.

Meeting with Nunatsiavut Government: Michele Wood, Michelle Kinney, Patricia Kemutsigak, and Tim McNeil

Some of the concerns raised about the challenges of Labrador’s communities were raised again in our meeting with the consensus-based Nunatsiavut Government. They spoke of how climate change has led to food insecurity (with some fly-in only communities suffering up to 85% food insecurity in their community). With the melting of the ice, there is less caribou, “our main food source,” which they have tried to replace with seal meat. They also need housing. They see their youth as particularly resilient, and they have a scholarship program.

The Nunatsiavut Government was clear and eloquent in their response to our question about knowledge production and dissemination. They suffer from “research fatigue”: people coming from away, researching, and never bringing back the findings. “We don’t have time for thought experiments, we need research that addresses our immediate, urgent needs.” They have designed their own ethics approval form to help foster research meaningful to local communities: 1. So that in collaboration they can agree upon questions; 2. So that researchers understand that things may progress slowly, in a non-linear way, and that they need to listen; 3. So that researchers may build a relationship with the community as a whole, and not just with the elders, and to make sure that the research responds to community needs and priorities.

June 20, 2017

Meeting with NunatuKavut Community Council: Darlene Wall and Amy Hudson

NunatuKavut Community, unlike the Nunatsiavut Government, is still in the process of land claims settlement. They are a series of communities in the southern coastal reaches of Labrador, where there has been historically greater contact with primarily fisherman. (The South Coast has some 8,000 residents including the population of NunatuKavut beneficiaries). They spoke of similar challenges to northern communities of isolation, climate change and food insecurity. They also spoke of the need for collaboration-based research and locally-driven research agendas.

Healthy Waters Labrador with Marina Biasutti Brown

This was a land-based tour that focused on recuperation and restoration of Birch Island as a bird sanctuary. It is close to the former US base, now run by the Canadian Armed Forces. We learned of the burial of fuels and toxic matter upon the US departure of the site. The changing water levels due to the Churchill Falls and climate change are seen here in changing water flow patterns. Trees felled from the Muskrat Falls project were salvaged and shaved into beautiful fencing.

Visit to Labrador Institute Centre in North West River – 25 km from Happy Valley-Goose Bay

What would a northern-lead research project look like? The Labrador Institute has state of the art science facilities. At present a Harvard-university water testing was done here as well as testing of soil samples, and archeological research.

Meeting with the Labrador Friendship Centre – Jaimie Jackman and Jennifer Hefler-Elson

The Labrador Friendship Centre is part of a cross-Canada network (119 centres) that provide programs and facilities to local residents. The Labrador Friendship Centre offers 28 different services for people ranging from a food bank, homeless shelter, classes, and programs. Eighty-one per cent of the people engaged through the Labrador Friendship are Inuit, First Nations or Metis. The Women’s Circle of the Labrador Friendship Centre made a quilt to the different groups of indigenous women who have disappeared, and a men’s circle has formed to discuss domestic abuse. There is also a Family’s Circle. The Labrador Friendship Centre is run through donations, largely supported by local generosity. They would like to continue to develop new services, such as having an assistant to coach and accompany residents in judicial proceedings (a need which has become greater in response to Muskrat Falls project). One of the indicators of the success of the Labrador Friendship Centre was the wonderful event they held on National Aboriginal Day, June 21st, where families came, musicians jammed and sang, and children played. Personnel from the Armed Forces base served locally made seal meat, rabbit stew, and traditional breads (as well as hamburgers and hot dogs!). On raffle was a beautiful white komatik made by the Men’s Circle of the Labrador Friendship Centre.

June 21, 2017

The morning was spent on an Archaeological Walking Tour with Dr. Scott Neilsen of the Labrador Institute. We returned to Birch Island where he showed us how to identify earlier residency patterns (rusty coke cans and sunken storage pits) as well as about earlier Inuit settlements, originally migrating here to work on the US Army Base. We then went to the wonderful and well-curated Labrador Interpretation Centre in North West River (Sheshatshiu) where he spoke to us of Intuit culture and peoples, settlers, and the deep history of the region.

Later that day we went to the provincial court house to listen to the proceedings against members of the Labrador Land Protectors, a group that brings together different indigenous groups and non-indigenous residents in their common cause to protect the land, wildlife, water and health of the region. Most of those present faced charges of “mischief” and some have even gone to jail. While Nalcor had a crown prosecutor, most of those accused sought free legal aid. The judge tried to keep spirits calm in the room; he tried to respect individual’s calendars so as not to set court dates at the same time as the salmon run; and he provided for them a list of readings on protest and the law in Canada.

Once the court session came to a close, some of those present turned around and drove back out to the gates of the Muskrat Falls project. There they spoke to us of their fears, their frustration, and their resolve to keep defending this cause. After a while, we all left to go celebrate “National Aboriginal Day.” The irony of their day, while seemingly drastic to some of us College members—from court to protest (both interpreted by locals as “outsiders” or as on-going colonialism) to then a joyous celebration at the festivities of the government-declared “National Aboriginal Day”—seemed to be taken in stride by those who just jumped from one to the next in a span of hours.


What the College learned from this tour is difficult to summarize. For many of us, what we experienced was felt as transformative: for some members, the learning tour rekindled a sense of the need to engage with social justice; for others it would push their teaching in new directions; for others, it renewed a sense of urgency to combine research with local needs. For all of us, we were astounded by the immediacy of the challenges facing some Canadian communities. That there should be such high levels of food insecurity, of mental health issues, of housing shortage, all the while new electricity is being produced and new technological advances, raised our concern about the failure of academia to adequately bring these issues to the larger Canadian public in the south. They know of these issues in the north, but how to make others understand? What we take away most from this learning tour is the need to listen and to research in collaboration. We are deeply grateful to Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, the three indigenous groups, residents, researchers, and the Labrador Land Protectors for the generosity of their time, their hospitality and their sharing of knowledge.

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