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Making Inuit oral history count

By Dana Yates

Julie Robertson

Master’s student Julie Robertson connected technology and Inuit knowledge to create an accurate picture of caribou migration. Photo: Christopher Manson

Caribou are vital to the culture, health and social life of Inuit communities and stories about the animals' migration patterns have been passed down for thousands of years. But without a way to turn that information into quantifiable data, Inuit knowledge is typically left out of government record-keeping on the caribou population.

A potential solution has been devised by Ryerson graduate student Julie Robertson, Geographic Analysis '12. As part of Robertson's thesis for her master of applied science in the Environmental Applied Science and Management program, she created a way to turn the oral history of Inuit elders into data that can be used in a geographic information system (GIS).

"If we don't record elders' knowledge, it will be lost forever. Young people don't know the language and climate change is happening three times faster in the north. It's becoming harder for people to find patterns in storms and ice," says Robertson, whose thesis was supervised by geography and environmental studies professor David Atkinson.

But knowledge preservation isn't the only thing at stake in northern Canada. Hunting quotas are influenced by the size of the caribou population and estimates of herd numbers vary widely between Inuit hunters and provincial and territorial governments.

The discrepancy can be attributed to how herd density is calculated, Robertson says. Whereas hunters actively look for caribou, the government may, for instance, remotely monitor one animal wearing a radio tracking collar. And more in-depth surveys are conducted only once every 10 years.

During her thesis work, Robertson connected with Carleton University researcher Gita Ljubicic. Also interested in Inuit knowledge of arctic environments, Ljubicic provided Robertson with a link to residents of the Nunavut community of Gjoa Haven. Ljubicic also gave Robertson access to 31 maps that had been created by local elders in 2011 and 2012.

Robertson used the maps, which contained such details as where the elders had been born and where caribou could be found, to develop variables for a GIS. The resulting data models showed caribou were, in fact, located in an area in which the government had previously reported there were few or no animals.

"The elders know the land and they know caribou numbers ebb and flow," Robertson says. "I'd like Inuit knowledge to be seen as the basis of government policy, not as an afterthought."

Indeed, last month Robertson did much to raise awareness of Inuit knowledge when she presented her research at the 2016 Ryerson Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. An annual, university-wide contest, 3MT enables graduate students to refine their communication, presentation and research skills while explaining their theses in an engaging, accessible and compelling way.

As runner-up in this year's competition, Robertson received $500. And while she appreciates the award money, it wasn't the only thing on her mind when she entered the competition.

In 2012, Robertson contracted an illness that left her in a coma for 10 days and on life support for seven weeks. Although she survived the health crisis, "my short-term memory still isn't the best, so remembering a three-minute presentation was a good challenge for me," she laughs.