Supporting Community-Led Research in Délįnę

August 2019

By Neala MacLeod Farley

Although it’s 11pm you wouldn’t know it looking out the window at the clear blue sky. It is easy to lose track of time when the sun only sets for a couple of hours each day. It is my third week in Délįnę, Northwest Territories. This remote community is on the shores of the eighth biggest freshwater lake in the world, and is home to the Sahtúot’ine Dene, the “Bear Lake People”. I gaze out the window from the house of the local family I am staying with. The surface of the lake still shimmers with ice despite the warm June air. Suddenly there is a bustle of activity in the house. “We spotted a caribou across the lake, we’re going out!” shouts the son of my hosts, a gleam of excitement in his eyes. A few minutes later, I hear the 4-wheeler take off and it’s quiet once more.

Welcome to Sah-tu and Deline

I get up late the next morning and head out to the yard. I am greeted by my host family and their friends and neighbours who are gathered around the picnic table, socializing and preparing the fresh caribou meat. I can smell the wood fire burning and see that a portion of the meat is already cooking on the grill. It is generously shared with everyone who comes by. Since arriving, I have been warmly welcomed to meals at neighbours’ homes, birthday parties, Father’s Day brunch, and community celebrations for Indigenous Peoples Day and the regional holiday, Sahtú Day. There has been no shortage of food at any of these events and I am always encouraged to eat more.

Most of these shared meals contain a mix of traditional foods such as caribou, lake trout, and duck, alongside market foods such as hotdogs, burgers, and salad. There are two local stores here and I was surprised to see that although the produce sections are small, there is quite a wide variety of fruit and vegetables offered. This even includes specialty items such as avocados, pomegranates, and mangos at times. These fresh items are not cheap, however, and processed food is much more abundant.

Délįnę’s food system faces many of the challenges typical of remote, northern communities in Canada, including the very high prices and limited availability of fresh produce. Agriculture is not a part of the traditional Dene way of life and is not currently practiced here beyond a couple of small, home gardens and the remnants of an attempted community garden. Although a few people have expressed interest in gardening and there have been discussions about building a greenhouse, hunting and fishing remain central to both the food system and the Sahtúot’ine way of life. I can see people’s eyes light up when telling stories about being out on the land and water, and the sense of community is strong when gathering to share traditional foods.

It is not difficult to understand people’s strong connection with the water as the lake itself is spectacular. It is over 31,000km2 (larger than Belgium) and straddles the Arctic circle. It is likely the largest freshwater lake preserved in as pristine a condition, clean enough that people drink straight from it when out on the land. Traditionally, the Sahtúot’ine would travel all around the lake, going where the best hunting and fishing was throughout the year.

Today, Délįnę is the only community found on the shores of Great Bear Lake, and they have worked hard to look after the lake as it looks after them. In recent years, the lake and the portion of its watershed within the Sahtu region were declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve as a result of these efforts. The Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve is the largest in Canada and is the only Indigenous-led biosphere reserve in the world. The community hopes that this designation will help them to continue to protect the lake and their way of life.

It is clear that conservation of this area is essential to the food security of the Sahtúot’ine. To even put it in those terms, however, feels reductive. You do not have to be here for long to realize how essential the health of the lake is to the culture, language, spirituality, and well-being of the people of Délįnę. “Ecological integrity” doesn’t begin to cover it and people here would likely laugh at the idea of putting monetary values to ecosystem services. It is inspiring to see the strength of the people here, and the passion they have to continue caring for the land that cares for them, as their ancestors have since time immemorial. They have maintained this despite facing extreme challenges and marginalization including the effects of colonization, the history of residential schools, and the uranium mining at Port Radium which caused extremely high rates of cancer due to exposure to radiation. Hearing first-hand accounts of the recent history of the Sahtúot’ine, I am even more amazed and humbled by the kindness, humor, and generosity of the people I have met.

Beyond the challenges mentioned, the Sahtúot’ine are now facing climate change in a part of the world that has seen increases in average temperatures 4-5 times the global average. Its effects are already being felt and impacting people’s everyday lives. My host tells me that in the past they would check their nets every two days for fish, and that now they have to be checked twice a day since the water is warmer than it used to be, and the fish do not stay fresh for long after being caught. Climate change is an additional stress on a way of life already threatened by the past and present effects of colonization and the loss of traditional knowledge it has resulted in.

The community-based research that we do seeks to support Délįnę in adapting to climate change and determining how food security can be achieved. Although it is a small community, there are many people here who are working hard on these issues. Together, researchers from within and outside of the community are asking questions such as whether agriculture should be promoted here, how to best protect the lake and animals, how to restore the tradition of intergenerational knowledge transfer, and how Délįnę’s recently established self-government can best face these challenges. Researchers from Laurier’s FLEdGE network have been supporting this work in Délįnę and establishing a strong relationship with the community for five years now. This work continues through the Northern Water Futures Project.

I hope that in my work I can continue to build this relationship, and to demonstrate a method of research that is based on partnership and distinct from the exploitative research that the community has experienced at times. For now, I am simply grateful to be in such an amazing place and for all I have already learned.

About the Author: 

Neala MacLeod Farley is a research assistant working with Andrew Spring on his work in the Northwest Territories.