By Blair Carter

During the week of January 20-27, 2013 I had the opportunity to travel to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (NWT) to attend a joint NWT Environmental Monitoring Annual Results Workshop that was hosted by the NWT Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program (CIMP),  Government of the NWT and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Several researchers from across Canada presented results of current NWT environmental monitoring and research related to fish, water and caribou. The workshop provided an opportunity for researchers and NWT decision-makers to share their research findings and discuss the key monitoring issues.

Environmental research and monitoring plays an important role in resource decision-making in the NWT. However, cumulative impact monitoring is not an easy task. It is a multi-disciplinary undertaking that requires substantial effort and coordination among all groups involved in natural resource management. The NWT CIMP was developed to help support and facilitate the collection, analysis and dissemination of information about cumulative impact monitoring and environmental health in the NWT.

It was evident to me, however, that to improve environmental stewardship activities in the NWT it is necessary to better integrate the human dimensions of ecosystem change into environmental and cumulative effects monitoring. A shift towards research that studies human perceptions in conjunction with the bio-physical parameters of the environment will likely yield a more comprehensive understanding of environmental change and its implications. Such research is also important because it serves as a means to improve knowledge of social-ecological relationships, document local knowledge before it is lost, inform environmental and resource management decisions, build adaptive capacity, create education and training initiatives, and improve environmental awareness.

As a graduate student researching how water is valued by communities in the NWT, this workshop provided a valuable opportunity to further some of my ideas regarding the human dimensions of ecological change. The workshop allowed me to learn about the importance of community engagement in monitoring and research in the North and reflect on how social well-being is intricately linked to environmental change and sense of place. The workshop provided a forum for networking with scientists, industry representatives, members of the NWT Water Stewardship Strategy Aboriginal Steering Committee, NWT community representatives, members of northern regulatory boards, and other graduate students. This setting provided the ideal venue for continuing with the development of my research plan.

However, the CIMP workshop sessions coupled with discussions on the need for more human focused research led me to think about what the changing ecological systems in the NWT mean for social well-being. While I cannot answer this question yet, it is clear that addressing this relationship will require an improved understanding of what people in the North feel they need to ‘live well’. Given that NWT residents associate a diversity of values (e.g., spiritual, cultural, recreational, economic, public health, and ecological) with the natural environment, it became clear that well-being refers to the physical aspects necessary for basic needs, but also the social, cultural and psychological needs that humans require for ‘living well’. This led me to start thinking about how the intangible values (e.g. social, cultural, psychological) that people associate with natural resources (i.e., water resources in the NWT) can be made more explicit in a way that enables them to be more appropriately represented in decision-making processes.

The social conception well-being is emerging in the literature not only as an outcome, but also as an analytical lens to help us understand the tangible and intangible dimensions of one’s life that are considered to be valuable. Drawing the work of a research group at Bath University, social well-being can be understood through three primary dimensions – a material dimension that considers the physical requirements that people need to ‘live well’; a relational component that denotes the types of relations and interactions individuals require to meet their needs and achieve a good quality of life; and a subjective element that is concerned with people’s level of satisfaction with their own quality of life.

This social well-being framework may be especially useful in the context of the NWT where most individuals share a strong connection to the territory’s lands and waters.  The framework can add value to our understandings of ecological change by providing a way to examine the human dimensions of a changing natural environment. Social well-being may be particularly valuable for understanding the social dynamics of ecosystem change in the North because it serves as a means not only to look at the physical aspects of basic needs that humans require to ‘live well’, but also people’s interpersonal, cultural and psychological needs. The challenge lies in learning how to operationalize this social conception of well-being in a way that is meaningful, applicable and relevant to social and environmental policy work and decision-making. Research on this challenge is ongoing in the context of fisheries, but has not been explored in the context of the NWT.

The CIMP workshop catalyzed several in-depth discussions that brought together a range of different actors (e.g. researchers, government representatives, aboriginal community representatives, industry members) to exchange experiences and knowledge about how to best navigate the complexity of conducting community-based research in the NWT. I was especially interested in the PATHWAY Framework Guidance Document that was presented by Steve Kokelj. The PATHWAY outlines a series of common steps to help community partners plan and implement research initiatives that address issues that are important to northern communities, and that engage communities in the research process. The PATHWAY approach captures many of the key issues associated with conducting meaningful research in the North, including the importance of ‘getting to know your community’, which quickly became the catchphrase of the week.

In reflecting on the PATHWAY approach, it is evident that being knowledgeable about the organization, institutional structures and processes of communities is critical to operationalize the concept of social well-being. The contextual circumstances (e.g., physical, political, cultural, historical) of a community will have a strong influence on the ways in which community members value the different dimensions of their life, and how the different aspects of a ‘life well lived’ come together.

Many of the key insights I took away from the CIMP workshop (i.e., the importance of understanding the human dimensions of ecological change, the need to develop meaningful community relationships, the importance of understanding the contextual circumstances of your community, etc.)  resurfaced on the fourth day of my trip when I had the opportunity to attend the NWT Water Stewardship Strategy Implementation Workshop that was hosted by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) and the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (ENR). The workshop provided a forum for NWT water partners to identify and discuss the aspects of the project that have and have not been successful since the Northern Voices, Northern Waters: NWT Water Stewardship Strategy was released in 2010.

During the workshop it became clear that moving towards improved water stewardship in the NWT will require greater consideration of how to move beyond a sole focus on the physical aspects of water resources, and towards a richer understanding of the human dimensions of aquatic ecosystem change. One concern that emerged from the workshop discussions was the need for research that focuses on examining the interplay between water resources and the idea of human and social well-being (e.g., material, relational, subjective). This is reflected in the NWT Water Stewardship Action Plan which calls for further research to develop a context-relevant methodological approach to understand how people in the NWT value water. The challenge here is to identify a set of valuation metrics that overcome the limitations of existing economic water valuation methods that tend to ignore the non-monetary values of water that are critical to the well-being of many NWT residents. Moving forward in this regard will require an alternative approach to water valuation that measures how water affects all aspects of NWT residents’ social well-being, and considers how to incorporate those values into policy and decision making processes that are relevant in the context of the NWT Water Stewardship Strategy. This understanding would help to provide a comprehensive account of how water is valued in the territory. And this is key to enabling the NWT to mitigate the impacts and cumulative effects of human activities on NWT waters, and the people whose well-being is tied to their environments.

Blair can be reached at blcarter(at) or on Twitter @BlairLCarter


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