Sometimes east and west do meet
Traditional, scientific knowledge wedded in study

by Ian Elliot
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 29/97) - A major scientific survey of the North is attempting to link modern scientific methods with traditional aboriginal knowledge.

The West Kitikmeot Slave Study is a five-year venture launched in 1995. It will amass a base of information on existing wildlife, communities and the environment against which future development proposals can be measured to predict

potential effects.

The board that oversees the study has a majority of voters from aboriginal organizations, and scientists are encouraged to implement a component of traditional knowledge held by elders and passed down through generations.

The study area takes in a vast swath of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, reaching from Yellowknife and Wha Ti in the southwest to Cambridge Bay and Umingmatok in the northeast.

It may be the largest scientific project ever to incorporate traditional knowledge, those overseeing the project say.

"In regards to balancing traditional and scientific knowledge, we use both," said Larry Aknavigak, chairman of the study.

"The two approaches work closely together, hand in hand."

The money for the study comes from environmental, aboriginal and mining groups, with their contributions matched by the territorial and federal governments.

Last year, once the matching grants were in, the organization spent $1.7 on research projects.

"It's a big study, and it's an important study," said staffer John McCullum. "The intention is to take quite a big picture."

That picture will be used to forecast the possible effects of development in what is now known to be a resource-rich area.

The project is overseen by nine partners, representing groups with an interest in the study's findings. Aboriginal organizations hold five of the nine votes and must approve individual projects before they proceed. Industry, environmental organizations and the two levels of government fill the other four seats.

A model experiment looked at the migration patterns of caribou. McCullum said it was designed to get an idea how they react to mine sites and tailing ponds, and to come up with a way to keep them away from such developments.

"Caribou are a key species because not only do they move over large areas, but they are very important to the people who live in the region," he said.

In the caribou study, not only were animals banded with radio collars, but Dogrib elders were consulted about how the animals move and what factors influenced the movements.

The use of such traditional knowledge is encouraged for all the studies, McCullum said, and the traditional knowledge should run parallel to any scientific study being carried out in each project.

Other projects include studies of wolverines, airborne dust monitoring, evaluating the water quality of lakes near mine sites and what happens to wolf populations when the eskers in which they build dens are mined for their gravel and sand.

"Our goal and our role is to facilitate sustainable development by providing information," McCullum said. He added, however,

that the organization makes no judgments on the information it gathers.

"An aboriginal group might look at the information and interpret it one way and a mining company may interpret the same information in another."