Community Spotlight - Joel Heath

Joel Heath is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Arctic Eider Society (ᐃᓄᐃᑦ ᒥᑎᓕᒻᒥᐅ), which is an Inuit-led registered Canadian charity based in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut.

Building on environmental and cultural programs at home in Sanikiluaq, the society works with Inuit and Cree communities across the north to support Indigenous self-determination in community-driven research, culturally relevant education for youth, and innovative tools and technologies to support communities that are operating their own programs, with an emphasis on addressing issues of food security, safety and environmental stewardship for sea ice, marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Joel started working in Sanikiluaq over 20 years ago for his PhD program in response to concerns raised by the community and led by Lucassie Arragutainaq - manager of the Sanikiluaq Hunters and Trappers Association, and co-founder of AES - about eider ducks and sea ice ecosystems. Inuit in Sanikiluaq didn’t have caribou and instead relied on eider ducks for clothing and food - the topic of the 16x award winning film People of a Feather (available on Amazon prime and the AES website) that Joel worked on with the community and catalyzed the creation of the Arctic Eider Society. He has been working there ever since with Lucassie and a number of other hunters and community members to help move forward long outstanding community priorities. Joel’s academic background focused on combining his expertise in ecology, sea ice dynamics, and mathematical biology with Inuit knowledge and perspectives; though these days he can be found doing a wide range of things to support community objectives toward environmental stewardship, recently helping complete a new multi-purpose community centre, supporting hunters to coordinate environmental monitoring, and facilitating youth and culture programs related to a new Indigenous-led protected area for Qikiqtait - the Belcher Islands archipelago.

We chatted with Joel about programs in Sanikiluaq as well as their work across the north with their innovative approaches combining Indigenous knowledge and technology with SIKU: The Indigenous Knowledge Social Network.

Eider ducks diving


Joel, let's go back to the start of this great work. Can you tell us about why you chose the Eider Duck for your PhD and what attracted you to the Canadian Arctic?

I was at a seminar at MUN where I heard about Sanikiluaq and the unique sea ice habitats, polynyas, that are kept open like oases in the sea ice all winter by currents, where animals like eiders overwinter. I had been working with Bill Montevecchi for my masters work at Cape St. Mary's and in Labrador on Harlequin Ducks and raptors, and had all these big geeky ecology questions that I wanted answers to - that got me keen to go to the Arctic in the middle of the winter, even more so than the eider ducks; but the eiders are pretty cool too haha. They swallow sea urchins whole, so they’re pretty tough and really amazing to watch.

Asides for all the scientific and academic work you did,  what did you learn from that time spent in the arctic?

I learned way more from Inuit hunters about ecology than I did in academics, and that was really what kept me up north and led me down this totally different path. I’ve had the chance to learn from some of the best Inuit hunters in town about sea ice, Inuit knowledge, ice terminology, and wildlife and ecology. It’s been a huge privilege, and a big part of my job is finding ways to pay that forward to help create space, bring in funding for hunters to lead environmental monitoring programs, and for Inuit youth to go out with hunters, as well as working with Lucassie and other regional Indigenous organizations to support a stronger role for Indigenous knowledge in government and academic circles where it hasn’t always been given the respect it deserves. 



Can you tell us more about the Arctic Eider Society, its purpose and how it came about?

Sanikiluaq is a bit of an anomaly; it is part of Nunavut but far away from the rest of Nunavut, out in the heart of Hudson Bay. Our neighbors are actually Nunavik Inuit in Northern Quebec, and Cree in Eeyou Istchee and Mushkegowuk regions of James Bay. It’s the most complex region of jurisdictional overlap in the Arctic - which meant that Sanikiluaq was often falling through the cracks and they had to think outside the box to get things done. They did a ton of amazing work such as Voices From the Bay that Lucassie helped lead; it brought together all the Cree and Inuit coastal communities to share knowledge and it even won an award from the United Nations related to mobilizing Indigenous knowledge. It was amazing. They did a ton of work clearly articulating long-outstanding priorities around the environment, but in order to move them forward they needed a way to work across the jurisdictional boundaries. That's where the Arctic Eider Society was created as an Indigenous-led administrative structure that could help bring together communities to support capacity for them to lead their own programs and finally start working on some of these priorities.



You made a 16 time award winning film?! What is your background in filmmaking? Why did you make People of a Feather? Did you ever imagine it would have such success?

That goes back to the start of things, studying eiders in the polynyas with Elijah Oqaituk and Simeonie Kavik - an amazing hunter who has been my teacher, mentor and friend since day one. Sim’s family who I lived with for quite a few years are featured in the modern sequences in the film. My PhD work had designed this underwater camera system to capture the first footage of eider ducks diving under the sea ice and we were getting all this cool footage and BBC Planet Earth and others were getting interested. Meanwhile, ‎Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner had just come out and everyone was excited about it - it is now considered one of the best Canadian films ever made and it really opened up all these possibilities for Inuit filmmaking and stories and was a huge inspiration for us. So we were getting all this cool footage of eiders, and we were getting excited that it could be a way to help share Sanikiluaq’s unique story and culture related to eiders - and eider down, the warmest feather in the world. I started looking for funding to help make a film and looking more into documentary and anthropological filmmaking  (and procrastinate writing my thesis) and in digging deeper it turned out that Robert Flaherty who made Nanook of the North a hundred years before - arguably the first ever documentary - had gotten started as an academic like myself on the same islands but had totally messed it up and ended up making Nanook in Inukjuak instead. So there was their weird white dude history and the community’s story still hadn’t gotten out there, but we had to set it up to avoid the many pitfalls that Flaherty had made about sensationalizing Inuit culture and create a space for the community to tell their own story and to be reflective on my role in the process. Dinah Kavik and Johnny Kudluarok were key to that process and in the end almost every family in the community and the school and students were involved in some capacity in making it. It worked cause it kind of evolved organically, we didn’t start out trying to make a film, I wasn’t a filmmaker and had no experience, and the story was already there and led the process instead of the other way around. We wanted to do something pretty different and hoped that it would be successful and we were pretty happy with how it was received! It was really great for the community, who had been trying to get people to pay attention for a long time, and Sim and Johnny and Lucassie in particular to see the response of audiences to the film across the country and around the world. It was pretty inspirational and really got us motivated about what could be possible and to get things started with the Arctic Eider Society. 

What is SIKU? Why did you create it and how is it being used?

SIKU started as a tool supporting neighbouring communities across the jurisdictions to work together and form a Community-Driven Research Network - Sanikiluaq, Inukjuak, Kuujjuaraapik, Umiujaq in Nunavik and Chisasibi in Eeyou Istchee. Each community had been experiencing different related issues and had a piece of the puzzle about the large scale cumulative impacts of hydro developments and climate change that were happening across the region, and the prototype web platform helped put the pieces together, with every trip and water or ice sample collected by each community and ensured the communities were part of the entire process, not just consultation at the beginning and end. SIKU was a way to scale that up so that any community or region could use it as a tool to collaborate and lead their own programs, and in 2017 we won the Impact Challenge in Canada to create SIKU: The Indigenous Knowledge Social Network and start developing mobile apps for it as a focus for use on the land.

Sim using SIKU Impact Challenge Award

A lot of different groups were creating platforms for projects, focused on people giving away their information to a specific project, but our approach was to start with tools to support the hunters and harvesters first and foremost and they have full ownership access and control over their data and how they share it. SIKU helps centralize a whole range of tools and services such as weather, sea ice information, satellite imagery, maps and otherwise all in one place for easy access to the hunters, based on what they told us they wanted, and it works offline to make posts on the land, and syncs up online so it works well across remote regions of the north without internet. We consulted extensively across the north with youth, regional Indigenous organizations and communities to create SIKU what it is today, it continues to evolve to meet communities needs and it has really taken off now, with over 18,000 users across more than 75 Inuit, Cree and Innu Nation communities and expanding rapidly in Alaska and Greenland as well.  

Above & below: Some of the data gathered with the SIKU app specific to programs in Sanikiluaq for the Qikiqtiait protected area project. Similar programs are operating with SIKU across northern Indigenous communities.

One of the key innovations with SIKU - which is the Inuktitut word for sea ice - is the use of Indigenous Environmental Terminology as a framework for environmental monitoring. Most people have heard how Inuit have a lot of names for different kinds of snow and ice, a lot more than we have in English or even in scientific classification systems for ice which were mostly created in relation to shipping issues such as, you know, the titanic… Inuit ice classification is based on how people travel on the ice, how ice provides connectivity, how the animals use it and how it changes with the seasons. So the innovation is that empowering Indigenous language is more than just language preservation, it is about empowering Indigenous classification systems or taxonomies which is about communities using their own knowledge systems to document environmental change systematically and quantitatively. SIKU brings together Indigenous terms for ice, wildlife and placenames, cross-referenced across Inuktut dialects and Indigenous languages, and has been expanding to include weather, water, and Indigenous women’s knowledge indicators of climate change. The web platform that drives the apps provides tools for communities to run their own programs and to use the information for their own stewardship and decision making, with the goal being self-determination, that Indigenous communities have the tools to use their own language and knowledge systems to lead climate research and address their priorities.

Community members gathering data and conducting research


What type of data are you gathering? How can this help the climate change agenda and what is different in the approach you are taking as opposed to other academic ways of research?

It is the communities that are collecting data for their own purposes, and they own the rights to their own data, not us, which is pretty much the opposite of how most platforms work. We wrote ourselves out of the terms of use, so even we can’t use the data without permission and respecting Indigenous governance structures. There are some amazing projects happening across the north with SIKU. In Sanikiluaq we are monitoring everything, showing the timing of every berry species and how they change between years with the climate, doing surveys and helping document a resource inventory for the Qikiqtait protected area ( Lucassie’s career has been about mobilizing Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit - Indigenous knowledge so that southerners will understand and believe Inuit. Often, because it was based on oral history, Indigenous knowledge was written off as anecdotal story telling but now with SIKU showing it written down systematically and quantitatively it can no longer be ignored. This is really empowering for Indigenous communities sitting across the table from government and industry. Similar projects are ongoing across all 14 Nunavik communities, and in Nunatsiavut and with Innu Nation in Labrador. Across the north the Ice Watch and Goose Watch are really showing at scale that Indigenous communities can do a better job even than academics at documenting large scale climate processes, such as ice break up and migratory patterns. We’re helping do a lot of impact assessment and social return on investment studies that are helping shape a dialogue at a national and international level to invest in Indigenous communities to lead climate research and develop local conservation economies because they have the best knowledge and skills and are at the front lines! 

Above & below: Community members gathering data and conducting research


What challenges do you face with the work that you do?

There are a wide range of challenges every single day. Some are logistics of being based in a small remote fly-in community, especially around the construction of the new community centre we just completed. Others are related to working across jurisdictions with a wide range of different groups and partners, while others relate to pushing hard at the limits of tech. Seeing some of the ongoing impacts of colonialism on communities, particularly after getting to know people so well in Sanikiluaq after all these years means there can be some pretty tough days at times, while at the same time those close relationships and seeing on a pretty deep level how what we are doing is slowly starting to help and really empowering people is what makes it all worthwhile.

The new Qikiqtait Community Centre

Now for some silly questions! 

If you were on a deserted ice pan what 3 things would you have?

To survive? Seal meat, a harpoon and a coleman stove. To thrive? Everyone likes to poke fun cause I always take pepper and mayo when we winter camp and put way to much effort into making sure the mayo doesn’t freeze haha 

When you are home here in St. John’s, what is your favourite thing to do?

I’m a huge live music fan as you may know, I grew up hanging out with a lot of musicians and I love going out to see and support local live music, and getting my dance on da go!  

What do you love most about your time in the arctic?

The friends I’ve made, and spending time out on the ice with some of my best buddies like Sim and Johnny, especially early winter after long skidoo trips on the coldest days at the ice edge watching the blue light, ice slowly moving, flowing and changing, while we’re warm and cozy in our eider down parkas.

Above: Friends & recreation


Now back to the topic at hand!

What are your plans for the future? Where would you like to see these ongoing projects go?

We have come a long way and of course there is still lots to do. The last few years have been crazy busy supporting some of these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for new infrastructure in Sanikiluaq for the new building, garage, boats and equipment. For a long while I was sleeping on a mattress next to my desk in a small room - we’ve been doing a lot on a little for a long time, and now we finally have some of the infrastructure the community needs to scale things up. So I’m looking forward to focusing less on infrastructure and getting back to programs and spending more time on the land with hunters and helping expand our work with SIKU to other regions that have reached out about it.   

Working on programs in new meeting room 

Students learning about programs and tools


Are you seeing a lot of support from the government of Canada and scientific and academic organizations?

It has been amazing. The Hudson Bay Consortium that we helped create for  our region has been bringing together all levels of government across the jurisdictions with communities at the centre, and particularly with SIKU - we’re now working with over nice federal departments, from the Canadian Ice Service to the Canadian Space Agency and across a wide range of academics from physical biological and social sciences, coming to the table on the terms of Indigenous communities, which is really exciting and definitely different than how things worked a decade ago.  

If you could see one thing happen in your work or one long time career goal fulfilled what might that be?

Seeing Simeonie and other hunters have full-time jobs and equipment now using their skills out on the land every day, taking out and training youth is really it. It’s happening now! And to see Lucassie Arragutainaq recognized, who I’ve been so fortunate to be able to work closely for so long supporting his vision around bringing together Inuit knowledge and science for wildlife management, to see him winning awards such as the Polar Science Award he got last December for his lifetime achievements, is amazing - especially to see him excited and sharing how people are finally listening to Inuit thanks to tools like SIKU. I’d retire happily based on these things already if there wasn’t still so much left to do, and I’m sure we still have a few things left up our sleeves  :)

Lucassie Arragutainaq


To learn more about Joel’s work, donate to the Arctic Eider Society or watch People of a Feather please visit the links below.