The community of Inukjuak, Nunavik in winter with frozen Hudson Bay in the distance.

As the community and science director for Oceans North, I work with many northern communities on marine protection driven by their needs and vision. It is an honour to be involved in such projects and to be able to lend support towards such efforts.

One of the places where we are collaborating on marine protection is Inukjuak, Nunavik, a small fly-in Inuit community in northern Quebec within the James Bay and Northern Quebec Land Claim and Nunavik Inuit Land Claim Agreements. Located on the northeastern shore of Hudson Bay, the approximately 1900 people who live here rely on a subsistence-based diet. Many families harvest a wide variety of animals from the land as their main source of healthy foods.

For the past year, Inuit leaders in Inukjuak partnered with Oceans North, to work towards the creation of an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) for Arqvilliit (meaning place where you see bowhead whales in Inuktitut) in northeastern Hudson Bay. Nunavik Inuit have occupied Arqvilliit, also known as the Ottawa Islands, since time immemorial. These islands provide crucial habitat for species that are an important part of the diet and culture of Nunavik Inuit, including polar bears, eider ducks, bowhead whales, beluga whales, walrus, sea urchins, mussels, and a variety of birds.

Arqvilliit, also called Ottawa Islands, in northeastern Hudson Bay.

In 2020, this marine conservation project received federal funding for three years, with additional support from Oceans North. Despite the pandemic-related lockdowns, Inuit leaders who sit on the project steering committee decided to continue the work. This is because conservation of their land and wildlife is of critical importance to them. Harvesting, with all required health safety measures in place, continues during the lockdown to ensure fresh and healthy food is available to families in Inukjuak.

Aqrvilliit landscape in summer, with river that runs into Hudson Bay.

In the north, visiting with family and friends is a big part of daily life. This has come to a halt with the self-isolation measures in place across Canada, including in Inukjuak. Face-to-face meetings and working together in person are important parts of trusting and respectful relationships in the north. This has been impossible given the current importance of adhering to physical distancing measures and travel restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The epidemic has required us to find other ways to continue to work closely together, as it has for everyone across Canada. We have greatly increased the number of phone calls we have and now talk several times a week. We regularly check in on each other’s health and safety using Facebook Messenger. Family members living with our Elder committee member help him use digital communication methods on their tablet. Steering committee members take turns translating between Inuktitut and English in the absence of a hired translator. Some members of the steering committee are part of the COVID-19 emergency response team in Inukjuak, so we schedule our phone calls around that priority. It is truly an impressive team effort that I am so thankful to be a part of.

An ancient bowhead whale vertebrae found on Aqrvilliit (Ottawa Islands) in northeastern Hudson Bay from an historical harvesting camp.

Despite being physically separated, continuing to collaborate closely as team gives us a strong sense of connection and purpose during these difficult times. We feel so lucky to live in a time where technology can connect us immediately and safely, and allow us to continue with this conservation work that is so important to Inuit of Nunavik.

Stay tuned for a video blog that will be available soon to share more about the work on the Arqvilliit IPCA project!

Jennie Knopp is community and science director for Oceans North.

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