Lands and Environment

Delta Dialogue: Traveling display maps concern for Northern watersheds

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Capturing the heartbeat of a river is no simple task, but that’s what Graham Strickert of the University of Saskatchewan is doing by turning hydrological change into sound.

Strickert starts with a graph that shows how much water has flowed through the Saskatchewan River every year over the past hundred years. If you look closely, you notice a distinct turning point: Where previously there were regular highs and lows, the pattern is now irregular. The high points are no longer as high, lows not as low, and these points are no longer occurring regularly. The natural variability has changed. Strickert has turned this graph into sound using a program called Photosounder 1.9.0. Put on a pair of headphones, and it is like you are listening to the river’s heartbeat through a stethoscope. What starts as a steady pulse turns into a heartbeat with an arrhythmia or irregularity.

This “heartbeat” graph is part of a traveling display showcasing the changes experienced in three Northern inland river deltas, including the Peace-Athabasca (B.C.-Alberta), Slave River (Northwest Territories), and Saskatchewan River (Saskatchewan-Manitoba) deltas. These deltas not only support a way of life for delta communities, but are also biologically diverse and often serve as early indicators of issues arising within the river system. Ecological change, associated with climate change, flow regulation by dams, upstream development, and other human interventions, is intimately connected to the experiences of delta communities, who rely on such ecosystems for subsistence, social, cultural, and economic activities. In order to share key concerns about the future of the deltas and engage people from geographically diverse delta communities on how they are dealing with change, a “Delta Days traveling display” has been developed to represent perspectives from people who live or do research in the deltas.  

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There is a lot of research taking place in these deltas, yet it is not always easy to get this information to people in the communities who want and need it most.

The ideas behind the traveling display, and much of its content, is based on a three-day workshop held in April 2016 called Delta Days. The workshop was organized by a research partnership called the Delta Dialogue Network, based at the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan. Over 100 participants took part in Delta Days, the majority of them from the delta communities of Fort Resolution (NWT), Fort Smith (NWT), Fort Chipewyan (Alberta), Cumberland House (including Cumberland House Cree Nation and the Northern Village of Cumberland House) (Saskatchewan), and Opaskwayak (Manitoba). The group was made up of youth, elders, community leaders, researchers, decision-makers, and other stakeholders involved with delta research and from delta communities. After three days, it was clear that the ongoing conversations needed to continue, and to involve both the larger delta communities and policy-makers whose decisions affect the deltas. The traveling display was developed to create a space for these discussions to continue.

The display is unique in several ways. It is the first time that voices from all three deltas have been brought together to share their collective concerns. Even though these delta communities are geographically diverse, spanning four provinces and territories, there is strength in their shared experiences. Solomon Carriere, a resident of the Saskatchewan River Delta, explained during Delta Days: “Today listening to the other deltas, and I knew they were in trouble, but it seems like they are more worse off than we are [in the Saskatchewan River Delta]. But we’re not that far off of the problems they’re having” (For full quote, watch the video below). The exhibit attempts to build on those shared experiences by representing three main themes that came out of the discussions: awareness, hope, and action.

The project is also a unique collaboration between historically separate academic departments at the University of Saskatchewan, including the schools of Environment and Sustainability, Art and Art History, and Drama. Community-based partner organizations involved in the Delta Dialogue Network made it clear that visual, interactive ways of sharing research results worked best for their needs. There is a lot of research taking place in these deltas, yet it is not always easy to get this information to people in the communities who want and need it most. Collaborating with the departments of Art and Art History and Drama was a step towards trying something new. During the Delta Days workshop, art students created “nature post-it” notes that resembled materials you might find in a delta (e.g. rocks, reeds). Participants used the nature post-it notes to write key messages about the importance of their deltas and the type of change they wanted to see in the future, which were then incorporated into the traveling display. Indigenous artists also contributed to the traveling display, including a dream catcher made by Saskatchewan River Delta resident Michela Carriere and a Diamond Willow Walking Stick created by the Gabriel Dumont Institute in Saskatoon.

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The interactive aspect of the display means that as it travels between delta communities, community members will be able to both learn from it and add to it. Children can colour in pictures of the deltas, which then can be posted to travel with the display. A picture booth allows people to be photographed in real time while holding a statement of what their delta means to them. Community members who visit the display are also invited to bring recipes, artefacts, photographs, and anything else they may want to contribute to the display. These objects are scanned and then incorporated into the exhibit so that it grows and evolves within each community that it visits.

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In addition to building connections between delta communities, the display is also intended to speak to decision-maker and policy audiences. Two policy briefs have been included in the display, providing concrete recommendations for how healthier delta ecosystems might be achieved. The display will be traveling to Yellowknife, and, hopefully, other decision-making centres in the future.

The Delta Days traveling exhibit is a collection of communities, perspectives, ways of communicating, and types of knowledge. As a whole, it forms a cohesive message: “Bring back nature’s flow, restore our deltas’ rhythms”.

The traveling display will be coming to the following communities in the near future:

Community Location Date
Fort Chipewyan, AB Mamawi Community Hall Jan. 31 – Feb. 1, 2017
Fort Smith, NWT Roaring Rapids Hall Feb. 3-5, 2017
Fort Resolution, NWT Antoine Beaulieu Memorial Hall Feb. 7-8, 2017
Jean Marie River, NWT Tthek’edeli Commuity Hall Feb 10– 11, 2017
Yellowknife, NWT Explorer Hotel, Katimavik B Feb. 13-14, 2017

More information about the Delta Days workshop, the Delta Dialogue Network, and updates on the traveling display can be found at the Delta Dialogue Network website – http://www.usask.ca/research-groups/ddn.◉


Photos courtesy of Kiri Staples

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