The partnerships, the productions and the people behind the lens

Promoting youth wellness through community-based research and filmmaking

Photo credit: Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research

Youth taking notes during an interview in Old Crow, Yukon.

Promoting youth wellness through community-based research and filmmaking

Community-based research (CBR) can be a powerful tool for knowledge mobilization, engaging youth, building leadership capacity, enlivening innovation and creativity, and promoting social change. Also known as community-based participatory research or participatory action research, CBR is: participatory, a co-learning process and a method for systems development and local community capacity building; it is cooperative by engaging community members and researchers in a joint process whereby each contributes equally. Importantly, it balances research and action and is an empowering process through which participants can increase control over their lives by nurturing community strengths and problem-solving abilities.

The Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research (AICBR), co-founded in 2007, is an independent, non-profit research organization based in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory that works within a CBR approach built on values of respect, trust, collaboration, reciprocity, and sharing. AICBR works with Northern communities and brings together multiple sectors to build and strengthen local research capacity in the North and advance the health and wellbeing of Northerners and northern environments. Youth engagement, capacity building, facilitating knowledge sharing between generations and sectors, as well as integrating different ways of knowing are all central to AICBR’s approach and are important drivers of sustainable change in the areas of Northern health and wellbeing.

In this article, three community-based research partnerships with Yukon First Nations are highlighted to demonstrate how youth engagement in CBR can promote health and wellness in community, build connections between youth and their homelands, collect and honour traditional knowledge, and facilitate communications between Elders and youth. As part of these CBR projects, three films were co-produced: Remembering Our Past Nourishing Our Future (Kluane First Nation, 2016), Keeping Our Traditions (Selkirk First Nation, 2016) and Our Changing Homelands Our Changing Lives (Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, 2010). Film is an important part of AIBCR’s approach as it is a powerful way of capturing culture, facilitating connection as well as telling stories of the past in modern ways. In this article, AICBR shifts the lens onto the partnerships, production processes and the people behind the cameras.

It is important to note that these stories, projects and films are each owned by the respective First Nation governments and communities. AICBR contributed expertise as a partner and facilitator in the process of community-based research at the invitation of each community. Throughout the course of each project, local research protocols and the principles of Ownership, Control, Access and Possession (OCAP®) were followed. AICBR, through processes of informed consent and ongoing communications has been given permission to disseminate and share these stories, according to the agreed terms of each project’s communications agreements.

Film is an important part of AIBCR’s approach as it is a powerful way of capturing culture, facilitating connection as well as telling stories of the past in modern ways.

The Partnership – Kluane First Nation’s Nourishing Our Future, 2013-2016

In 2013, Kluane First Nation (KFN) government invited AICBR to partner with them on developing a community food security strategy for their traditional territory. A second phase was subsequently initiated to build on the outcomes of this strategy with a focus on youth engagement and fish health in Kluane Lake, Yukon. The project, called “Nourishing Our Future,” sought to document changes on Kluane First Nation’s traditional lands and the shifting behaviours and abundance of traditional food species, to monitor the health of the environment, as well as plan for future community survival amidst concerns over these issues and rising food prices in the region. The results of the Nourishing Our Future project were reported in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Northern Public Affairs, and project reports can be found on AICBR’s website. The community came together and worked with AICBR to develop a community food security strategy through individual interviews, focus groups, community meetings and archival research, and subsequently gathered traditional knowledge around food sharing and fisheries; they also tested for contamination in Kluane Lake fish. A KFN Community Advisory Committee guided the approach from the outset and was involved in all stages of the project including the validation of results. This project was unique in that it integrated quantitative, Indigenous and community-based research methodologies and took on a “whole-of-community” approach to developing long-term, adaptive solutions to the tough challenges faced with climate change and food insecurity.

The Production — Remembering Our Past Nourishing Our Future

Remembering Our Past Nourishing Our Future is a powerful 18-minute film co-produced by Kluane First Nation and AICBR as part of the Nourishing Our Future project. Set in the small community of Burwash Landing, the film weaves a story of climate change, food security and resilience of a people who are using their self-determination to honour their past, and harnessing their traditional knowledge, skills and culture to nourish their future. Importantly, it offers a way forward that is rooted in culture and the strengths inherent within the community.

The People Perspectives from Kluane First Nation 

Six youth were involved during both phases of the project. Youth were trained in a variety of skills and topics including qualitative interviewing techniques, scientific sampling and analysis of fish, photography and filmmaking, following traditional First Nations protocols, understanding climate change issues and long range contaminants, as well as general communications and life skills. The youth conducted interviews with Elders and community members, in collaboration with AICBR’s Co-Founder and Principal Investigator, Norma Kassi. This process enriched channels of communication, especially between Elders and youth, and was a mutually enriching experience for all. This approach is truly what co-learning is all about: not only are researchers learning from the community, but also the community is connected through the process; youth and Elders are learning from and sharing with each other.

Participation in the project also opened doors and expanded horizons for many people involved. For the youth, the experience of traditional net fishing in Kluane Lake with their Elders, bringing that fish to the lab at the University of Waterloo, learning how to test, process and analyse it for contamination, and then taking back the good news to their community that their traditional food source is healthy and safe to eat, was very powerful. For the scientists at the University of Waterloo who were doing the contaminant analysis, it was the first time that they had welcomed Indigenous youth to the lab, so it was also a learning opportunity for them. After one youth attended the University of Waterloo during Phase II (2009-2010) for fish testing, she wondered excitedly about which university she was going to apply to when she finishes high school.

In these past two days, I have learned about past traditions, what our future might look like, and what I can do to help right now. I may not have learned how to change the climate, but I have learned ways to help KFN members get what they want out of the Nourishing Our Future project. There are a lot of projects that would be good for our community to have, such as a greenhouse or gardens. I look forward to helping out my friends and the families of Burwash. — Alanna Dickson, KFN Youth Researcher as part of Nourishing Our Future project

I was a little concerned about joining this workshop with this nourishing food project only because I was hesitant to participate. But now that I have a little more clarity about the purpose of this project, I’m glad that I’ll have an opportunity to express my opinion about the project through my expertise in filming. Coming up with a final video was simple enough. After Norma’s presentation on the first day of training, I was inspired enough to actually have an idea for the final video. Two videos will have to be made: the first video being a short two minute, inspiring, awareness video; the second being longer with insightful, controversial video for to people to get worked up on— getting close with Elders and the younger people. It’ll be stressful like most productions are, but at least I’m doing something for my community and my land in hopes that a very strong message will be sent. — Jared Dulac, KFN Youth Researcher & Videographer as part of Nourishing Our Future project

The Kluane First Nations people share their homelands with the highest glacial mountains in Canada and one of the largest lakes in Yukon; they have relied on the land for generations and are at the forefront of climate change. With fast melting glaciers, warming temperatures, altered landscapes, and shifting wildlife behaviours and plant growth patterns, the land that Kluane people call Ä si Keyi, or “Our Grandfather’s land” is changing rapidly before their eyes. Despite this, the people are reclaiming their land and harnessing their own solutions through remembrance, reconnection, and revitalization. By building capacity of youth in community-based research and using film to document culture, traditional knowledge and changes related to climate and food security, the film and project integrate traditional and modern ways of knowing, imagining a new way forward for the future.

The Partnership – Selkirk First Nation’s Keeping Our Traditions, 2015-2016

This project, Keeping Our Traditions, was an initiative of the Selkirk First Nation (SFN) government to find strategies for maintaining and strengthening traditional Northern Tutchone practices, values and knowledge amidst the challenges of a changing climate and reconnecting youth to the land. The SFN government invited AICBR to partner with them on the project. The results of this project are also reported in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Northern Public Affairs. Many Northern communities consider traditional practices as a pathway to mental health and wellness for First Nation youth. Fish camp, in particular, is a traditional Tutchone cultural practice that is being threatened by declining fish populations and shifting landscapes due to climate change, which has raised concerns in the community about what to do at fish camp when there are no fish. The significance of fish camp goes beyond just fishing, but is a critical time for knowledge exchange, reconnecting to the land, spending quality time with family, practicing culture, learning and following traditional laws of respect, caring and sharing, and promoting mental health and wellness.

Every salmon season, being at fish camp was like coming alive of ourselves and our traditions — “like a flower blooming in the summer, in full bloom” — a time to learn and carry on old Tutchone traditions. Look, learn, and do. Bringing traditions alive like a flower blooming in the summer. — Roger Alfred, Elder, Selkirk First Nation

This project has deepened understandings of how traditional knowledge and practices, particularly as they relate to fish camp, are being impacted by climate change and how they can be harnessed to promote community and youth mental wellness and strategically adapt to climate change. Community engagement and youth capacity building formed central pillars to this work. AICBR worked closely with the SFN Community Advisory Committee to ensure all activities were designed with community needs in mind and were carried out in the most ethical and culturally appropriate manner; this ensured community ownership over the research process. A local community coordinator was also hired and youth engagement and training/workshops were carried out and co-facilitated with BYTE Empowering Youth Society from Whitehorse.

The Production – Keeping Our Traditions

The short Keeping Our Traditions film was produced by Robert Joe, a Selkirk First Nation filmmaker and youth. It is an outcome of the project, which shows youth participating in winter fish camp activities at Tatla’mun (Lake) near Pelly Crossing, Yukon Territory. In the film, a special speech from Selkirk’s Chief Kevin McGinty to the youth highlights how experiential learning on the land is an integral way of promoting traditional Northern Tutchone skills and knowledge so that Selkirk First Nation people may thrive despite the many challenges in today’s world. He speaks of the rapid changes in climate, some of which are being witnessed in front of their eyes with the uncharacteristically warm temperatures at the time of filming in late January. He emphasizes the paramount importance of Elders’ teachings and he refers to this knowledge and way of life as “the gift from their ancestors to the youth of today.”

Here is an excerpt of his message to the youth at the winter fish camp:

Wanted to come to show my support to this project, and actually came to quite a surprise … so [many] youth here. And that’s something that I’m really happy to see. That our youth are participating [in] on-the-land activities … being open minded about, you know, traditional knowledge and utilizing what we have as a First Nation, a blessing of resources around us. Our Elders always are telling stories about their experiences and how they lived on the land and what the land provided for them. We look at today and where we’re at with the progression of the world … and materials and things are getting invented every day and technology is out there. And, we’re slowly trying to comprehend and get a grasp of that and how we fit into society and what is the purpose of life. You know, I’m actually quite proud to see that these teachings that are being demonstrated here today [are] actually being taught to you guys. You guys participated in some of the cutting of the holes for the fishnet under the ice … it’s, ah, a lot of hard work, it’s nothing easy. But that’s what it takes when you’re out on the land … Nothing comes easy. It’s unforgiving. But if you know those skills and you practice those skills in a safe manner, the bounty of the land will provide for you … — Chief Kevin McGinty, speaking to youth participating in the Winter Fish Camp

The People – Perspectives from Selkirk First Nation 

Ten youth participated in the Winter Fish Camp and two youth researchers were hired to conduct interviews with Elders, alongside AICBR’s Norma Kassi and Research Associate Marilyn Van Bibber, who is also a Selkirk First Nation citizen. The youth were trained in a variety of topics including photography, running a winter fish camp, on-the-land workshops on climate change, mental health and wellness, community-based research processes, life skills and communication, and traditional practices of Selkirk people. The focus of the training balanced the subject material (climate change and mental health) with strength-based views of how traditional knowledge can counteract these forces and play a positive role in the lives of youth. The youth enjoyed the time with the traditional teachers and it was a mutual feeling for the Elders as well.

Photo credit: Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research

Chief Kevin McGinty speaking to youth at the Winter Fish Camp on Tatla’mun Lake, Yukon.

Despite climate change and declining salmon populations, Selkirk First Nation people remain strong in their culture and are determined to carry on the tradition of fish camps, whether or not there are fish. The whole community came together to brainstorm ideas about what could be done at the fish camp to keep the practices and vital traditional knowledge sharing alive. A focus group was also held with high school students about ideas on future camp curriculum. Some ideas that were brought forth included: hunting small and large game; bush survival skills; walking on the land; clearing creek beds; culture camps; monitoring the river flow; and arts and crafts, among other activities. Many ideas were exchanged and a renewed sense of hope for the future emerged. Some of the significant observations from the youth researchers involved were:

[We saw] how little salmon there are now; how many bees there are at the fish camps; how everyone participated in the interviews (was it because we are their people?); fish camps were welcoming ([which] may be because we are young and were asking questions).

Selkirk First Nation has been taking action by “thinking outside the box” in order to keep traditions alive and to promote the return of the salmon. It continues to host an annual May Gathering each spring, where the Elders from all three Northern Tutchone communities in the Yukon come together on the land to share and celebrate traditional knowledge with youth and community members. Selkirk First Nation has also implemented a sonar monitoring system to document the returning Yukon River salmon in the Pelly River. The results of the Keeping Our Traditions research project compliment SFN’s ongoing work to ensure traditional knowledge and way of life continues for today’s Northern Tutchone youth.

Elders possess the traditional knowledge of the land and of our culture. We need to utilize their knowledge before it is lost. We need to talk more to our young about how past generations learned from Elders and that preserving culture is important. We need to encourage mutual respect. Youth must respect their Elders and Elders must respect youth. Having good, non-judgmental communication will help create an inclusive, inviting environment for youth to come and learn in. — Participant, Key Informant Interviews, Selkirk First Nation

The Partnership – Climate Change and Health Research in Northern Yukon, 2007-2011

The Climate Change and Health Research in Northern Yukon project was a three-phase food security and climate change initiative in Old Crow, Yukon. The project was initiated by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN) citizens in Old Crow, who invited AICBR to work with them on a community-based research project to address their concerns about changes to their traditional harvesting and hunting areas as well as the distribution and abundance of traditional food species. Youth were an important part of the project from the outset and were involved in a large community gathering and participated in workshops with International Polar Year researchers, where they learned about environmental changes in the Old Crow area. At this gathering, Elders shared valuable traditional knowledge and community members shared thoughtful wisdom and advice with the youth. This was a unique opportunity to merge scientific, Indigenous and local knowledge about climate change with the youth and build a food security strategy on the needs and strengths of the community. Phase II focused on learning what food security adaptation strategies the community had been doing which could be built upon in the future to help cope with rapid environmental changes. Youth were trained as community researchers and interviewed members of their community with AICBR. The research for the third phase of the project (2010-2011) focused on assisting and facilitating the community in determining how Old Crow could implement their recommendations from Phase II and put them into action in order to address food security issues.

The Production – Our Changing Homelands Our Changing Lives

Our Changing Homelands Our Changing Lives was one of the first films AICBR developed with a community as part of a CBR project. The film takes you on a journey from nearly 20 years ago up to 2007 with a community whose very survival is at risk. The land that has sustained the Vuntut Gwitchin, People of the Lakes, is undergoing rapid environmental changes like many Northern and Arctic communities. The film demonstrates the close ties that the Vuntut Gwitchin have to the land, including some of the challenges that come with life in the far North. Yudii Mercredi, a Gwich’in youth, narrates the film and speaks of the knowledge transfer from ancestors and some of the changes that are occurring in the wildlife and to the land.

We are taught from a very young age how to skin animals, how to prepare drying racks, how to dry meat, and to honour our ancestors. We know that by caring for the land and honouring the past that the land will care for us … The land has provided us for thousands of years. But it is not always certain what it will bring or when. — Yudii Mercredi, Narrator of the Our Changing Homelands Our Changing Lives film

The People – Vuntut Gwitchin Youth

Seven youth were chosen to be film and research trainees based on their participation and interest in the climate change workshop held in 2008/2009. Three of those youth worked closely with AICBR’s (then Arctic Health Research Network: Yukon) Katelyn Friendship, now Co-Director, and Norma Kassi, who is a Vuntut Gwitchin citizen, to interview 30 members of their community as part of the project. The other four youth worked with film producer, Tookie Mercredi, on film training throughout the summer. In addition to the main film, the four youth produced their own trailers about their concerns over food security and climate change in their community, including commentary on culture, connection and strong traditions still alive and well in Old Crow. These trailers were compiled into a short film called The Good the Bad and the Ugly, which is available on AICBR’s website.

Because of being involved in the project, some students took a keen interest in applying what they learned over the summer of 2009 to contribute to ongoing climate change work in the North. One youth, in particular, was a participant in the Young Leaders’ Summit on Northern Climate Change in Inuvik in August 2009 and took part in the Canadian Youth Delegation at the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, December 2009. At the beginning of Phase III (2010), another youth asked to join the team after watching and learning about the project activities from Phase II and later became actively engaged. From this experience, she said she learned a lot about food security and climate change issues and wanted to continue to help her community through studying to become a nutritionist. Another young man who was involved in the project was very engaged in the science and environmental aspects of the project and later decided to pursue science in his academic career.

I’ve learned a lot from the interviews that we have done, learning stories I have never heard before, about skills on the land, and also different ways that we can be prepared if hard times do come to Old Crow. — April Kassi, Vuntut Gwitchin youth researcher, Newsletter: Community Update 2009

We have been researching on salmon and how they live … Out of all the weeks we have been working, we improved on our researching skills. All the researching and interviews we have done is for gathering information for a plan on how we are going to survive with the declining of traditional foods. — Daniel Frost and Dustin Charlie, Vuntut Gwitchin youth researchers, Newsletter: Community Update 2009

Promoting Youth Wellness Through Community-Based Research and Filmmaking 

Community-based research is more than just the co-production of knowledge; it builds community, brings people together and offers a way for community voices to be heard. Community-based research in the North often takes place out on the land, whilst at harvest and fish camps or at other community gatherings. It is organic and collaborative, and forms a part of everyday life of the community, thus the change that occurs from participating in the research also stays within the community. When one harnesses community strengths and works to empower community from the inside out, what is left is not a one-off or one-sided project, where the expertise and benefits leave with outside researchers, but the whole community is raised up and the knowledge and experiences continue to serve the community long after the project is completed.

Films are an important part of the CBR process that AICBR employs as they are considered powerful ways of sharing stories; engaging youth in the process of filmmaking and CBR has a profound impact on their lives and on their community. These films are also important awareness-raising tools for climate change adaptation education in the North. They bring to life the stories of the ancestors and provide a lens to imagine a better future. Animating traditional knowledge is especially impactful in this time of rapid environmental and societal change, as each Elder passes away they take with them the knowledge of the previous generation. Providing opportunities for youth to engage with their Elders and witness the past through their eyes is vital. Equally powerful is the opportunity for Elders and others to see the world through the eyes of the youth. Imagery, visual representation of community life and important traditions is illuminating as youth can see themselves within it; every community member has access to the film, thus allowing the activities, practices, knowledge, and stories to be integrated into the very fabric of community. As the famous saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand wordsso isn’t, then, a video worth a thousand pictures?

With new emerging technologies, youth have access to tools that can be used to bring tradition to the forefront and can contribute to innovative and transformative plans for their communities. What AICBR has heard loud and clear from youth is that they want to have a voice in their future. While they often have competing priorities and face many challenges in their daily lives, getting the opportunity to be a part of a community-grown project, where they can reconnect with their land and their culture, using their creativity and imagination, allows them to contribute in meaningful ways towards social change and cultural revival. ◉

Norma Kassi, Molly Pratt, Marilyn Van Bibber, Katelyn Friendship, and Jody Butler Walker are from the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research; Math’ieya Alatini and Mary Jane Johnson are from Kluane First Nation; Roger Alfred and Eugene Alfred are from Selkirk First Nation. We’d also like to acknowledge all the community members, especially the youth and Elders who were involved in these projects as well as the Kluane First Nation Lands, Resources and Heritage Department, and the Vuntut Gwitchin Natural Resources Department.

AICBR would also like to take this opportunity to wholeheartedly thank the generous funders of these three projects, namely, Health Canada’s Climate Change and Health Adaptation in the North (KFN, SFN & VGFN projects), Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s Northern Contaminants Program (KFN project), Yukon Fish and Wildlife Enhancement Trust (KFN project), and the Dän Keyi Renewable Resources Council (KFN project).


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