Co-management led research and sharing space on the pathway to Inuit self-determination in research

Jamie Snook, Ashlee Cunsolo, & Aaron Dale

During the past 50 years, Inuit throughout Inuit Nunangat have steadily asserted their rights over their lands and waters by pushing back against colonial policies through political organization, filing court injunctions over rights and sovereignty, and establishing national inquiries on development in the North. These processes have also led to four completed land claim negotiations: the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) in 1984; Nunavut in 1993; Nunatsiavut in 2005; and Nunavik in 2008. Another land claim is currently being asserted in Labrador (NunatuKavut). These mobilizations have also led to the emergence of culturally-relevant organizations that support health, wellness, culture, language, and community development, and reclaim Inuit sovereignty and self-determination.

One outcome of this political mobilization and the land claims processes is a robust network of wildlife co-management boards, regional wildlife organizations, hunting and trapping organizations, and committees across Inuit Nunangat. These co-management boards, such as the Fisheries Joint Management Committee and the Wildlife Management Advisory Committee NWT in the ISR, the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board in Nunavut, and the Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-Management Board in Nunatsiavut, play essential roles in decision-making. This network of co-management across Inuit Nunangat has continually evolved since the 1980s and has matured into a strong network for Inuit inclusion, collaboration, and stewardship.


Torngat Mountain Caribou. Photo Credit: Serge Couturier


These co-management boards are also responsible for conducting and reviewing research to support evidence-based decision-making about species within the land claims regions. In many cases, co-management boards are overstretched and under-resourced, creating barriers to conducting co-management-led research and fulfilling this aspect of their mandates. Yet, designing and leading research through these boards can be an essential component of self-determination and sovereignty over research. Indeed, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national Inuit organization, argues that “Inuit self-determination in research means that Inuit have oversight in setting the research agenda in our regions and communities, work as equal partners with researchers in the design, implementation and dissemination of research, and have access to and – as appropriate – control over how information gathered about our population is used and disseminated” (ITK, 2016). In this light, co-management boards can be one such network to support Inuit research sovereignty and determination.

This article highlights the ways in which a co-management board in Nunatsiavut, Labrador, responded to Inuit requests for research around caribou management and stewardship. It illustrates opportunities for co-management boards to be understood and supported as Inuit-led research organizations, producing research that responds to pressing needs in the North.


Map: The Labrador Inuit Settlement Area, Torngat Mountains National Park, and the Torngat Mountains Caribou Herd Range. Map by Bryn Wood, Torngat Secretariat.


Co-management in Nunatsiavut
The Nunatsiavut region of Inuit Nunangat was formed on December 1, 2005, emerging from 40 years of concerted political mobilization from the Labrador Inuit Association. Nunatsiavut is home to approximately 2,500 people, comprising 4% of the Inuit population in Canada. There are five communities in the land claims settlement area (North to South): Nain, Hopedale, Postville, Makkovik, and Rigolet.

The Labrador Inuit Land Claim Agreement (LILCA), the legal framework that underpins the Nunatsiavut settlement region, is a negotiated agreement between the Government of Canada, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Nunatsiavut Government (formerly the Labrador Inuit Association). As part of the agreement, two co-management boards were created, including the Torngat Joint Fisheries Board and the Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-Management Board, both supported by the Torngat Wildlife, Plants, and Fisheries Secretariat (Snook et al., 2018). These Boards are responsible for providing advice to ministers on migratory species and making decisions on non-migratory species, based on the best possible and available evidence from both Inuit and Western scientific approaches, in order to support decisions for stewardship and management of renewable resources.

The Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-Management Board (TWPCB) is comprised of three Inuit representatives, two provincial representatives, one federal representative, and one independent chair. Decision-making occurs in a “shared space,” where the different roles and responsibilities in the management of critical species come together to reach consensus on management decisions (Fig 1). The shared space created by the TWPCB is not static and has continued to evolve over the first 12 years of land claims implementation as the Board has become more established and mature. One of the key components of this evolution is a focus on leading research and, in recent years, the TWPCB has focused on building capacity to analyze and synthesize research and to collaborate on community and Inuit-led research. This process is perhaps best illustrated through recent research led by the Secretariat and the Board around the Torngat Mountains caribou herd.

Co-management-led research and Torngat Mountains caribou
The Torngat Mountains caribou herd (TMCH) is a small montane herd, mainly defined by their geographic distribution within the Torngat Mountains, with a population size of approximately 1,000. Inuit from both Nunatsiavut and Nunavik have harvested from this herd, and have identified this herd as distinct, based on their location, behaviour, size, and taste. This herd has always held an important place for Inuit, supporting them in the region for generations, and holding much historic and spiritual significance. Yet, from a management perspective, little was known about the herd, due to budgetary constraints and their remote habitat.


Figure 1: A conceptual representation of the ‘shared space’ of co-management research, recommendations, actions, and decision-making.


In 2010, Nainimmuit raised concerns with the Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-Management Board about the future of the TMCH, as the adjacent and sometimes overlapping George River caribou herd was in the middle of a precipitous decline. The community was worried that the TMCH might not be able to endure extra harvesting pressure due to an impending ban on the George River herd. These community concerns mobilized discussions in the region with provincial and federal representatives, and it was soon realized that there was little useful scientific knowledge about the herd, and that the extensive Inuit knowledge and wisdom around the TMCH had not previously been documented. These discussions evolved into the creation of a TWPCB-led research project that would unite Inuit science with Western science to co-create critically-needed research and knowledge on the Torngat Mountains herd that would be robust, rich, usable, and timely.

Research was gathered through three complementary processes: 1) an in-depth traditional knowledge study with Inuit in Nain, Nunatsiavut, and Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik (Wilson et al., 2014); 2) fitting 25 caribou in the herd with satellite telemetry collars to track their seasonal movements and land use patterns; and 3) aerial distance sampling surveys to understand population distribution and abundance. Data and wisdom from the traditional knowledge study helped to define the TMCH as distinct and important; shared valuable historic and cultural understanding of the importance of this herd; provided much-needed insights on previous herd abundance; and mapped out the parameters for the aerial surveys. The data gathered from satellite telemetry was then combined with the traditional knowledge study, and final decisions were made around the geographic boundaries of future aerial surveys. After the 2014 survey, the herd population was estimated to be around 930 animals. Another survey in 2017 estimated the herd size of 1,326 (Couturier et al., 2015, 2018).

The aerial surveys conducted in 2014 and 2017 represent an important collaboration between the TWCPB and Inuit (as represented by the Nunatsiavut Government, the Makivik Corporation, the Kativik Regional Government and Nunavik Parks, the communities of Nain and Kangiqsualujjuaq), Parks Canada, and the Governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec. The partnerships that emerged around this issue were critical to the success of this research and underpinned all aspects of the work. Inuit in Nain and Kangiqsualujjuaq were instrumental in all aspects of the project, from identifying and prioritizing the need to research the Torngat Mountains caribou, through the design of the methods and the study area, through participation in the field, and to the interpretation of results.

Inuit knowledge and co-management empowerment
This new research and knowledge on the Torngat Mountains caribou herd has empowered Inuit in the region with new knowledge, creating a stronger base of research from which to make decisions and recommendations in the future, based on the newly co-produced knowledge. This research has also proven to have regional and national benefits, providing policy makers at other levels of decision-making with needed research and information. For example, in 2013, when the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessed the Torngat Mountains caribou herd, it was unable to make a decision about the status of the herd due to lack of data. Following the TWPCB-led research project, the Committee has now been able to recommend that the TMCH be designated as endangered (COSEWIC, 2017).

Through this experience, we have witnessed the ways in which co-management-led research can produce positive outcomes in the areas of knowledge gathering, knowledge sharing, knowledge integration, knowledge interpretation, and knowledge application (Dale & Armitage, 2011). However, this research is not easy. There are challenges to doing research in the North that include high costs, remote landscapes, inter-jurisdictional roles and responsibilities, research politics, different worldviews, geo-politics, and local stress associated with processes such as climate change and large-scale development pressures. In addition, co-management boards are often not resourced or trained to conduct their own research, leading to gaps in internal organizational capacities. Despite these challenges, however, organizations like the Torngat Secretariat are continuing to find ways to support the research needs of their regions to add further richness and diversity to the research landscape in the North.

Conclusion: A pathway towards land claims honour and self-determination
We share this particular case study of co-management-led research and its impacts in hopes of highlighting the ways in which Indigenous people, researchers, governments, and decision-makers can benefit and learn from the robust co-management network that exists in Canada. Now, more than ever, is the time to trust, empower, and encourage the full implementation of co-management processes that have been negotiated through land claim agreements, and to understand the importance of these organizations within the research landscape.

Within the current climate of reconciliation and building nation-to-nation relationships in Canada, and the increasing understanding of the need for Northern-led research, the “shared space” of co-management is a strategic way to support research in the North. Co-management boards have community connections, the opportunity to integrate knowledge systems for robust research, experience with navigating bureaucracy, financial resources for leverage, and the ability to influence harvest decisions and conservation recommendations to decision-makers. And, perhaps most importantly, co-management boards have clear processes and mandates that provide constitutionally-protected rights through the land claims processes to support the health and flourishing of people and the land in Inuit Nunangat.

The co-management boards across Canada are an important outcome of the land claims political mobilization process, and the research they lead not only represents the implementation of land claims, but also furthers the visions for Inuit sovereignty and determination. ◉


Jamie Snook, is the Executive Director of Torngat Wildlife Plants and Fisheries Secretariat, a Public Health PhD at the University of Guelph, and a 2017 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar.

Ashlee Cunsolo, PhD, is the Director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, a former Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Healthy Communities and Associate Professor , and a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists.

Aaron Dale is the Wildlife and Plants Research Program Manager with the Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-Management Board, and formerly served in the role of Policy Analyst.

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