Partnership for Effective Communication

By Judy Farrow

Ask anyone in the Northwest Territories what he or she has learned from the Northern Contaminants Program and the answer probably will be a question such as, "Is our food safe to eat?" or "What's being done about the dump?" 

Everyone knows there is a problem, but technical reports, their summaries, and visits by research scientists don't provide the answers for the average person living in a small community north of 60°. The questions and answers need a context. People want direct, simple answers to questions about their specific situation, but even after six years of extensive research we are not able to provide them. Is our food safe to eat? An unqualified "yes" or "no" is neither correct nor ethical; but why these answers are inappropriate is difficult to communicate across cultures. 

While Métis and other Aboriginal people tend to view problems holistically, western scientific methodology is not always able to accommodate that scope; the questions that science can answer are not necessarily the questions being asked by Aboriginal people. Scientific research is able to give us information about specific facets of a problem, but it has practical limitations. Limitations of scientific method, accepted and understood by the scientific community, are not always fully explained to the larger population. If they are not communicated at the outset, the process is open to media exploitation of its limitations. Cross-cultural communication is essential both before and after research. 

The Arctic Environmental Strategy (AES) had four components: Action on Contaminants; Action on Waste; Action on Water; and Action on the Environment/Economy Integration. The AES ended on 31 March 1997, and has been replaced, in part, by the Northern Contaminants Program— implemented as NCP Phase II (NCP-II). The NCP was the AES component with the broadest scope, addressing contaminants and their impact on individuals living in northern Canada as well as international action on the use of substances that ultimately contaminate the global environment. 

The NCP was directed by technical and management committees that included representatives from northern Aboriginal organizations (Council of Yukon First Nations, Dene Nation, Métis Nation-NWT, Inuit Tapirisat Canada, and Inuit Circumpolar Conference), Yukon and NWT health and environment departments, federal government departments (Health Canada, Environment Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada), and academic institutions conducting research in the Arctic. This programme and style of management allowed the Métis Nation-NWT to participate in both the management and the project levels; the Aboriginal partners played a major role in directing the priorities and setting the goals that are important to northerners. Northern communities participated in the design of research projects and negotiated with the researcher how results should be published or released. Much of the NCP research in Dene/Métis communities, for example, was conducted following negotiated research agreements with the communities involved. 

The Métis people, for whom respect for the environment and education are priorities, have made important contributions to the development of the Northwest Territories. The Arctic Environmental Strategy: Northern Contaminants Program (AES: NCP) provided an opportunity to address their areas of concern. Métis are now concerned that, although the issue of contaminants affects everyone in northern Canada without regard for political boundaries or ethnic origin, the five-year renewal of NCP Phase II has been announced with a commitment for only one year of funding. The executive of the Métis Nation-NWT has been directed by its membership at the Annual General Assembly to address this urgent issue and to demand, in the strongest terms, that participating departments of the Government of Canada commit financial resources to fund adequately the five years of work identified for NCP-II.  

The active participation of the Métis Nation and other Aboriginal organizations at the managerial level of the NCP has helped shape the programme to include a large education and communications component. 

In this respect, the NCP has provided us with a model that can accommodate and foster respect for some common sense solutions. We must build on the model of government and Aboriginal partnerships established in Phase I. Knowledge gaps identified in Phase I should be addressed, and a process for ongoing monitoring of contaminant levels needs to be established. Continuing the partnership with Aboriginal organizations, the NCP must address the broader concerns of northern residents about contaminants. Education and communication are key components that will enable us to answer the complex question, "Is the food safe to eat?"; or perhaps even more important, to understand that this question is not necessarily the best question we could ask.

Judy Farrow is Education Co-ordinator, Métis Nation.

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