Dealing with Environmental Contaminants in Labrador

The Labrador Eco-Research Steering Committee

We are Sikumiut—"the people of the sea ice." The Labrador Inuit, occupants of northern Labrador for thousands of years, now live in five small communities along the northern coast of Labrador and in the upper Lake Melville area. Our way of life has always been defined by our relationship to the environment. Harvesting wildlife from the land and waters has been our primary source of food and income and the foundation of our cultural and social life. 

Our relationship to the land and its resources, especially through our harvesting activities, continues to be our most important source of psychological well-being and health. This relationship is changing, however. The loss of the ground fishery and the fur markets has had devastating effects on our communities. It has reduced our income and therefore our ability to invest in equipment and supplies that enable us to continue harvesting wildlife and gain access to our traditional foods. 

The threat of the Voisey's Bay project, in the heart of Labrador Inuit territory, is simply the most recent of a long line of changes we have experienced. By themselves, these changes pose significant threats to our way of life as Inuit; contaminants in our environment, our food, and our water make the challenges even greater. 

Nutritional value of Traditional/and Store-bought food

We live in a region that once was clean, healthy, and untouched. But we have learned that this is no longer the case. During the past 15 years our Elders have noticed and discussed changes in the environment that are similar to those reported in other regions of the North. We are part of a much larger Inuit culture spanning Arctic Canada, Alaska, and Greenland, and we hear of contamination in the people and environments of other northern regions. We wonder to what extent our environment and people are affected. We have seen more sick animals, significant changes in their behaviour and health, and fewer numbers of some species. In 1987, provincial officials told us not to eat the livers or kidneys of our caribou because they were contaminated with cadmium. In 1989 we were told of PCBs on a radar site in a region of northern Labrador extensively fished and hunted by Inuit. In 1997 we are still trying to determine the extent of this contamination and the most effective way to clean it up. Mining is also of great concern to residents in our region. People are concerned about the effect on health from past uranium mining activities and looming nickel mining operations. 

During the past three years we have begun to investigate some of these questions through our involvement in the Tri-Council Eco-Research programme. A local research office and a steering committee to oversee and direct projects here in Labrador have made a significant contribution, even though funding is scarce and we face many other issues daily. We have started to gather information and we have begun to educate our community health and environmental workers on these issues through two workshops held in co-operation with the people at the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment. 

Despite these activities, relatively little attention has been given to the situation in Labrador. In many national programmes and projects we are not considered part of the "northern" regions although we face the same issues and circumstances. We feel that we can contribute a great deal and would benefit from inclusion in such initiatives at all stages of information collection, decision making, and communication. As well, we believe strongly that many of these issues must be dealt with from a regional perspective. For others—such as environmental contamination—that go far beyond the reaches of our communities yet are central to our lives, national and international efforts must be marshalled. No matter what the scope, however, we need to include and listen to those affected daily by these contaminants to find solutions to the existing problems. Only then can we begin to deal with these issues threatening all people of the North. 

Labrador Eco-Research Steering Committee, Labrador Inuit Association.

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