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Jan. 30, 2018

Life can lead in the most unexpected directions.

“I wasn’t planning a master’s degree,” says Kaitlin Kok, a master’s student in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Geography and Environmental Studies program, working with supervisors Alison Blay-Palmer and Andrew Spring.

During her undergraduate degree in the Geography and Environmental Studies program at Laurier, Kok was drawn to the topic of food systems, but also had a passion for geomatics and mapping. While in the Capstone Urban Sustainability Project (CUSP) course taught by Spring, Kok fortuitously came across an opportunity to work with Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation in Kakisa, a community in the Dehcho Region of the Northwest Territories, combining food systems research and mapping.

In 2017, for the second summer in a row, Kok arrived in Kakisa to conduct field work on the Ka’a’gee Tu Atlas, a project funded by the Government of the Northwest Territories’ Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program.

Kok’s research explores how climate change impacts the land and livelihoods of communities such as Kakisa.

Using photos of the past, voice recordings to tell stories, and mapping technology, Kok hopes to document the climatic changes to the land, based on the stories from Elders and traditional knowledge, and its impact on traditional food.

“My research uses traditional knowledge to populate a web-based map to record locations of environmental change,” says Kok. “This not only allows community members to share their observations for future years, but it also records where the changes may be impacting the local food system.”

Access to traditional foods is critical to the livelihoods of Indigenous communities. Climate change is causing changes to the landscape through permafrost thaw – ground that is at or below zero degrees Celsius for two consecutive years – and altering water levels, which increase the risk to those traveling on the land to harvest traditional foods.

“Recently, two men in Kakisa were travelling back home from a hunting expedition in the spring and the snow and ice were melting fast,” says Kok. “The way the ice had melted created too much water for their Ski-Doos to travel through. The men had to return to their cabins; without cellular service in the area, they had no way to contact the band office. Fortunately, they were eventually rescued by helicopter, but these kinds of situations are extremely dangerous for community members and also very costly.”

The Ka’a’gee Tu Atlas project is helping to address these concerns by giving community members more insight on trails, safe places and potential hazards on the landscape.

Kok also worked with the Government of the Northwest Territories Geomatics office to implement a classroom activity to introduce mapping to high school students. She helped plan a canoe trip with the community school in June 2017 that involved mapping and monitoring activities along their canoe route. The students used technology to map important locations of plants, animals and culturally significant areas.

“The trip was incredible,” says Kok. “I was able to join the school trip for the pilot project and we saw moose, beavers, a bear, some otters – and a lot of mosquitoes. We even saw two moose sitting along the riverbank while canoeing the river.”

Kok also spent part of her summers helping the community run an On-the-Land camp for Indigenous youth in the region. Kok sees providing youth the opportunity to be on the land and learn from Elders as an important part of her work.

“It’s funny, kids are kids; their parents want to give them opportunities to get off their electronics and get them on the land, even when they tend to be reluctant,” says Kok.

Kok’s research approach upholds the knowledge of the community first and foremost, something instilled in her from supervisors Blay-Palmer and Spring.

“We’re doing research that the community has requested and it’s essential we value their needs for the research above all else,” says Kok. “We are working together to build something that is useful for the community.”

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