Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

Bridging the Divide

PhD student Denise Golden and First Nations communities together tackle climate change issues in Canada’s north

Jason Dampier
Published October 24, 2011

Above: First Nations climate change research partners: (l-r) Carol Audet, Denise Golden, and Professor Peggy Smith


Denise Golden recounts the hospitality she experienced at a fly-in Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) community earlier this year while conducting research for her PhD in Forest Sciences. During a cold winter night the community's diesel generator failed, leaving the community without heat, electricity, or running water. Over the night the community pulled together to ensure everyone was taken care of. The next morning Golden was craving coffee and went out for a walk to warm up. While on her walk, she met up with a local woman whose home was equipped with a portable generator, and was invited in for some coffee.

Denise Golden's experience that cold January morning helps illustrate the changes that are taking place between researchers and First Nations community members. According to Carol Audet, NAN Director of Lands and Resources, "In the past, the relationship between academic researchers and First Nations communities has been sketchy at best." Research did not emphasize consent and was sometimes used for the researcher's own benefit, without regard for the communities' benefit.

map diagram of Nishnawbe Aski Nation Communities in Ontario, Canada

Golden's work is supervised by Dr. Peggy Smith, associate professor in the Faculty of Natural Resources Management as well as Carol Audet. All three women are working to ensure that NAN communities will benefit from the research while providing information for Golden's doctoral research.

During Golden's field work, she travelled over 6,000 km, staying in ten of the 49 NAN communities. Over this three-month period she conducted 45 interviews which spanned a geographic area of over 110,000 square kilometres. Her research took her to communities from near the northern Manitoba border to the eastern James Bay coast.

Denise Golden's research is focused on studying the effects of climate change on the land and the community members who rely so dearly on these lands. A two-way knowledge exchange was part of the research project design from the onset. For example, Golden would learn of novel climate observations from traditional land users, and she, in turn, would share the latest scientific knowledge on climate change and boreal forest carbon cycles with them. Through this approach, Golden hopes that the research will bridge First Nations and scientific views.

Another anticipated outcome of Golden's research is to better equip the communities in their own land management decisions and climate change adaption activities. In late 2010, the Ontario government passed The Far North Act in order to, among other things, address climate change. According to Audet, the Act will have a negative effect on far north First Nations communities, as it sets aside and limits their traditional lands as protected areas. Golden points out that permanent road building may not be permitted through some areas. Currently, ice roads in winter are the only option for the economical transportation of goods and services into these remote communities – and the seasonal roads are already being compromised by a changing climate.

Golden also hopes her research will find new ways to look at climate change issues. It brings First Nations' voices and perspectives into the climate change discussion, which is often overlooked. "They live in the forest, know the land, and understand there are changes going on there. Their knowledge may shed light on things that science has not considered," says Golden. Part of the research is documenting those observed changes. Many of the land users whom Golden met are observing changes that are corroborated by climate researchers. "What is coming out in the scientific reports, you also hear in the communities," she says.

Editors Note

Funding for this project was provided by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Professor Harvey Lemelin, Lakehead University SSHRC Research Chair in Parks and Protected Areas, NAN, and the communities Denise Golden visited.


Jason Dampier
Spark Lakehead logo

Jason Dampier (Dipl For'98, BSc'98, MScF '06) is one of several Lakehead students taking part in SPARK – Lakehead, a student writing program sponsored by The Chronicle-Journal.

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