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Student helps researchers understand importance of Inuit history

A shipboard marriage of science, traditional Inuit knowledge


Last month, scientist Eddy Carmack, and Louisa Thom­as­sie, a university student from Kangirsuk, treated researchers on board the Louis St-Laurent to a unique musical composition – an original medley which combined the 1960's folk song "Where have all the flowers gone?" with Inuit throat singing.

First, the two sang together, then, as Carmack strummed the guitar, Thom­as­sie accompanied him with throat singing. The Qallunaat and Inuit music melded seamlessly, the two say.

Their shared dream is that Inuit traditional knowledge and science may one day complement each other in the same way.

But there's a lot of work to do before this happens, admits Carmack, a climate oceanographer with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Thomassie, an education student at Montreal's McGill University.

Thomassie, who taught school in Nunavik for 13 years before deciding to attend university full time, had first applied to work for the Nunavik cruise company, Cruise North, before she was recruited to work on the Canadian Coast Guard research icebreaker.

There, she worked with the International Polar Year's Three Oceans project, which is criss-crossing the Arctic with a shipload of researchers who want to learn more about how climate change affects ocean currents in the North Pacific, Arctic and North Atlantic oceans.

Thomassie's presence on the Louis St-Laurent as it travelled from Nova Scotia to Resolute Bay in Nunavut went a long way towards giving scientists a new appreciation for Inuit traditional knowledge.

"If we understand each other better, it will be easier for us to work with one another," Thomassie said.

Every evening, Thom­assie listened as scientists gave presentations, where they mostly talked about "exploring places where no one has ever gone before."

In her presentation, made with fellow student and photographer Paul Galipeau, Thomassie decided to remind everyone where they were.

Thomassie spoke about the importance of community and acceptance. "We go through rough times in our communities, but we stick together."

And she told the research­ers about the relocation of Inuit to Resolute Bay in the 1950s. She said if they want to start working with Inuit, they have to understand what Inuit have experienced in the past.

"I tried to get them to understand that maybe when the ship arrives in Resolute Bay, it may trigger some memories about the boats that relocated them."

After the presentation, a scientist said that in 20 years of working in the Arctic, he had never learned as much about the region and its people as he did that evening.

On board, Thomassie was responsible for testing water samples, which are used in the project's research.

To her surprise, Thomas­sie found the scientists weren't intimidating at all, but "great people," who turned out to be easy to work with.

"The last time I did science was in high school. So every time I sat down with them or worked with them, I had my notebook and would say ‘what does that word mean?' They patiently explained everything, spel­ling out words letter by letter. I got the bigger picture in the end," she said.

While Thomassie jokes that living together in tight quarters on a ship is the "why the Vikings became barbaric," she said her summer job gave her encouragement to think about picking up her science education again.

And, although mutual trust between scientists and Inuit won't happen over­night, Thomassie said it's worth working towards.

"We Inuit don't look for scientific explanations for how things are because we're not influenced by modern philosophy, which is realism," Thomassie said. "We're more of a spiritual people. So, if we want to reach that goal – which is to give input on Inuit traditional knowledge – we need a lot of innovation, patience and time."

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