Caribou workshop in Arviat, Nunavut
If you had told me three years ago that I’d be spending a week in Nunavut educating school groups, members of the community, hunters, and biologists on parasites and diseases of caribou, I would have thought you were crazy. Yet, on November 3, I found myself making the long journey from Guelph up to the fly in community of Arviat to do just that.
When I was first approached to participate in this workshop, I really didn’t know what to expect. It was predominantly a workshop on contaminants in caribou, but after the organizers spoke with members of the community, the decision was made to include someone who could speak on parasites since that was a large concern for hunters. And to my surprise, I was the lucky one who got selected, never mind the fact that the only caribou I’ve ever had the opportunity to examine were farmed reindeer (which if you weren’t aware, caribou and reindeer are the same species, but there are obvious physical differences that help differentiate between them). Since my main background in deer species were white-tailed deer and moose, I did have to dive into the books just to make sure that I covered all the parasites and diseases that seemed to be important. After a few weeks of preparation, I felt ready to share all of this knowledge with community members.
Then I stepped off the plane in the -15oC weather and started to rethink what I was doing. It was cold in Guelph when I left, but this is southern Ontario in November cold so going from 5oC to -15oC (and that doesn’t take into account how windy it was there) was a harsh reality. I’m sure I looked quite the site with my giant boots and completely covered body with only my eyes exposed to the elements, especially when you compared me to the locals who were often seen whipping around on ATVs considerably less bundled up.
If the shock of the change in weather wasn’t enough, I quickly also learned of a danger that I’d never had to think about before. The threat from polar bears is a real danger this time of year in that community. As we were headed to the car in the airport parking lot to bring us to the hotel, the wildlife technician who was driving us mentioned that the airport staff had come out a couple of hours earlier to check the parking lot and noticed a polar bear sitting on the hood of one of the cars. I was also told that the conservation officers had to go out to the dump a few days earlier to scare off a good dozen or more bears and it wasn’t uncommon for them to wander into town. You can bet after hearing all of this that anytime I was walking around the town, I was hyperaware of my surroundings. Luckily there isn’t much topography or any trees to hide behind so I was fairly confident that I’d see a bear and have a good head start if I needed it, plus you only have to be faster than the slowest person in a group so I tried to travel with a slow group whenever I could (that was a joke in case it wasn’t obvious).
After my arrival and weather/culture shock faded, we got to work preparing for the upcoming workshop. The workshop was run from Tuesday, November 5 through Thursday, November 7. The first day we gave talks to a couple of classes at the local high school as well as to the BQCMB caribou board. There was plenty of good discussion about what some of these biologists and hunters had seen in the field and what I was presenting on. It was definitely a nice way to ease me into the routine of talking about these topics and gave me a bit of time to prepare for the next day, which was going to be the most challenging day since it was time for the middle school kids to invade the community hall.
We had been told that the middle school children had more energy than all the other ages put together, and we were nervous about being able to maintain their interest. We set up early in the morning and I had my table of parasites (including nasal bot fly larvae, winter ticks from moose, Setaria spp. [a type of roundworm] from the abdomen of deer, and tapeworm cysts [Taenia spp.] from the liver of a deer) and a dissecting microscope ready to go. It all started innocently enough as they came in small waves, but then more kept coming and the next thing I knew, there were kids running around everywhere, some holding net launchers (thankfully unloaded) and others sprinting around with helicopter helmets on (these were all provided by the conservation officers and biologists from the local government office). Luckily, one of the main organizers had done workshops with school aged children before and had half the hall roped off for a rousing game of food chain tag. It turned out to be a successful and rewarding morning.
We had the elementary school come the next day and they were much more reserved than the middle school. By far my favourite part of the trip was putting a nasal bot larva or winter tick under the microscope and hearing all the kids yell “EWWWW” or “that’s disgusting!!!!”, which was immediately followed by “I want to see more!!!!”.
In addition to speaking with the school kids, there was a community feast on the Wednesday evening. This was definitely an intimidating environment as I had to give a brief 10-minute talk on parasites and diseases of caribou, but I had to work with an interpreter so that all community members could understand what I was talking about. It can be very challenging to choose wording that you think can be translated easily in order to get across the point, but I think I did a decent job for my first time out (I didn’t get booed off stage, so I’ll take that as a win). Once the talks were done then I got to try a few caribou delicacies (whipped bone marrow as well as liver pâté) and some caribou stew, which were all delicious in case you were curious.
Overall it was a successful week and I wasn’t nearly as cold as I initially feared. I think I accomplished everything I had set out to do and received a lot of good feedback from my talks and made a number of good connections, which I’m hoping will help us to do a better job of wildlife disease surveillance in Nunavut.
I did want to thank a few people who made this trip possible. The Government of Nunavut funded my airfare and rooming while I was there and Mitch Campbell (the regional biologist in Arviat) helped to secure and coordinate that funding for me. Keenan Lindell was the wildlife technician who got the lucky job of shuttling us around town when we needed it and was very helpful in coordinating with the conservation officers and young hunters to attend another talk I gave. Keenan also worked with Mitch to help secure the funding for my trip. Jeremy Brammer from Environment Canada organized a lot of the activities for the school groups (including the life-saving food chain tag game) and seemed to show up with all of the electronic equipment you ever thought you might need for this including the dissecting microscope that I used at my parasite table. Mary Gamberg was the main organizer of the workshop and this was her brainchild and I’m grateful that she allowed me to tag along and steal some of the thunder away from the great contaminant research work that her and her partners do in the north.
For someone who has never travelled further north than Ottawa, this was definitely a great experience and I hope it won’t be the last time that I get to work with communities in Nunavut.
Wildlife pathologist CWHC-ON/NU