Canadian Mountain Network (CMN) Co-Research Director, Norma Kassi, has been awarded the prestigious 2020 Arctic Inspiration Prize (AIP) for her project in Northern Canada, which will train Indigenous youth in Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship. The AIP is the largest annual prize in Canada and provides seed-funding to initiatives by Northerners for Northerners. The prize recognizes Northern innovation and excellence and encourages teamwork for the betterment of life in Canada’s North. The live awards ceremony took place on February 19th, 2021 and showcased performances from artists from across the North.
Indigenous-led stewardship is one of the most important yet underfunded approaches to achieve Canada’s climate and conservation goals. It relies on Indigenous knowledge acquired over generations, including the ways Indigenous peoples both inhabit and manage land. It is no accident that 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity exists on Indigenous-managed land, as the stewardship practices passed down for generations have cultivated healthy, sustainable environments.
Norma Kassi, CMN Co-Research Director and Recipient of the 2020 Arctic Inspiration Prize
Kaska Dena Land Guardians from Ross River, Yukon. Photo by Norma Kassi
Norma Kassi’s project, Youth Training in Ethical Knowledge Sharing and Co-production to Advance Northern, Indigenous-led Conservation and Stewardship, will train a generation of Indigenous youth to design and deliver relevant research projects using Indigenous and community-based research methods, as well as ethical approaches to knowledge sharing between Indigenous and Western ways of knowing. Youth will be trained both as guardians and researchers to develop the skills to understand, work and care for the lands and waters within their traditional territories.
Funding from AIP, together with support from CMN, will bring the total project budget to 1 million dollars, which will allow for up to 30 youth from the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunatsiavut to attend 10-day training camps in 2022 and 2023. During these training camps, youth will work together, live together, learn traditional knowledge from Indigenous Elders and scientific expertise from researchers directly on the land. Not only will this build resiliency for Indigenous youth but will develop community capacities to understand and respond to environmental change, while contributing to diversifying economies in the North and supporting adaptation and sustainability.
Kassi is extremely passionate about training the next generation of Northern leaders: “Young people are enthusiastic; they want to be on the land. They can be there to take care of the species, the animals, the water. The land is healing for them; it’s so important for them to try and make our planet better.”
She also voices the urgent need to work together in these challenging times: “We want to engage in research that will be really relevant for us and others living in the same area, that will educate future generations, for the whole community.”
Kassi was raised and educated in Old Crow, the northernmost community in the Yukon, and is a citizen of the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation (People of the Lakes) and a member of the Wolf Clan. Kassi serves as senior advisor for the Indigenous Leadership Initiative that advocates for the Indigenous Guardians programs across Canada. She is also a faculty member at McGill University, where she works with students to explore Indigenous research methods and approaches to conservation. “Guardians are our eyes and ears on the land,” states Kassi, “and as we witness the increasing impacts of climate change from disappearing caribou from our homelands and salmon from our rivers and streams, to floods and raging forest fires, Guardians and their work become so important and urgent as we try to protect and plan for our very future.”
“I was raised on the land in the Old Crow flats in northern Yukon,” says Kassi. “I became very connected to the animals and plants, and biodiversity. I know every single plant, animal and insect in my area, and I know them also by the Vuntut Gwich’in name in my language. My grandfather trained me so that I could be here today. I bring Indigenous science from my Nation into this work, and this knowledge is profound in my choice to fight for biodiversity and our children’s future.”
Indigenous peoples have a unique understanding that could transform our country. Norma Kassi’s project will improve our understanding of changes we are facing in the Arctic across diverse landscapes that are essential to the environmental, economic, social, spiritual, and cultural well-being of Indigenous Peoples.
This project is made possible with the contributions and partnerships from the Canadian Mountain Network, Yukon Region Assembly of First Nations, Council of Yukon First Nations, Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, Gwich’in Tribal Council, Labrador Institute of Memorial University and Sahtú Renewable Resources Board.
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