Whether for food, art or furs, wildlife is intrinsic to Inuit culture. However, environmental change across Inuit Nunangat is threatening wildlife with potential impacts on food safety and security, as well as Inuit health and well-being, by promoting the spread of infectious diseases like Lyme disease and West Nile virus. In Nunavik, local communities have begun reporting more sick animals than ever before and attributed this observation to a changing environment.
However, there is currently no systematic effort to monitor wildlife health across Nunavik. As Nunavik is one the most southern regions of Inuit Nunangat, it lies at the forefront of northwards spreading pathogens and can thus act as a sentinel to alert other Inuit regions of climate-related threats. In response to concerns from Inuit communities about the safety and security of traditional country foods, this project was initiated by the Nunavik Research Centre (NRC) – an Inuit-owned Research Centre – with the Nunavik Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Associations and Uumajuit Wardens. It unites these groups with leading experts in wildlife and public health, environmental microbiology, ethnography, and Indigenous methods from across Canada and the UK. The goal of this project is to equip communities to learn about climate-driven changes in wildlife disease, react rapidly to these changes, and find solutions to protect themselves against emerging risks. The outcomes of this project will allow Inuit communities to protect their health from animal-transmitted disease and preserve their consumption of culturally and nutritionally important traditional foods under a changing climate. By also developing new expertise and technology, this project will enable long-term adaptation to climate change impacts on wildlife in Nunavik, and promote self-determination of Inuit in health and natural resources policymaking and governance. To enable Inuit communities to detect and react to emerging pathogens, we will help them design and implement a community-led wildlife health surveillance system that meets local needs. We will gather information on how Inuit perceive wildlife health monitoring through knowledge engagement and exchange activities developed for Indigenous communities. This programme will reciprocally train non-Inuit researchers in Inuit ways of knowing to improve monitoring activities rooted in Western science. We will also build capacity to track emerging diseases by training Nunavimmiut and the NRC, developing a network of liaison officers across all Nunavik communities to coordinate disease surveillance, upgrading NRC laboratories, and enhancing the long-term self-sufficiency of the NRC in molecular diagnostics. We will also develop a simple protocol to foster community-led surveillance and research on climate-sensitive viruses transmitted by insects. These actions will collectively enable the Inuit-owned NRC to sustain long-term wildlife surveillance and initiate Inuit-led research in other areas. We will also develop and validate novel techniques to detect wildlife pathogens at a watershed-scale by sampling DNA and RNA shed into the natural environment. These techniques will overcome the challenge of directly monitoring pathogens in large wildlife, such as caribou, whose home ranges span hundreds of kilometers of inaccessible and remote terrain, and collect important baseline data to discover new pathogens of risk to wildlife and people.