Supporting Inuit-led conservation in Nunavut

The vast tundra, expanses of sea ice and Arctic Ocean waters of Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic, are home to many species — from narwhal and polar bears to beluga whales and caribou. It’s also home to some 35,000 residents, most of whom are Inuit with longstanding connections to the rich, vast ecosystems of the Arctic.

Inuk man wearing a blue fur-lined parka in a wintry landscape
Jimmy Ullikatalik, of the Taloyoak Umaruliririgut Association in Taloyoak, NU © Emina Ida / WWF-Canada

But as climate change as well as mining and industrial development ramp up, this place, along with its unique species and communities, is feeling the pressure.

To help safeguard nature in Nunavut, and all who depend on it, WWF is supporting community leaders across Nunavut in their efforts to protect local marine habitats through the Arctic Biodiversity Initiative.

Responding to communities’ priorities

A bird flying over top a n Arctic community of colourful, snow-covered homes
The sun sets on the colourful, snow-covered homes of Taloyoak, Nunavut. © Emina Ida / WWF-Canada

In 2023, staff from WWF-Canada visited three communities in the Kitikmeot region, in western Nunavut: Kugaaruk, Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak, the northern-most community in mainland Canada. The goal? To better understand the conservation priorities of the people living in these areas.

What they discovered were many similar challenges and concerns.

Stop sign written in English letters and Inuktitut syllabics. The sign is bent to the side and the coast is in the. background.
The community of Naujaat in Nunavut’s Kivalliq Region © Erin Keenan / WWF-Canada

Like many communities across Nunavut, these remote towns face high rates of unemployment. Industrial development, including mining, offers a tempting way to attract much-needed jobs, even though this type of economic development threatens ecosystems, and the species and people that depend on them. This has left many leaders in Nunavut struggling to find sustainable ways to foster local employment and food security.

That’s where the Arctic Biodiversity Initiative comes in. It is supporting community efforts to foster alternative economic opportunities centered around ensuring the health of nature and people in Nunavut through locally-led projects.

“The idea is that if we’re supporting the vision of Inuit leaders within their communities to carry out conservation projects as they see fit, that will naturally lead to positive conservation outcomes.”

– Erin Keenan, WWF-Canada

© WWF-Canada

Through the project, WWF-Canada is engaging with leaders in Kugaaruk, Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak, and Igloolik, as well as the Foxe Basin Kivalliq North Sapujiyiit/ Guardians of the Sea Society, which represents Naujaat, Chesterfield Inlet, and Coral Harbour.  The aim is to offer them the support they need to bolster existing conservation work and help launch new initiatives.

By using a habitat-wide approach to conservation that seeks to protect entire marine ecosystems, the project is helping leaders within these communities to conserve natural areas and species while protecting livelihoods and enhancing food security.

Supporting the work of Guardians

An Inuk man on a yellow snowmobile with a riderless red snowmobile beside him
A Guardian from Chesterfield Inlet, NU © WWF-Canada

One of the ways WWF-Canada is supporting community-led conservation work in Nunavut is by helping communities to launch their own Indigenous Guardians Programs, or assist them in developing existing ones.

Guardians programs provide Indigenous communities with the resources they need to launch and manage conservation initiatives across their traditional lands, waters and ice. “Guardians” are local residents who are hired to monitor and steward the lands and waters of their territories. They harvest food for their communities, lead environmental monitoring projects and participate in research.

“[The Guardians] are paid to work with the love of their life, which is the land.”

– Jimmy Ullikatalik, Manager, Taloyoak Umaruliririgut Association

WWF-Canada’s Erica Guth (in purple pants), tries her hand at breaking off a chunk of lake ice on the outskirts of Taloyoak. As local Inuit Guardians stand by, a final satisfying blow dislodges a large chunk ready to be harvested and brought back for the Elders to make tea with. © Emina Ida / WWF-Canada

The tiny town of Taloyoak launched its program in 2021. There, Guardians aren’t just looking after the health of the sea, but their community, too. Guardians harvest fish several times per year, each time bringing back their catch to share with elders, widows, or low-income families in the community.

While they are out on the land and water, the Guardians also conduct conservation work, such as taking soil or water samples.

Fish on the shore with ocean in the distance
Fish on the shore in Foxe Basin, Canada © Foxe Basin Kivalliq North Sapujiyiit / Guardians of the Sea Society

Not only does the program create jobs for local residents, it also has other trickle-down benefits. For instance. Kugaaruk, which started its program in 2023, recently hired a program coordinator to support the conservation work that their six Guardians are doing.

Connecting communities across Nunavut

Sundown across the town of Taloyoak, located in the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut.

The level of support communities need to pursue locally-led conservation projects varies. While some have already secured funding and are implementing Guardian programs, others are just getting started.

Some communities have also made significant inroads in establishing Inuit Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA), while others are just beginning to consider this option as a way of protecting local habitats.

© Foxe Basin Kivalliq North Sapujiyiit / Guardians of the Sea Society

To connect communities and help foster knowledge sharing, WWF-Canada is using the project to organize Knowledge Exchanges. These gatherings encourage Nunavut’s conservation and community leaders to share knowledge, success stories and lessons learned with one another, while also making space to work through challenges together.

“There was a sense of solidarity developing amongst the participants. It’s motivating to know that other people are dealing with the same challenges, but also trying to achieve something similar to what you were doing in your community.”

-Erin Keenan, WWF-Canada

Two Knowledge Exchanges have been held so far: one in May 2023 and another in December 2023. They brought together leaders from Nunavut’s three regions with representatives from relevant government departments such as Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada, and Parks Canada, as well as from other conservation organizations.

These meetings have provided valuable opportunities for community leaders to discuss their priorities and shared challenges—and to begin develop a network of support for community-led conservation projects across the territory.

Knowledge-exchange meeting © Emina Ida / WWF-Canada

The exchanges have resulted in new partnerships between people who many live in the different regions of the vast territory, but who have a shared vison of a more sustainable future. They have also offered Inuit leaders a chance to learn what funding and other supports government agencies and non-profit organizations can provide.

“It’s very important to meet face-to-face with people, to get to know them, and to have one-on-one talks. It’s always nice to share what we’ve accomplished, to see what other communities are doing in terms of marine conservation, and to encourage each other.”

– Peter Aqqaq, assistant manager, Taloyoak Umaruliririgut Association

Coordinating conservation approaches

A bird flying over an Arctic coastline on a cloudy day
Taloyoak’s coastline © Emina Ida / WWF-Canada

One of the goals of the Arctic Biodiversity Initiative is to create a more connected approach to marine conservation in Nunavut — as well as the rest of the Arctic. As melting sea ice transforms the Arctic Ocean and a warming climate and growing industrial development threaten the species and communities it supports, it becomes ever more critical that we need to coordinate our conservation efforts. Because the connectivity of all marine habitats means that what happens in one area impacts all others.

Two narwhal crossing tusks at sunset near Baffin Island, Nunavut
Narwhal crossing tusks above water surface. Baffin Island, Nunavut © WWF-Canada

Whether it is supporting initiatives related to ice quality or protecting species integral to the cultures, livelihoods and food security of communities, it is about bringing people together to achieve a common goal. By building on the successes of existing community-led projects and capitalizing on emerging opportunities in Nunavut, WWF hopes to support the people who know their lands and waters best, for the benefit of all life in the Arctic.

This photo essay was originally published on WWF’s Global Arctic Program site.