The NWT On The Land Collaborative is a collective of partners from government, industry, philanthropy, and beyond, working together to support land-based programs and projects in the NWT. Each of these partner organizations has a representative that participates in quarterly meetings and annual funding decisions. This is the sixth in a series of profiles of the people and organizations that make the Collaborative possible. You can read the other profiles here.
If I were to make a word cloud of my interview with Erin Kelly (Environment and Natural Resources’ representative on the Collaborative), I suspect that collaboration, connection, and community would appear in bold, a reflection of her priorities as a scientist and as a public servant. Erin traces these priorities to her time as a graduate student at the University of Alberta: “I worked with David Schindler, a very applied scientist. Our involved communities in the Rockies and partnerships with other organizations like Parks Canada, so I learned a lot about working collaboratively. In my experience, meaningful partnerships, but particularly community involvement always makes things better.”
Erin, who earned a doctorate in Environmental Biology and Ecology in 2007, joined the GNWT in 2010. Since then, she has served as a Water Specialist; the Manager of Watershed Programs & Partnerships; Assistant Deputy Minister for Environment and Natural Resources; and, most recently, as the Acting Deputy Minister for ENR. In those capacities, Erin has played a key role in a number of critical water and other environment-related initiatives. She worked on developing and implementing the Water Stewardship Strategy, she was a part of the negotiating team for the Transboundary Water Management Negotiations, and she led the development of the NWT Community-Based Water Quality Monitoring Program. Data from this program is publically available through Mackenzie Datastream, a collaboration between Erin and her team, Carolyn Dubois at the Gordon Foundation (another Collaborative member!), and others.
In the almost two decades that she has been working in community-based science, Erin has had a lot of opportunities to speak with communities about what is important to them: “What I have heard time and again is that it all comes back to the experience of being on the land, but also ensuring that we provide opportunities for youth and elders to connect, so that there is a passing on of knowledge.” These kinds of conversations inform ENR programming, which includes long-standing youth programs like Tundra Science and Culture Camp and Take-a-Kid-Trapping. More recently, the department has been championing community-based monitoring and Guardian programs. Another thing that Erin heard repeatedly in conversations with community members was the importance of linking traditional knowledge and science. For this reason, she has worked hard at ENR to promote this kind of thinking and practice amongst her colleagues. (She suspects that this is why she was tapped by former Deputy Minister Ernie Campbell to represent the department on the Collaborative.)
Erin is accustomed to being asked why ENR is part of the Collaborative. On the land programs are so often understood as being related to physical or cultural health, but Erin is clear that there are environmental outcomes as well: “Part of the healing work that on the land programs do is about being one with the environment.” Here, Erin acknowledges the impact of residential schools on this relationship and the need for reconciliation, “Land-based programs help give people back the bond that they have with the land and the water and the animals.” Repairing this relationship has important stewardship outcomes. Not to mention, to focus solely on environmental or health benefits ignores how all of these things are interconnected. As Erin notes, “You can’t really take apart the land, traditional economies, culture, and health. They are all inter-linked and inter-twined…On the land programming promotes holistic health: environmental health, including personal health, wildlife health, the health of water. Everything together.” There is also the fact that land-based programs, regardless of their intent, create opportunities for monitoring: “When people are out on the land, regardless of who they are, they will monitor the land in their own way.”
Like other partners, ENR was attracted to the Collaborative because the department’s leadership recognized there are better ways to do things, particularly in relation to processes such as accessing funds. Erin explains, “We understand the challenges that people face as they have to apply to different funding pots to have enough money to do project work. We believe in the work that is being done on the land in the NWT, so anything that we can do to streamline that process and support people getting out on the land is something that is important to us.”
ENR contributes to the Collaborative in a number of ways. Where possible they give funds, but they also provide in-kind support: “Because we have regional offices and also in some cases wildlife or other officers and staff in communities, there is a lot of in-kind support we can provide, both in terms of equipment and expertise.” Depending on the project, ENR might share equipment, such as sleighs, wall tents, and outdoor gear, or infrastructure, such as cabins. They can also provide expertise: “If groups want to spend time on the land and they want to talk about fish, forests, water, wildlife, protected areas, etc., we have people with those skillsets.” ENR has also provided staff time to the Collaborative. The Collaborative Administrator, Sarah True, is an ENR employee. We’ll be profiling Sarah in a future blog post. For now, know that, according to Erin, “Sarah is amazing and she’s doing really great work for the Collaborative.”
Erin is happy with the early days of the Collaborative: “One of the real benefits for me of sitting at the table has been to learn what others are doing, to see how our mandates are interlinked, and to see how we can work together in other ways.” Like Steve Ellis, Erin sees unrealized potential in the relationships that different partners could develop. She also sees opportunities for ENR’s place in the Collaborative to evolve: “I don’t think ENR’s support is fully realized at this point. I think there are lots of possibilities for strategic partnerships between funded projects and ENR, both in terms of equipment and expertise.”
Erin has always enjoyed being outdoors, but it was moving North that made her really understand the importance of being on the land to her wellbeing. No longer able to easily visit her family cottage, Erin realized how much she needed a space that was away from everyday life. She and her partner had the good fortune to find a cabin on River Lake. Accessible only by boat or snowmobile, Erin can pinpoint the place where she crosses over to “on the land mode”: “The stuff in town doesn’t disappear, but I don’t have to think about it while I’m there.” The North has also opened her up to other ways of being on the land: “I love the ability up here to learn from others who have different perspectives and do other things. For my 40th birthday, Fred Mandeville Jr. [ADM of Operations at ENR] took us to the East Arm and we just travelled around with him and his son. Learning from the master was amazing.” If Erin has her way, more people across the territory will have similar opportunities.
The NWT On The Land Collaborative depends on partners like GNWT Environment and Natural Resources to support land-based initiatives in the NWT. If your organization is interested in becoming a partner, please contact Steve Ellis (firstname.lastname@example.org).